Federici 7; Cummings 7, Pearce 8, Gorkss 8, Harte 8; Kebe 7, Leigertwood 8, Karacan 8, McAnuff 8; Afobe 7 (Church 6), Hunt 7
As Reading enter the home straight, every game becomes even more vital than before. With Southampton a couple of lengths out in front, and West Ham and Reading comprising the chasing pack with the other contenders left way behind, every slip-up from here on in could make the difference between automatic promotion and the play-off "lottery". Reading’s first blip came away at Peterborough on Tuesday night – the third away game in eight days for Brian McDermott’s men seeing them lose for the first time in eleven games to set Royals’ fans nerves tingling. They were aiming to resume normal service at the Mad Stad against Blackpool. Jason Roberts picked up a hamstring injury against the Posh and was replaced by new Arsenal loanee Benik Afobe up top. Shaun Cummings replaced another loanee, Hayden Mullins, in the only other change for Reading.
The Royals tried to use home advantage early on to pressurize Blackpool and grab an early goal to settle any nerves the midweek defeat may have created. For the first 15 minutes they dominated possession and came closest to breaking the deadlock through a combination of Jimmy Kebe and Noel Hunt. McAnuff beat his man on the left wing and delivered a devilish low cross which was deflected into the pass of Kebe, who attempted to side-foot the ball back across goal. His cross-shot was heading wide but hit Noel Hunt, who had little time to react as the ball simply hit his midriff and deflected back into the path of a Blackpool defender. The Tangerines began to grow into the game and attempt a few moves of their own – their best chance of the opening period came from a Kevin Phillips long-range effort which sailed harmlessly wide.
I’ve talked many times about the Royals’ prowess from set-pieces (around ¼ of our goals this season have come as a result of corners and free-kicks) and it was no surprise to see yet another Harte delivery cause problems. His back-post corner was nervously cleared, Mikele Leigertwood teed the ball up for Jobi McAnuff just outside the area who went for the spectacular – and so nearly succeeded. His 25-yard volley hit Gilks’ left-post, ricocheted across to hit the other post, then fell invitingly for corner taker Harte to slam in from 6 yards. Okay, so it wasn’t a direct assist, but the Royals’ pressure and delivery up-field caused Blackpool no end of problems. And so it was also the case two minutes later, as the Royals tried a short corner from the other side. After Leigertwood and McAnuff exchanged passes on the touchline for about 10 seconds, many thought the impetus had diminished. But McAnuff had other ideas, as he raced past his man and whipped a devilish cross in to the back post – Pearce was still in the box and totally unmarked to expertly guide his header past the despairing Gilks. Two-nil before half-time, game over, right?
Wrong. Lomana Tresor LuaLua has hit his fair share of screamers before but none will surely match this effort from the Congolese striker. 35 yards out, he touched the ball past Karacan before unleashing a stunning strike which dipped over Federici’s full-stretch dive and into the top-corner of the Reading net. It looked as though any Blackpool goal would have to be something special, and my word it was. This gave the away side renewed belief and they could have drawn level before half-time. A slick passing move just outside the Reading area saw Baptiste through on goal, and his squared pass found Phillips with the goal at his mercy – his sliding touch could only divert the ball over the goal from 3 yards (though he was offside in any case). As it happened, the Royals were probably relieved to hear the half-time whistle go, after a half dominated by them but with a few reminders that Blackpool weren’t just here to make up the numbers.
The killer goal came – yep, you guessed it – from a set-piece. Ian Harte scored an outstanding free-kick away at Middlesbrough a few weeks back, and Reading won a set-piece which was certainly within range for the Irishman. However instead of going for goal, he dinked the ball to the edge of the 6-yard-box, where Leigertwood was totally unmarked to nod into the corner. 3-1, game safe, yet another training routine had undone Blackpool. Karacan, another central midfielder who had found his goalscoring touch of late, fancied a go late on but his drive from 25 yards flew into the side-netting of Gilks’ net. With the two-goal cushion restored, the Royals had little trouble in seeing out this one and ensuring they go to Upton Park in buoyant mood and, importantly, in charge of their own destiny – West Ham’s draw against Burnley means they are four points behind Reading with a game in hand. So as long as McDermott’s men win every game remaining this season, we’re up again. Simples…
After the loss to Posh on Tuesday, it was mightily important to show not only ourselves but the rest of the league that this result was only a blip, an anomaly in Reading’s otherwise remarkable run. Reading did so in style – three quality goals scored and only one (even higher) quality goal conceded revealed that the Royals are just as ruthless as ever. One major talking point was new signing Benik Afobe, who had only played 90 minutes of football this season yet came straight into the starting line-up ahead of Church and Le Fondre. I don’t think I mentioned him at all in the match report, but he had a solid game. As many have pointed out, Arsenal and Reading play extremely different styles of football and so it would never be the easiest for him to blend in. However, he showed glimpses of potential, especially with regards to pace and strength. With McDermott’s man management seemingly second to none, I’m sure he’ll start banging them in before the end of the season. Yet again massive credit must go to those set-piece takers. Harte grabbed one goal from his own corner and set up another with a wonderful free—kick, whilst McAnuff turned a lost opportunity into a golden one with his perfect cross for Pearce to nod in. Admittedly Blackpool’s marking was almost non-existent but kudos to the team for exploiting this weakness, even better as it’s one of our strengths.
All that’s left to say is roll on Saturday. This will be the biggest game of the season and a packed-out Sir Trevor Brooking Stand will be waving their socks in tribute to Jimmy Kebe. A positive result against the Hammers and maybe, just maybe, it’ll be our year this time.