Stress. Elation. Frustration. Excitement.
These are just a few of the emotions Reading fans were to go through in the 120 minute semi-final match at Wembley Stadium on Saturday evening. Despite their consistently high work rate and neverending passion, it was not to be for the Royals as an extra-time goal saw Arsenal book their place in the FA Cup final. Reading were hoping to cause an upset against the current FA Cup holders and get through to their first FA Cup final in their 144 year history. A brace from Alexis Sanchez was enough to see the Gunners through to their nineteenth FA Cup final, despite a Garath McCleary goal giving Reading a lifeline.
Steve Clarke opted with a somewhat predictable lineup, but did not set up his Reading side simply to defend. Pavel Pogrebnyak, Jamie Mackie, Hal Robson Kanu and Garath McCleary were all in the starting lineup, giving the Royals plenty of options up front. With Nathaniel Chalobah and Danny Williams in central midfield, together with a back four of Jordan Obita, Michael Hector, Alex Pearce and Chris Gunter, Reading also had a strong defensive unit.
The Arsenal squad demonstrated their strength in depth, with the likes of Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott both starting from the bench. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck were to make up the Arsenal attack in their place.
With an attendance of 84,081 in the stadium, the atmosphere was electric; mainly due to the sheer excitement of the Reading fans. The club provided the fans with either blue or white t-shirts, which when worn were to create the Reading hoops around one half of the stadium. The view of the Reading hoops, together with the support of the crowd who never stopped singing, must have given the players a boost as they took on the Premiership opposition.
Arsenal started brightly, as expected. The Gunners dominated the possession statistics, stringing passes together with ease from side to side across the pitch. Reading kept their shape, however, and did not make life easy for them going forward.
Per Mertesacker had the early chance, when his header was saved by Adam Federici low to his left. Reading were to respond with their own chance, when the ball fell to Obita who tested Szczesny with a powerful drive from outside the box.
The first major poor refereeing decision was to come after ten minutes, when Mackie was released through on goal by Obita’s long ball. Despite the Reading striker perfectly timing his run, he was pulled back for a supposed offside. Replays clearly show that this was not the case. Had Mackie been able to continue his run, Reading would have had a great opportunity to take the lead.
Chalobah was to have the next opportunity, when the ball dropped to him outside the Arsenal box and his subsequent shot was deflected wide. While Arsenal were enjoying plenty of time on the ball, the Reading defence were able to limit their opportunities in front of goal to long shots from outside the area. Clarke had set them up well, and they were following his plan to the tee. All over the pitch, the Reading players were closing their Arsenal counterparts down and winning the ball back in midfield on several occasions. The Royals players were significantly stronger than their opposition, a trait that has been honed in the Championship, but they were often wrongly penalised by the Premiership referee.
Ozil’s free kick went too close for comfort for Reading, with his effort just curling wide of the post, but he was to create the breakthrough just five minutes before the half-time whistle. An inch perfect pass from the German international split open the Reading defence, with Sanchez latching onto the ball in the box. Arsenal’s top scorer took one touch to take the ball past McCleary, before slotting it through Federici’s legs into the back of the net. It was a classy goal from some highly talented internationals, and something we have come to expect from Arsenal. Up until this point, however, it was debatable as to whether they deserved the lead going into half-time.
“There were certain stages in the game when we were the better team, which is a big achievement against a side such as Arsenal.”- Reading Manager Steve Clarke
Clarke had the job of encouraging his side at half-time to continue as they were, and Reading got off to a great start in the second half. The chance was created by some great play from Pogrebnyak down the left, who held up the ball on the byline before finding McCleary at the far post. A first time shot by the winger took a deflection off Kieran Gibbs, before being fumbled over the line by Szczesny.
To say the Reading end of Wembley erupted would be an understatement. The Royals fans celebrated as if they had just won the cup, and definitely felt as if they had the chance of doing just that. With many thinking that Reading would struggle to be competitive prior to the game, the Royals were showing exactly what the fans knew they were capable of. Being level and playing well, Reading suddenly looked the more likely of the two sides to take the lead. A chance to do exactly that fell to Williams, who met a Mackie cross, but he was only able to slice his attempt wide.
Arsenal came closer to taking the lead following a substitution, when Mertesacker was replaced by Gabriel. His best chance forced a stunning save from Federici, who was able to force his header onto the bar. Arsenal had another golden opportunity to take the victory in the closing minutes, when they were able to hit Reading on the break. Olivier Giroud, who came on for Welbeck, found Ramsey in the centre. His first shot was saved by Federici, and as the ball fell to him a second time Reading fans were fearing the worst. Instead of finding the back of the net, the Welshman instead managed to hit his shot against the post.
Reading had the opportunity to take the lead themselves, firstly with a long range effort from Chalobah and then a later attempt from Pogrebnyak. The striker countered, with Mackie by his side, and it looked like a certain chance to score. The Scottish international, however, looked to have made the wrong run and space subsequently ran out as Arsenal defenders got back. The ball got stuck under Pogrebnyak’s feet and the attempted shot rolled to Szczesny.
The final chance of the second half was to fall to Ramsey, whose shot was fired over the bar. The whistle blew, and Reading had made it to extra-time in the Semi-Final against Arsenal. This in itself was a feat that even Reading fans would not have expected, and they were now believing that they were the ones who could make it to the final. After a team huddle, and some final words from Clarke, the Royals were ready to take the fight to Arsenal once more.
The first attempt of extra-time was to come after the first ten minutes when Ramsey’s shot was forced over the bar by Federici. Pogrebnyak had another effort down the other end, but with fatigue seemingly setting in, he failed to test the keeper as his shot was blocked by Gabriel.
Only seconds before the break, Arsenal were to inflict a hammer blow to Reading hopes of reaching the final. Sanchez cut in past Gunter, before firing the ball towards Federici in the Reading goal. Royals fans would have expected it to be a bread and butter save for the keeper, who has been one of the outstanding players of the season, but his error gifted Arsenal the goal they needed. The ball squirmed through his legs and, in what felt like slow motion for all the Reading fans behind the goal, crawled over the line. Despite a desperate leap from Federici to try and prevent the ball crossing the line, it was not enough. As he lay flat on the ground, with his face buried in the turf, the realisation of what that meant for Reading hit home.
Reading tried their best to try and conjure up a late goal, with Simon Cox and Yakubu being brought into the fold. Mackie had one last attempt on goal, but his effort curled over the bar. Giroud had the opportunity to take Arsenal further into the lead, but only managed to hit the post. Despite their continuous efforts, right down to the final whistle, it just was not meant to be for Reading.
“It’s the occasion of their lives, they wouldn’t give up until the end. We have to congratulate them on their effort.”– Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger
Although the Reading players will be disappointed, no more so than Federici, they put in a performance that they should all be proud of. Currently finding themselves in 19th position in the Championship, the Royals were not expected to be able to hold off the multi-million pound squad of Arsenal. Instead they were able to match, if not better, their opposition.
While Federici’s error has been the main focus of media coverage of the game, it is not fair on him or the Reading players to highlight that one moment. Yes it meant that Arsenal took the lead, but Federici kept Reading in the game, as he has done on numerous occasions this season. His save early on from Mertesacker, as well as his saves from Gabriel and Ramsey were world class and kept the Royals in a competitive position. It is thanks to Federici that Reading stood a chance of making the final, and he should not be blamed for them not doing so.
One thing the match particularly highlighted was that Reading really do not deserve to be fighting against relegation. The Reading form in the Championship has been bordering on dire, but their performance in the semi-final showed exactly what they are capable of. No one in the Reading team put in a poor performance, with every single one of them fighting for each other. Mackie’s work rate is something that can never be faulted, but on this occasion he was not alone. Reading players all over the pitch were fighting for the ball, closing down their opposition. They were not afraid to make a tackle and Arsenal soon found out they were not going to win the tie easily.
One special performance came from 22-year-old Michael Hector. The young central defender has been going from strength to strength in recent Championship games, but he had the game of his life on Saturday evening. Up against the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Hector looked unphased and continuously prevented Arsenal from making an impact in the final third. Reading fans may have cause for concern, with the youngster surely set to have caught the eye of Premiership clubs after his impressive performance on the big stage. Wenger made sure he shook Hector’s hand at the end of the game, so he may be one to keep an eye on the defender.
Mackie was everything fans thought he would be going into the game. The Forest player has earned a special place in the Reading fans’ hearts with his recent performances and overall work ethic. His performance at Wembley only further showed why Reading need him for next season. Mackie was everywhere on the pitch, and was still closing down the Arsenal players well into extra-time.
Some say it is worse to lose in the semi-final than the final, and the Reading players will certainly be feeling the disappointment for a while. After giving their all, and then some, they were so unlucky to be beaten in the manner they were. Reading will be hoping to take their positive performance into their last remaining games in the Championship, where safety is still not mathematically certain. If the Royals perform the way they did in the cup, however, it should be a strong finish to the season for the Championship side.
Comments From The Reading Players
Jem Karacan- “So close to doing the unthinkable! Support today was probably the best I’ve seen since I’ve been at the club!… It’s been a horrible couple of seasons personally, but the ovation you gave me when I came on today will be with me forever!”
Hal Robson-Kanu– “So many emotions after yesterday’s game. But I am PROUD to have played a part in history, PROUD of my TEAM, and PROUD of the support from YOU ALL.”
Michael Hector– “Feeling gutted that we are not in the final but yesterday showed me that this team right here have massive hearts and we can achieve anything with the right desire and attitude.”
Garath McCleary– “So proud of my team… That performance is the benchmark for the remaining games & more importantly next season…”
Jordan Obita– “Amazing experience playing at Wembley…gutted to lose but I hope we made everyone so proud!!!”
Nathaniel Chalobah– “Was proud to put a Reading shirt on yesterday. The support we got was outstanding by the Reading fans. Disappointing result obviously but big shout out to Federici. If it wasn’t for this man we wouldn’t be where we were today.”
Danny Williams– “This team right here is unbelievable! We are all gutted that we lost but I think every single player can be proud to be a part of this amazing club. The fans were unreal yesterday.”