After a sunny start to a September Sunday the clouds gathered over the Select Car Leasing Stadium as a portent of things to come? 30 minutes before kick-off, things didn’t improve with the news that there was to be a late change, with Rhiannon Stewart - getting her first senior start - replacing the usually ever-present Grace Maloney in goal (presumably leaving the Royals without a substitute keeper?). No other changes to the line-up versus Manchester United last week.
You wouldn’t have known this news from the stadium announcements, unless you had the hearing of a bat, with the sound being very quiet today. Also no rousing Chemical Brothers ‘Galvanize’ or Sweet Caroline to get the crowd pumped up and ready to go - come on RFC you need to be better than that. Instead we were left with the feeling that we may be hearing more from the Arsenal fans that had turned up en masse for our first home match of the season (a crowd of just over 1,100 in the end I believe).
Miedema, of Arsenal, in all yellow, kicked off and Arsenal were quickly on the offensive and the Royals equally nervous and panicky - with Katie McCabe heading wide when it looked easier to score and an early let-off for Reading.
15 mins in and another Arsenal attack: Beth Mead had a shot blocked by Gemma Evans. The resultant corner was easily headed in by an unmarked Jennifer Beattie. 0-1 to the visitors. Inevitable really.
The industrious midfield dynamo Rachel Rowe picked up, harshly I thought, a yellow card following a collision with Arsenal’s number 13, Walti.
Reading’s only first-half shot on target came from Emma Harries, from a tight, wide right angle and comfortably caught by Zinsberger. Just minutes later, Arsenal still applying pressure, scored their second, Mead rifling the ball past Stewart with a great left-foot finish. Just before the restart the Reading players had a quick team huddle, keeper included, to galvanise them into action.
This, unfortunately, appeared to be of no avail as within three minutes Reading were further in debt, after some shocking defending left Mead all on her own and as she cut into the Reading penalty area she unselfishly passed to provide a simple tap in for Miedema to do what she does best. 0-3 to the visitors and half time couldn’t come soon enough.
Early in the second half and for the second match on the bounce Reading’s centre back Deanna Cooper was pole-axed from a fierce shot. In the 50th minute Miedema deftly headed a cross from the right past the rooted Stewart. 0-4 and not the restart we hoped for but many may have expected. Fears of a collapse and goal fest did, I’m ashamed to say, cross my mind.
In defiance of my negative thoughts Reading produced their best move of the match with Bryson crossing, Tash Harding mishitting the opportunity and Vanhaevermaet (a sub for Peplow) close, when it looked like she would score. A shame.
With 30 minutes still to play Arsenal declared, making a triple substitution (including the withdrawal of Miedema). Harries was also replaced with the Canadian Olympic bronze medalist Deanne Rose.
Reading improved as the second half went on with Rose getting behind the Arsenal back four, Tash, Rowe, Eikland and Vanhaevermaet all having half chances (and Eikland will be disappointed she didn’t grab a consolation and opening goal for the Royals). I’m not sure if it was because Arsenal had relaxed (in complete control), Arsenal literally changing half their team (using all five substitutions), the changes Kelly Chambers made or a combination of all of the above.
Other noticeable points of interest. Tash Harding with ‘half a nutmeg?’ - placing a cheeky throw on through the legs of Arsenal’s Hennessy (very amusing). Only three of the Reading team today started the same match in January 2021 (a surprising 1-1 draw at the-then Mad Stad). Better than the 6-1 defeat to Arsenal at the start of last season and although the Royals are advertising for a goalkeeping coach it would be harsh to blame any of the goals on Stewart making her senior debut.
Although a disappointing points tally for the opening two fixtures, it won’t be unexpected by many. The WSL has an unfair balance of power (what top league doesn’t?) with Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea (with United catching up?) already in line for the top spot challenge. Don’t think this Reading team isn’t full of talented footballers, it is! With a bit of time to gel, players keeping injury free, Kelly Chambers working her usual magic and a bit (or a lot) of luck - the sum of the parts could still have a very good season.