After resting a few players against Huddersfield in midweek, only Ali Al-Habsi, Chris Gunter, Jake Cooper and Michael Hector remained from the starting line-up in Yorkshire, whilst Simon Cox also made a start with Yann Kermorgant cup-tied and Matej Vydra not fit enough.
A Half Of Half Chances
After the pyrotechnics and 'mosaic' were out of the way, Reading began their fourth quarter-final in seven years, a fantastic achievement in itself (yes, I'm trying to be positive for as long as I can!). I missed the opening five minutes of the game due to the inevitable traffic problems, but I gather that it was all much of a muchness, which sums up the first half.
For Reading, there were a few signs of attacking quality, but the majority of the time it was the final ball that was lacking when the Royals went forward. Ola John and Hal Robson-Kanu showed good flair on the wings, but their crosses came to nothing. Oliver Norwood also had a couple of deliveries into the box from dead ball situations, but they all hit the first man which Palace were able to capitalise on.
Right from the start, the pace that the visitors possessed was obvious. Yannick Bolasie, and especially Wilfried Zaha out wide fuelled the counter-attacks as Reading were perhaps guilty of committing too many men forward on occasions. Resolute defending from the Royals' back four was enough to keep them at bay, and even when chances did arise for the Eagles, Ali Al-Habsi stood firm between the sticks. The Omani international denied Yohan Cabaye from a free-kick, Emmanuel Adebayor and Bolasie to keep the score at 0-0 going into half time.
His opposite number Wayne Hennessey was troubled little by Reading, with lone striker Simon Cox working hard as always with a few nice bits of link up play that unfortunately in the end came to nothing. Michael Hector came close from a corner, whilst Ola John had a shot deflected wide, but it wasn't until right at the end of the half when we had our best chance.
It was the lively John again who was at the centre of things, as the ball dropped to him following Hennessey's weak save. Had he looked up to see where he was and who was around him, then Reading may have gone into the break 1-0 up, but instead like many Reading players on the night, he panicked with the ball and shot into the side netting from an impossible angle. Despite this, the Royals could perhaps count themselves lucky to go into the break still level.
The second half looked as though it may be going the same way as the first for a while, with Reading showing glimpses of potential before being saved by their #26 again as Al-Habsi made another superb stop to deny Mile Jedinak.
But just before the hour mark tempers began to flair, in what can only be described as a petty squabble. What started it I'm not entirely sure, but Wilfried Zaha was at the centre of the fracas and was booked along with Chris Gunter. It set the tone for a feisty final half an hour of which referee Mike Dean was to be at the centre of.
Chances continued to come in thick and fast for Palace with Gunter and Cooper putting their bodies on the line to deny a Jedinak and Bolasie respectively, whilst Al-Habsi saved another Cabaye free-kick. Ola John also had a couple of chances for Reading, as he tried to replicate his goal against Huddersfield from 25 yards out and also met Robson-Kanu's cross with a diving header straight at Hennessey - in my opinion Reading's best chance of the game.
Now we come to Palace's first goal, which I and everyone else has probably seen multiple times. I'll come to the penalty in a minute, but the free-kick leading up to the foul is what I have more of an issue with. As Reading cleared the ball, Robson-Kanu and Adebayor gave chase, with the Togolese striker appearing to hold HRK back. As the Welshman fell, he took Palace's new signing with him. Mike Dean, who celebrated a Tottenham goal earlier in the season, switched his alliances from North London to South London and gave Palace a free-kick. I muttered to myself that the Eagles would score from the dead ball situation. They did.
It was at first cleared, but Bakary Sako punted the ball back into the box towards Bolasie who was clipped by Jake Cooper. I still can't decide whether it was a penalty, but I know two things for definite. First, Cooper did make contact with Bolasie as he put his arm across his chest. But second, Bolasie was already going down and fell like a sack of potatoes to make the most of it. Mike Dean was sure and pointed to the spot and gave Cooper his second yellow card equating to a red. For a split second I thought Al-Habsi had earned himself hero status by saving it, but Cabaye's strike was too powerful for him to keep out.
An already tired Reading side had nothing left to give, and Bolasie nearly made it 2-0 with a curling strike that hit the crossbar. A second goal did come right at the end though, as Fraizer Campbell smashed into an open net after his original effort had been tipped on to the post by Al-Habsi. Reading were out, and in heartbreaking circumstances.
Refereeing decisions aside, it's hard to disagree with the fact that Palace were the better side on Friday night (23 shots and 15 corners says it all). Reading have struggled against pacy attackers in the past, Zaha, Bolasie and later Sako caused the defence all sorts of problems meaning the Royals were pretty much dead on their feet by the 70 minute mark.
But the courage and determination of the back four surely deserved a replay? Blocks, last ditch tackles and superb saves meant Reading were able to hold out until the penalty. Fans can be incredibly proud of what we saw as the players gave everything they had. There's a reason why Palace were so high up the Premier League table at the start of the campaign, and the huge potential of their attack was on display at the Madjeski Stadium.
So is that this season over? Mentally, yes. Our play-off hopes were extinguished on Tuesday, but you'd hope that Brian McDermott and his squad still go out and try to finish as high as possible. We said the same last year, but next season starts now. I'm not saying play the youngsters every week, but give the likes of Kuhl, Fosu and Stacey the chance to impress and we can see if they are actually good enough for this level.
Congratulations to Palace, enjoy Wembley!
Reading: Al-Habsi, Gunter, McShane, Cooper, Obita (Rakels 90'), Hector, Robson-Kanu, Norwood (Williams 75'), Quinn, John, Cox (Vydra 60')
Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Ward, Dann, Delaney, Souare, Zaha, Cabaye, Jedinak, Ledley (Sako 79'), Bolasie (Campbell 90'), Adebayor