The wait is finally over.
Come Saturday evening we will know one of the finalists of this years FA Cup competition. Arsenal go into the game as the clear favourites, but Reading will be hoping to cause an upset against the current cup holders. It will be a tough ask for the Championship side, with the Gunners being unbeaten in their last eight Premiership matches. The Royals will be confident of making a game of it, however, with little left to fight for in the league.
Arsenal have certainly faced the tougher test of the two sides to get to this position. The Gunners have beaten the likes of Hull, Brighton, Middlesbrough and Manchester United to get this far. Reading, meanwhile, have beaten a whole host of Championship sides including Huddersfield, Cardiff, Derby, and League One side Bradford. This will be the first time the Royals have taken on Premiership opposition in this year’s competition.
This game will be Wenger’s tenth FA Cup Semi-Final with Arsenal, having previously only lost two before against Manchester United and Chelsea. The Gunners have gone on to win the FA Cup eleven times, which is a joint record held with Manchester United. The Royals can only dream of such accomplishments. This is Reading’s first FA Cup Semi-final since 1927, and the Royals have never reached the final in their 144 year history.
The last time the two sides met was in the Premier League season of 2012/13, where Arsenal cruised to a 4-1 victory. Gervinho, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Mikel Arteta all found the net for the Gunners, with Hal Robson-Kanu getting the consolation goal for Reading. Games between the two sides tend to be memorable, especially if the 2012 Capital One Cup tie is anything to go by. The game finished 7-5 to Arsenal after extra-time, despite Reading winning 4-1 at half-time.
“We won’t underestimate them. Once you’re in the semi-final at Wembley, it would be absolutely non-intelligent to think you can just turn up and win the game.”– Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger
The worrying news for Reading fans this time around is that Arsenal are currently in the middle of an impressive spell in the Premiership. Last time out they defeated Burnley 1-0 away from home courtesy of an Aaron Ramsey goal. They have also beaten Liverpool 4-1, Newcastle 2-1, West Ham 3-0 and QPR 2-1 in their last five Premiership games. Add to that their 2-0 away victory against Monaco in the Champions League and their 2-1 victory against Manchester United in the FA cup, and it makes for some concerning reading.
The Royals, in comparison, are arguably in one of their worst spells. Reading have failed to win a Championship game since March, when they defeated Brighton 2-1. Since then, they have managed three draws against Cardiff, Blackpool and Blackburn and three defeats to Watford, Charlton and Bournemouth. The Royals should have at least taken a point last time out against the Cherries, but once again failed to find the net.
If Reading are to stand any chance of taking victory on Saturday, they must find a way to prevent Arsenal’s prolific strike force from getting a hold on the game and making an impact. Their top scorers so far this season are Alexis Sanchez (20), Giroud (18) and Ramsey (9). Specifically in the F.A. Cup, Giroud has scored two, while Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal have all scored once. In the cup competition, the strength in depth that Arsenal has is shown by the variety of players who have contributed on the goal front.
“For the players it’s a chance to make history. Reading have never played in an FA Cup final. What an incentive.”– Reading Manager Steve Clarke
In his press conference, Arsene Wenger has said that Reading can be a danger going forward, with the likes of Jamie Mackie, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Robson-Kanu and Garath McCleary all being highlighted as particular threats. Wenger has clearly not been paying much attention to the recent scoring statistics of the Berkshire side. Reading have struggled in front of goal this season, with their top scorer Simon Cox (8) scoring only once in his last twenty-one appearances. Pogrebnyak (7) and Mackie (6) have been in better form recently, but can still not be considered prolific. Robson-Kanu is currently Reading’s top scorer in the FA cup, scoring three times, with Mackie, Yakubu, McCleary, Nick Blackman and Oliver Norwood all on one. This means that Arsenal have only managed to score one goal more than Reading so far in the cup.
A positive for Reading fans is that there are no major injury doubts other than the continuous absence of Anton Ferdinand. Pogrebnyak was rested in Reading’s last game against Bournemouth with a slight injury doubt, but is ready to go on Saturday. Nathaniel Chalobah has also been deemed fit following a knock he took on Tuesday, while Danny Williams and Michael Hector both returned from injury. Nathan Ake and Kwesi Appiah are both cup-tied, so will not be making an appearance.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have a large squad to select from with a number currently being in great form. Wenger has also said that he will not rotate the squad significantly from recent games. Jack Wilshere played for the U21s in their 1-0 defeat to Reading U21s on Monday, and is ready for selection on Saturday according to Wenger. Arteta will be unavailable due to a lack of match fitness, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also be missing out due to a groin injury.
Everyone at Reading will be expecting a tough test against the Premier League side, but there have been many surprises in the FA Cup to date. It will be important for the Royals to settle on the ball quickly, limiting the time Arsenal have to take a hold on the game. If Arsenal find the net early on, it is easy to see them dominating the rest of the match. The longer Reading can hold them off, the more frustrated Arsenal will become.
It will also be important for Reading to make use of any set pieces they get. In most recent Championship games, corners have been particularly poor with deliveries often falling short. Clarke in particular is aware of the problem and you can be sure he has got the team working on them in training. With the height of Pogrebnyak, Michael Hector and Alex Pearce at their disposal, Reading will be keen to use set pieces to their advantage.
As the Royals have shown so far in the competition, they are fully capable of finding a goal or three when they need to. There will be no better time to continue this trend than Saturday, as they try to seal their place in their first ever FA Cup Final. With over 30,000 tickets sold to Royals fans, Reading supporters will be willing their side onto their best FA Cup finish.
Kick-Off- Saturday 18th April, 5:20pm. Live on BBC One.
My Ideal Reading Starting Lineup