Putting it kindly, Reading ‘got the job done’ against Millwall. Two goals in extra time (one from George Evans, the other from Sam Smith), put the Royals through to the next round of the Carabao Cup after Leandro Bacuna’s stunning opener had been cancelled out in the first half.
Putting it a bit more firmly, it was an uninventive, pedestrian display in which the home side struggled to create much in the way of goalscoring opportunities. As ever, Jaap Stam’s side bossed possession, but found it typically difficult to break down a stubbornly-organised Neil Harris team.
How much that matters is up for debate - after all, we’re in the third round, Millwall aren’t - but the failure to comfortably see off inferior opposition at home is a little worrying.
How did we line up?
Jaap Stam used the game to hand starts to a few players who hadn’t had them in a while, or not at all in a Reading shirt. In came Axel Andresson for his full debut, Leandro Bacuna, Tiago Ilori, Stephen Quinn and Garath McCleary. Alongside them were cup ‘keeper Anssi Jaakkola, regulars Chris Gunter, George Evans and Adrian Popa, and academy graduates Andy Rinomhota and Sam Smith.
Although that team had a healthy mix of experience and youth, the lack of a central creative spark (with Liam Kelly and John Swift both missing) would take its toll on the performance.
Picking up where they left off against Gillingham, Reading were happy to knock the ball around across the defence and midfield whilst occasionally probing for an opening, although few came.
With Ilori, Evans and Andresson playing a high line at the back, wing backs Gunter and Rinomhota had license to bomb forward down each flank. The game plan generally seemed to be for central midfielders Quinn and Bacuna to feed the ball wide to Popa and McCleary, which Reading happily did for much of the half.
However, with the visitors sitting deep in a packed defensive shape, there was little room in which Reading could work. Sam Smith was isolated up front (going up against former Royal Jake Cooper), receiving little support from the rest of the team.
Reading looked at their most dangerous when Popa and McCleary found space to run into, with the former looking the more lively.
We finally had our opening on 34 mins, when Leandro Bacuna found the net with an impressive strike. The former Aston Villa midfielder drove at goal from deep before lashing a rocket of a shot into the net from 25 yards.
However, the equaliser came soon after, with Reading failing to deal with a Millwall corner. The ball eventually dropped to Shane Ferguson who curled the ball into the far corner, via a slight deflection off Bacuna’s head.
Millwall changed tactics after the break, and pressed Reading far more aggressively and purposely than in the first half. Because of that, the hosts went through their toughest spell of the game as rhe visitors created a few half chances.
In truth, despite a few more opportunities for Reading - often created by the lively Modou Barrow - the second half was a flat, dull affair.
The home side were at their best when Popa and Barrow combined in fast, direct attacks on the Millwall defence, but it wasn't sufficient to break the deadlock.
Fatigue was the enemy as the teams returned for another half an hour of football. A few minutes after the restart, Danny Loader replaced goalscorer Leandro Bacuna, becoming the first player to appear for Reading who had been born after the opening of the Madejski Stadium.
As Reading went forward looking for the winner, George Evans found it. The midfielder received the ball on the edge of the penalty area, before curling a shot into the top corner. It was a moment of pure quality that had been sorely lacking in the match.
The second half of extra time was comfortable watching, with Reading's possession game frustrating the knackered legs of Millwall. However, there was time for one more poignant moment: Sam Smith’s first senior goal. The striker Latched onto a long ball from Evans, settled himself, then fired past Tom King. It clearly meant an awful lot to him - judging by the knee slide in front of the West Stand at least.
Knock-out football has a funny effect on match analysis. However poorly the team plays (and Reading were very poor against Millwall), getting through to the next round papers over the cracks. Had George Evans not found the net, we could very well have been out of the Carabao Cup and we could be carrying out a post-mortem of a dire evening.
In reality, that didn’t happen, but the problems are still there. Reading are very good at keeping the ball, but not very good at using it productively. Hopefully a new striker will go some way to tackling that issue, but it’s also a case of mentality too. Getting the ball into the final third isn’t difficult, but the creative players seem unwilling to take a risk and put it into the box.