Reading travelled to Cardiff for the second time in four days to take on the Bluebirds in an FA Cup fourth-round replay. The Royals lined up in a 3-5-2: Walker; Gunter, Osho, Morrison, Blackett, Richards; Pele, Adam, Swift; Puscas, Meite.
The first half of this third clash in eleven days between the two sides was particularly uneventful, especially for the visitors. With Cardiff continuing where they left off on Friday night with a plethora of long throws and corners into the Royals’ box, it was clear the hosts were looking to take advantage of lengthy Aden Flint, flicking many a hopeful ball on into dangerous areas. With young Gabriel Osho making his Royals debut, this was certainly one of the tougher type of games he’d go on to face in his career, but put in a solid performance to help restrict Cardiff to mainly half chances.
However, Reading were to be the architects of their own downfall in terms of goals conceded when a poor pass from Charlie Adam was pounced on by Josh Murphy, before firing past Walker from the edge of the box. On a few occasions in the first half Reading were prone to giving the ball away by playing to a man in an unconducive position, epitomised by Pele’s ball to Adam’s right foot, while facing his own goal and under pressure from the opposition.
His blind pass, in the hope of picking out Swift, then allowed Cardiff in for their first, the home side’s high attacking positioning preventing Reading playing out to the midfield men. Bar a scorpion kick from Yakou Meite that was kept out by Neil Etheridge, Reading hardly threatened the Bluebirds goal in a game that should have been goalless at the break.
The second half however was a completely different affair. With both George Puscas and Adam axed at the interval, the introductions of forgotten men Sone Aluko and Garath McCleary initially looked like it was primarily made to give the two men some game time, while allowing the side a much-needed formation change. Despite a poor decision from Tyler Blackett to press Gavin Whyte in the centre circle, allowing Will Vaulks to pick out Robert Glatzel who moved to occupy the vacant space and give the home side a two goal lead, Reading dominated the second 45 with both substitutes having a real impact on the game.
Reading had switced to a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 (Walker; Gunter, Morrison, Osho, Blackett; McCleary, Swift, Pele (later replaced by Rinomhota), Richards; Aluko; Meite), which meant they left themselves more exposed on the counter attack, but adopted a much higher position up the field than in the first half (and Friday night’s game) and so took the game to the hosts in search of a way back into the tie. Where Reading had previously struggled in the wide areas, with the likes of Bennett and Murphy doubling up on Gunter to deliver crosses into the box, Reading now had two options on each wing with Richards and Blackett in particular impressing with their link-up play and overlaps.
Pele holding his position by the centre circle allowed Swift to drift from wing to wing to help create overloads (the substitution of Rinomhota and his driving runs allowed Swift to sit back at times) and some incisive passes managed to take the Cardiff fullbacks out of play with the visitors applying much more pressure on the hosts’ goal.
It was no surprise then that all three Reading goals on the night came from crosses, with Blackett, Richards and extra-time substitute Jordan Obita all showing their quality and cohesion in fashioning chances for the Royals. The attacking nature of the full backs was best shown by both Blackett and Richards being denied at the near post when slipped through on goal and of course Blackett picking out Richards to thump his header in at the near post. Credit is also due to Chris Gunter for always offering an option (if not a decoy run) for the impressive McCleary.
Garath McCleary had one of his most effective performances in a Reading shirt in recent memory, bamboozling Cardiff’s debutant academy left back Joel Bagan (who later had to be replaced by the more experienced Joe Bennett) with his pace, power and ability to cross or cut in and link up with Aluko/Meite or fire a shot off.
Sone Aluko himself had a huge impact on the game, helping to win back play and then create chances with his on-the-ball dummies and fantastic dribbling ability. When deployed in the centre just behind the striker, his trademark move seems to be to run down the right channel while gradually turning his man until he’s effectively cut inside onto his left foot, something he managed to do effectively in both cup games. Thanks to this Aluko managed numerous efforts on goal, finally causing Etheridge some concern in the Cardiff goal. With Rinomhota the third and final sub, his impact may have been slightly understated, however a fantastic volley to draw the game level and another palmed away by Etheridge meant he too played a key role in this topsy turvy cup tie.
With Reading on top as the teams went into extra time, another poor pass into midfield (this time from Tyler Blackett) allowed an overturn in possession and a subsequent long ball forwards was far from comfortable for Gabe Osho to deal with, managing to half head it back towards Walker and allowing Murphy to nip in for his second. Despite this reoccurrence of gifting the opposition a goal from some sloppy play, there was a reoccurrence of Reading’s quality down the left flank.
Omar Richards returned the ball to Jordan Obita following a throw in, and the substitute whipped a delivery right into the path of Yakou Meite, who had managed to get in front of the defender and finish expertly at the near post. What followed in the penalty shootout was a team high on confidence, with belief and desire to get through to the next round, not putting a foot wrong.
From a Reading standpoint there was so much to enjoy about the next 10 or so minutes: Sam Walker saving two (almost all three) penalties; Osho stepping up and dispatching a high-quality penalty to redeem himself after his mistake; Sone Aluko, the forgotten man, winning the shootout for the Royals; and McCleary and Obita both hammering home to make it a 100% record from the spot.