Reading: Anderson, Gunter (C), Obita, Pearce, Hector (Cooper 87), Guthrie (Taylor 72), Kuhl, Mackie, Edwards, Robson-Kanu (Cox 77), Pogrebnyak
As if an away trip to Derby wasn’t hard enough, the loss of Oliver Norwood and Glenn Murray, both cup tied, made what would have been a difficult game even harder. The return of Danny Guthrie and Hal Robson-Kanu, however, provided some good news on the injury front, and Pogrebnyak was passed fit to start as well. Inspiringly, this was a team with 13 academy graduates in the matchday squad: 7 out of the starting 11, which, injury crisis aside, is a real tribute to the quality of work that Eamonn Dolan and everyone else does in the academy.
With Kuhl and Guthrie as the midfield anchors, this was a game that promised lots of passing flair, with both players’ passing the key attribute of their game. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to realise that Guthrie was still nursing injury, and clearly off the pace, while Kuhl needed some time to warm into the game, missing tackles and scuffing passes in the early stages.
The team appered to be set up in a flexible 4-2-3-1, with Kuhl and Guthrie lying in the deeper midfield roles, Edwards on the left, the returning Hal Robson-Kanu down the centre (an interesting decision from Adkins, perhaps he sees Hal’s future as a central player as well), Jamie Mackie plowed the right wing, with Pogrebnyak as the central striker. I say a flexible formation, because it seems that the players were being told to play where they liked, and to fill in for others who were out of position: in parts of the first half, for example, Edwards would sit deep with Guthrie, with Pogrebnyak left, Hal centre, Kuhl on the right and Mackie as the front man.
The first real chance of the game fell to Derby, after a long ball forward from Hughes inexplicably bounced off Hector’s backside and fell to Leon Best, who ran at the defence before firing in a shot which was well saved by Andersen.
Will Hughes was causing real problems for Reading, with the highly rated youngster breaking through the back line very easily, putting in some dangerous crosses and having a shot from the righ hand side of the six yard box saved by Andersen. Derby were in the ascendancy in the first half.
Hal Robson-Kanu’s return was good news for the team, adding a bit of strength and directness to the Reading front line. What good we did create in the first half seemed to come through him, although he did go down far too easily after one direct run into the box, leading to a yellow card for simulation. Apart from some skilful first half moments, though, HRK really struggled to get into the game.
Derby’s on loan Liverpool winger Jordan Ibe was causing all sorts of problems down the left, with Chris Gunter pinned back regularly, and Jordan Obita had a tough night as well, dealing with the speed and strength of impressive Derby right back Cyrus Christie. It was Christie, ironically, who provided Reading with their best chance of the evening. An attempted back pass into the Derby defence landed straight at the feet of Jamie Mackie on the edge of the box. With only an onrushing keeper ahead of him, and two sprinting defenders doming from behind, though, he lacked the composure to open his Reading account with what would have been a vital goal in what was a relatively tight game.
You know when a gilt-edged chance like Mackie’s one on one is missed that it will probably come back to bite you at some stage, but Reading went on to finish the half strongly, with Ryan Edwards lashing a vicious shot from the corner of the box that was just tipped over by Derby keeper Roos.
Derby may have been dominant in the first half, but the best chances fell to Reading.
The start of the second half was blistering from Derby, with Andersen pulling off a fantastic save to push a curling Ibe effort onto the crossbar on 51 minutes. Despite one more dipping effort from Russell, the Royals were dominant for the next 15 minutes, the Andersen save perhaps inspiring the players onwards.
Michael Hector was instrumental in this turn around in play. The young defender had Leon Best in his back pocket, easily dispossessing him on several occasions. One particularly memorable moment was, following yet another tackle on Best, Hector carried the ball the whole length of the pitch before releasing Jamie Mackie who fired across the six yard box but with no onrushing Royals able to make the crucial connection.
Hector’s awakening also saw Jordan Obita and Aaron Kuhl become more influential on the game, with the former finally able to exercise some of his attacking skills on the left wing after the dangerous Christie was pegged back, and the latter being afforded more space to show his creative game in action. All three academy products were outstanding in this 15 minute period of pressure, and it was a joy seeing Obita easily out muscling Russell in a strong challenge between the two.
It was a ball from the other full back that created Reading best chance of the second half, with Hal Robson-Kanu able to chest down the ball on the six yard box before firing his shot straight at Roos. It was a difficult chance, but was really the pinnacle of Reading’s pressure as the sucker punch inevitably arrived in the 67th minute.
A long ball downfield from the keeper was headed on to Chris Martin, who with a simple pass knocked it on to Russell who blazed by Gunter and finished well into the corner of the net. It was a great finish from the Derby forward, although both Pearce and Gunter may be a little disappointed that they didn’t get closer to him.
Adkins responded by bringing off the exhausted Danny Guthrie for Jake Taylor, allowing Ryan Edwards to drop deeper into midfield alongside Kuhl. Edwards’ energy allowed Kuhl even more influence on the game in the final stages, but a cruel blow was dealt in the 81st minute when some more work from the impressive Ibe found Chris Martin on the edge of the box. A one-two with Dawkins allowed Martin to fire in a cross which bounced off Pearce and into the back of the net. Andersen had no chance.
Derby effectively shut Reading out in the final stages, with the exception of a dangerous Taylor cross that was tipped over by the Derby keeper and the resulting corners, which came to nothing.
This was a disappointing result, sure, but not one to be ashamed about. Derby are a team that are high on confidence, and look to have decent strength in depth as well after making six changes from their team at the weekend.
Reading, though, looked thoroughly mid table for most of the game, and this was a result that left me feeling incredibly indifferent about the prospects for the team. There are bright sparks in this team-Obita, Kuhl, Pearce and Hector all looked assured-but there was some inspiration lacking against Derby. Hopefully this can be rediscovered (*cough* Norwood *cough*) before taking on a rampant Wolves on Saturday.
It’s worth pointing out that this team is missing pace. So many times in the first half the ball fell to Mackie or Gunter on the right and they never got the beating of the Derby full back. Edwards drifted far too far infield for him to really test Christie on the other wing, or to give Obita a chance to stretch his legs. The right hand side, in particular, looked weak against Derby, with Mackie lacking awareness (being caught on the ball), pace (never had the beating of Forsyth), and composure (he should have scored in the first half). This is a team crying out for Garath McCleary, and I found myself at the end of the first half really missing Jimmy Kébé of all people.
A disappointing defeat, and even though it’s ‘only’ the cup (I hate that idea) it puts our prospects for this season back into perspective.