Manchester United knew what was required. After Manchester City went down at Everton, win against rudderless Reading and their advantage would be 15 points and this would be the scene for a de facto coronation of their 20th title.
Wayne Rooney's first-half strike did the business and, while there are nine games remaining and 27 points to fight for, there is surely no way back for the champions and only one course for United: straight to a crown that will help avenge the heartache of City's triumph last season.
If they win their next game – at Sunderland – and City lose (versus Newcastle United), then it will be set up for the Reds to win the derby on April 8 to take their lead to the humiliating dormie of 21 points with seven games remaining.
With Alex Ferguson confirming last night that Rio Ferdinand will, after all, answer Roy Hodgson's England call-up, how apt that he should enter centre stage to create Rooney's goal. The 34-year-old's surge-and-dribble, holding off Garath McCleary, was the conjuring of a moment from an earlier Ferdinand vintage when the legs were still youthful and there was no chronic back condition to manage.
At the right moment the defender laid the ball off to Rooney. He set himself then left fly with a finish that benefited from a deflection off Alex Pearce to beat Stuart Taylor and make it 1-0. This was the score that United's domination deserved. Before, it had also been Ferdinand who swept a 50-yard diagonal that fell sweetly into Ashley Young's path down the left corridor. He cut inside onto his right foot to bend a shot that beat Taylor but went narrowly wide.
Rooney, whose strike took him to 197 goals for United, popped up on the right to curl in a cross tinged with quality that forced Reading to scramble clear: the ball took a single bounce 25 yards out then Danny Welbeck blazed a shot that was always rising too high.
After seeing the result at Goodison, United had set out to do a professional job with Alex Ferguson fielding a side that showed eight changes from the 2-2 draw with Chelsea here last time out in the FA Cup. David De Gea, Rooney and Ferdinand were the only survivors as the manager decided that the challenge of playing the second-bottom team who arrived managerless could allow him to freshen the XI up.
The talk around Old Trafford featured how mental tiredness was the defining factor in the Chelsea result. United had been two goals up before ending the quarter-final relieved to still be in the Cup with Ferguson arguing the effect of being knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid was felt.
Eamonn Dolan, the head of Reading's academy who has taken over on a temporary basis from the sacked Brian McDermott, spent the first half standing in the rain in the technical area.
What he saw was Reading come close from a Hal Robson-Kanu 25-yard effort that went the wrong side of De Gea's right post, and not much else. Dolan will have brightened a little at the action at the start of the second half. Almost immediately Reading won a corner. Nicky Shorey swung this in from the right quadrant and Lee Mason, a Friday afternoon replacement for the injured referee Mark Clattenburg, turned down a decent penalty claim after Nemanja Vidic appeared to push over Adrian Mariappa.
Now, Ferdinand made a first mistake. A clearing header from inside his half was flicked the wrong way – towards De Gea's goal – and McCleary suddenly had the ball inside United's area. This time Vidic stepped in to clear the danger.
The hour was approaching before United offered a first threat of the stanza. Alexander Buttner raced into Reading's area before the saving tackle came from Jem Karacan. Next, Welbeck and Young had shots before Robin van Persie unloaded a free-kick that Taylor saved. After a clash with McCleary, Young was replaced by Michael Carrick but should be alright to meet up with England. Observer