Two unlikely heroes
Of all the players to help Reading win a penalty shoot-out, did you really think that Sam Walker and Sone Aluko would be among them? Both have attracted plenty of stick during their time in Berkshire so far (the latter much more than the former), and the club will almost certainly look to move both on in the summer - regardless of their contributions on Tuesday.
And yet, there are few things in football that I take more pleasure from than seeing written-off players come good, even if just briefly. It was Walker’s save that gave Reading a crucial 1-0 lead at the start of the shoot-out, and Aluko sealed our place in the fifth round by placing his spot kick in the bottom corner.
Contributions like those take guts and composure - as it did for Gabriel Osho who I’ve discussed more below. You wouldn’t have been surprised if Walker, an unreliable back-up ‘keeper, and previous record signing flop Aluko, had lacked such qualities in the heat of an FA Cup penalty shoot-out, but they deserve plenty of credit for holding their nerve.
Interestingly, Walker was the third Reading ‘keeper to face a shoot-out this season. Rafael came out victorious against Wycombe Wanderers on his debut in the League Cup, Joao Virginia couldn’t do enough against Wolves later in that competition, and Walker has now completed the trio.
Aluko’s contribution was probably more significant for what it means in the short-term future. He’s much more likely to play this season in the first team than Walker, with Mark Bowen making it clear that the forward will get a chance to impress after his recent return from a loan spell at sister club Beijing Renhe. Hopefully that penalty will give him that bit of confidence to really kick on in the coming months - although we have of course said similar about him previously.
A good evening for Gabriel Osho
I wasn’t sure whether or not to call it a ‘good’ evening for Gabriel Osho on Tuesday, considering the contrasting nature of his contributions after the 90th minute, but on balance I think it’s a fair assessment.
The youngster’s felt a lot like Reading’s forgotten centre half in recent times, with Tom McIntyre pushing closer to the first team and a trio of other academy defenders (Akin Odimayo, Andre Burley and Jeriel Dorsett) all making their debuts in Osho’s position this season. That all seemingly left Osho, who was on trial with Ipswich Town a few months ago, destined to leave when his contract expires in the summer.
The trip to Cardiff was just his second start of the season for Reading in all competitions - having played at Plymouth Argyle in the League Cup. It meant the match in South Wales was his chance to show what he could do in the first team, and despite looking at ease for much of the game, that seemed to be undone in extra time when his weak header back to Sam Walker was intercepted for Murphy to make it 3-2.
But he showed an awful lot of character to not only score his penalty in the shootout, but also to have the guts to go up second in the order in the first place. It’s easy for a player to hide from that responsibility, especially when you’re a young player who’s made an error, but Osho’s character and composure should be commended. It could earn him more chances in the first team going forwards, and contribute to a new contract.
Meite does the business... again
I’ve got my doubts over how good Yakou Meite is all round - his hold-up play and composure badly need work - but you can’t deny that he does the most important job he’s got: scoring goals. His extra-time strike against Cardiff City was his third goal in his last four appearances (all of them against the Bluebirds), and he came the closest of anyone in the team to scoring against Bristol City just over a week ago.
Those goals have lifted him up to nine in all competitions, now putting him top of the scoring charts ahead of George Puscas in second (seven). That’s a great return for both footballing and personal reasons. In the first case, he’s not had positional consistency, playing both out wide and up top, but he’s still constantly a threat in the final third regardless of that.
For the second, he deserves a huge amount of credit for how well he’s performed in the games since his father tragically passed away. It will certainly have been an awfully difficult period for him, but the last few weeks say a lot about the strength of his character.
The Meite/Puscas pairing should have been scrapped a long time ago
From a good point about Meite to one less good - although it’s not his fault. Mark Bowen again paired the Ivorian frontman with George Puscas, on this occasion at the top of a 3-5-2, and it didn’t pan out well, with Puscas sacrificed at half time so that Reading could switch to four at the back and five across midfield.
They’re not suited to playing with each other up front at the same time. Although they’re different in some ways (Meite is stronger and quicker), their profiles as strikers are similar; both like to get at a defence, whether by running at it or trying to get in behind. If you’re going to pair either with another centre forward, that partner should be a foil for Meite or Puscas, whether they’re holding the ball up or dropping off to link the play.
We should have learned this lesson a long time ago though. The Puscas/Meite pairing was used - unsuccessfully - in both Jose Gomes’ last game (Bristol City away) and Bowen’s first (Preston North End at home), so the current manager can’t say he wasn’t warned about the pitfalls of this selection.
This isn’t to say that they can’t play together at all - Meite could line up as a winger in addition to Puscas as a centre forward for example - but Reading shouldn’t again use them in tandem up top.
A great fifth-round tie
Getting past Cardiff on Tuesday night didn’t just put Reading into the next round - it also set up a really exciting tie, with the Royals going up against Premier League high flyers Sheffield United at the Madejski Stadium in the next round. With all due respect to Blackpool and Cardiff, the upcoming fifth-round match has a lot more appeal than those two clashes.
The club have commendably kept ticket prices low - they’re just £10 for the top bracket - and have been able to reopen Club 1871. Although Cardiff took the option of having the entire South Stand, United haven’t - so our singing section returns in the fifth round.
It’ll be tough, that’s for sure, but the prospect of a big, noisy home crowd roaring the Royals on against strong opposition - in a match with a real chance of a cup upset - is something I’m really looking forward to. All in all, it’s set up to be a cracking evening of football at the Mad Stad in a few weeks, with a place in the quarter finals to play for.