A FIRST-half defensive horror show cost Reading the chance of a famous victory over Manchester United, writes Anthony Smith.
Royals had the Premier League giants on the ropes and went in front twice.
But Sir Alex Ferguson's visitors hit back each time in a crazy opening that produced an incredible seven goals in 26 minutes, equalling the Premier League record.
And though Reading will take plenty of confidence from their potent attacking play, they will know that better defending could have gained them all three points.
However, manager Brian McDermott was eager to focus on the positives.
"It was a fantastic effort and there was quality as well," he declared. "I'm so proud of our players. We know what our agenda is for this season. There is no problem with confidence from our players.
"I am proud of the efforts of the players and we are trying to play the way we want to. We scored three goals but did not get the right result.
"We got plenty of balls into the box and could have scored more. We got a lot of respect from Manchester United."
As it was, United - who were shocking at the back, left Berkshire with a priceless victory that maintains their title push.
For Royals, a survival battle beckons and they are now four points from safety with one game in hand.
They were kicking themselves on Saturday after leading United twice before slipping to a third straight league defeat.
McDermott's men were unfazed by the daunting task they faced and wasted little time attacking the illustrious visitors.
And their positive approach paid off just eight minutes in when Hal Robson-Kanu fired the hosts in front with a superb angled finish from Jobi McAnuff's cross.
But Royals' celebrations were quickly muted as United equalised five minutes later when Adam Federici was beaten too easily at his near post by Anderson's stinging shot.
It was clear it would not be a day for defending, and with 16 minutes gone Reading shot themselves in the foot.
There was little danger when Jonny Evans picked up possession near the edge of the box with his back to goal from a United corner.
But Jay Tabb inexplicably crashed into the back of the Northern Irishman, referee Mark Halsey pointed to the spot and Wayne Rooney sent Federici the wrong way to put his side 2-1 up.
Now it was United fans who were on their feet, but four minutes later Reading were level again.
This time it was the Reds' defence which went to pieces, with United fan Adam Le Fondre left unmarked to head past Anders Lindergaard from Nicky Shorey's excellent delivery.
If that didn't give Reading fans renewed hope, they scored a carbon copy goal just three minutes later to go 3-2 ahead.
United hadn't learnt their lesson as Morrison rose above Evans to head home from another expert Shorey flag-kick.
Suddenly, the unthinkable looked possible - at least for the next seven minutes anyway.
That was when Rooney grabbed his second of the game to draw United level with a first-time effort after lovely interplay between Patrice Evra and Ashley Young.
Ferguson, though, was clearly furious with his defence and Rafael was hooked moments later after struggling to cope with the tricky McAnuff.
And no soon as play had restarted, United got their noses in front for a second time on 34 minutes when Robin Van Persie slotted past Federici following a delicious Rooney back heel.
It was mesmerising stuff, and only a vital clearance off the line from Adrian Mariappa prevented Van Persie from scoring United's fifth, though replays suggested the ball was over the line.
Royals though, continued to push forward and the unsighted Lingergaard made an excellent block to prevent Robson-Kanu from equalising a minute before the break.
The visitors ended the first half in front, but were dealt a blow when Anderson limped off to be replaced by Phil Jones.
The second-half would always struggle to live up to the first, but Reading continued to offer enough to suggest they could get something from the game.
McAnuff fired one narrowly over the bar from 25 yards then the Reading skipper saw a strong penalty appealed rejected on 56 minutes when he went down under Evra's challenge.
United rarely looked comfortable, and Lindergaard was alert to keep out Le Fondre's effort before Van Persie went close at the other end.
But the former Arsenal hitman should have put United further in front midway through the second half following a Federici blunder.
Royals' keeper collected a back pass and tried to dribble around the Dutchman who stole possession easily in front of an open goal. However, Federici recovered enough to put Van Persie off and he skied his shot into the stands.
With 20 minutes to go, McDermott replaced Roberts with Pavel Pogrebnyak in a bid to muster an equaliser.
Tabb threatened one with a long-range effort and Morrison tested Lindergaard twice with headers from a decent position in the closing stages.
But United held on for the victory in a game that will be remembered for its incredible first half.
McDermott argued: "I think we are becoming people's second team in the Premier League. We want our results to match our performance and hopefully that will come. Hopefully it is good to watch for our fans."
Reading return to action next Saturday with a trip to fellow strugglers Southampton (3pm).
Reading (4-4-2): Federici - Cummings, Morrison, Mariappa, Shorey - Robson-Kanu (Hunt 83), Leigertwood, Tabb, McAnuff (c) (McCleary 79) - Le Fondre, Roberts (Pogrebnyak 69). Subs not used: Taylor, Pearce, Harte, Guthrie.
Man Utd (4-3-3-) : Lindergaard - Rafael (Smalling 31), Ferdinand, Evans Evra (c) - Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson (Jones 44) - Rooney, Van Persie (Welbeck 72), Young. Subs not used: De Gea, Giggs, Hernandez, Cleverley.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Hertfordshire).
Attendance: 24,095 (Man Utd 2,225).