If you didn’t know anything about the stature of Reading or Bayern Munich, you’d have been hard pushed on Tuesday night to tell which side belonged to a smallish club in the English second tier, and which to one of Europe’s elite. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Royals were as good as a Champions League side - not yet at least - but they damn sure were the better team in the Premier League International Cup semi-final tie.
That Reading were in the last four in the first place is a huge testament to how much this club punches above its weight when it comes to youth development. And having beaten Leicester City, Feyenoord and Manchester United on their way to the semis, this fixture against Bayern was well-deserved.
In the end though, it was a harsh lesson for the young Royals: take your chances or you’ll be punished. Reading got into dangerous areas on plenty of occasions against Munich but, bar what proved to only be a consolation from Tyler Frost, couldn’t make it tell. Bayern on the other hand seized on three of their opportunities and go through to the final, where they’ll play either Southampton or Dinamo Zagreb.
The evening started with Scott Marshall naming an XI with plenty of familiar faces to followers of the men’s team. In total, six of the side had turned out for the seniors at some point, but they were complimented by another five who’ve still caught the eye at under-23 level regardless.
Goalkeeper Coniah Boyce-Clarke (it still amazes me that a 16 year-old is already established for the under-23s) was protected by a back three: Tom Holmes, Gabriel Osho and Tom McIntyre. Teddy Howe and Ramarni Medford-Smith slotted in at right and left wing-back respectively. With Ethan Coleman and Jordan Holsgrove in the middle, Danny Loader supported by Josh Barrett and Michael Olise, the formation looked more or less like a 3-4-3.
The first half started fairly even, with both sides having spells in possession as they tried to exert control on the game - although the chances didn’t flow for either Reading or Bayern Munich. However, the Royals seemed to have more of the ball and tried to build through Josh Barrett, whose free role allowed him to either drive at defenders or come deep and pull the strings.
Bayern had the first key chance though: a penalty almost half an hour into the contest. Coniah Boyce-Clarke ill-advisedly took out an attacker inside the area, despite the forward going away from goal. A silly error that a highly talented ‘keeper (who’ll be better known as CBC for brevity’s sake) will learn from. Either way, Munich blasted their spot-kick wide of his right-hand post. Still 0-0.
Reading were galvanised by that and pushed forward in search of the opener. Holsgrove was crowded out in the area just before pulling the trigger, Loader fired just over from range and Osho put a header wide from a corner.
Half time: 0-0
To their credit, Reading had been trying to play attractive football, knocking the ball around with confidence and moving it up the pitch rather than hoofing it - much in Jose Gomes’ style. However, it backfired badly not long into the second half when Tom Holmes, targeted by Munich’s high press, lost the ball on the edge of his own area. Bayern seized on their chance: 1-0.
Undeterred, Reading would spend much of the rest of the second half pushing for an equaliser. To do that, they tried three tactical changes: in the first instance switching from 3-4-3 to more of a 4-4-1-1; Tom Holmes replaced by out-and-out forward Ben House. Michael Olise and Josh Barrett stayed wide, Danny Loader dropped deep.
Next, Ethan Coleman - who had been balancing the midfield out well until that point - was withdrawn for the attacking Tyler Frost. However, with the more lightweight Olise brought centrally, Bayern got more control of the game. In response, Olise was eventually replaced by former England youth captain Oli Pendlebury.
Unfortunately, none of those changes were to have the desired effect. In the end, class told in emphatic fashion, with Nollenberger smashing a shot from the left corner of the penalty box into the far side of the goal. 2-0. What’s the German for he’s got a foot like a traction engine?
The goal was harsh on Reading who were unlucky to be trailing at all, let alone by two goals, but taking chances was the lesson of the evening - which Tyler Frost learned by rifling home deep into injury time for a consolation. 2-1. However, Munich weren’t keen on giving up their two-goal advantage, and made it 3-1 in the dying moments.
Reading’s youngsters can, and should, hold their heads up high after an impressive performance. Going toe-to-toe with the youth side of one of Europe’s biggest clubs takes some doing. Credit to all the under-23s, and of course Scott Marshall and Ged Roddy.
It will, hopefully, be only a matter of time before we see some of this side break into the first-team properly - and stay there.