Neil Wood’s Manchester United Under-23 side beat Reading 4-1 in the Premier League 2 at Madejski Stadium to finish 2019 on a high.
The young Reds made it seven league wins in a row and kept the gap to the league leaders West Ham United down to just one point.
The win for Wood’s team ensured they set up a mouth-watering top of the table clash against the Hammers in the first game of 2020.
After a sluggish start United took the lead in the 40th minute through Arnau Puigmal after Ethan Laird pinched possession high up the pitch and cut the ball back for the Spaniard, who calmly slotted home.
United were given a sucker punch on the stroke of half-time as captain on the night Matej Kovar was caught in no-man’s-land and failed to clear a free-kick.
Ethan Coleman knocked the ball down and got clattered into by the Czech stopper, but Adam Liddle was on hand to head home.
United restored their lead against the run of the play after Aliou Traore hammered home a Tahith Chong cutback, which seemed to calm Wood’s side down and take the wind out of Reading’s sails.
Chong punished Reading and gave United breathing space with a classy curling finish, which gave the goalkeeper no chance.
The 16-year-old pairing of Hannibal Mejbri and Dillon Hoogewerf combined for United’s fourth as Mejbri drove forward as the hosts looked out on their feet.
He slipped through Hoogewerf who scored his first goal for the under-23 side.
Here are players that impressed in the win…
United’s bombarding right-back was a constant thorn in the hosts’ backline, he was roaming forward at will.
Laird’s understanding on the right hand side with Tahith Chong looks to be getting stronger with every passing game.
His lung-busting runs can turn defence into attack in an instant and that has become a key feature of Wood’s sides performances this season.
With United struggling to create any clear cut chances, it was Laird who showed his quality from the wide areas and picked out Puigmal with a clever cutback.
As good as Laird is going forward, he could learn a thing or two from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s book of defending as he sometimes recklessly dives in or gets caught too high up the pitch.
In the absence of James Garner and Dylan Levitt it was down to Ethan Galbraith and Pugimal to provide the pivot pairing in Wood’s side.
The Spaniard replaced Garner, who will be hoping to start against League Two outfit Colchester United in the Carabao Cup quarter-final clash.
Pugimal produced another impressive performance and dictated the tempo of the match and showed his full array of passing abilities.
The former Espanyol youngster got stronger as the game went on and showed his box-to-box midfielder credentials with a number of driving runs.
His goal was well taken and his 3rd of the campaign.
The Frenchman gave the Reading defenders nightmares with his pacey and powerful runs.
Traore, who was playing out on the left-wing produced a number of flicks, skills and tricks that put the opposition on the back foot and kept them guessing of what was coming next.
The 18-year-old was direct in possession and often carried the ball over long distances leaving the opposition chasing shadows.
He had a number of efforts on goal, which included a phenomenal curling effort, which cannoned off the bar.
Traore got the crucial goal, which restored United’s lead and it was a well taken first time finish that flew past the goalkeeper.
After coming off the bench and getting 30 minutes of first team action under his belt against AZ Alkmaar, Chong will be hoping that his impressive performance against Reading will be rewarded with another opportunity against Colchester.
The Dutchman looked like a man on the mission at the Madejski, every time he received the ball he was eager to make an impression.
With Reading starting the second half strongly, it was Chong who produced the moment of magic to create the chance for Traore.
The 20-year-old, who has become the senior man in this young United side, ran at the opposing full-back created some space and cut the ball to the on-rushing Traore.
Chong made the hosts pay after a poor clearance fell to him in a dangerous area, he drove for the penalty area, cut inside and curled a great finish in the bottom corner, which he was delighted with.
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