Three months after he lost his job to Luke Southwood, Rafael has moved on, heading back to Brazil early this week. Regardless of your opinion of his playing ability, Rafael gave it his all for Reading and I’m sure we all wish him well.
While his way back to the first team seemed totally untenable, and this exit is the right decision, there’s always a slight tinge of sadness when a player who made almost 100 appearances for the club moves on. There’s been quite enough sadness around Reading recently though, so today I just want to focus on some of the good times with Rafael.
So let’s look at some of Rafael’s best performances for the Royals. We’ll look at some well-trodden ground as well as some under-appreciated gems. We’ll wish Rafael all the best, remind ourselves just what a great keeper he could be on his day, and rediscover why he won Reading player of the season and made The Athletic’s Championship team of the season in 2019/20.
Fulham 1-2 Reading
This is the game that all Reading fans knew would be here on this list. It’s the match that truly made Rafael’s name at Reading. He had been solid under both Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen, unaffected by the change of style mid-season, and had kept eight clean sheets already - including three in a row going into this game with Fulham.
In our now customary away victory at Craven Cottage, Rafael was utterly outstanding, especially in the second half when Fulham tilted the pitch towards him. To get things started, he made the most outrageous triple save from a trio of Fulham attackers: getting down fast before scrambling across his net. As the second half wore on, Fulham stretched Rafael across the entire frame of his net, seeing shots diverted from just ahead of the posts and just below the crossbar. Rafael bent but never broke: and Reading went home with a memorable victory in the bank!
Reading 1-0 Preston North End
This may well have been Rafael’s most important clean sheet. After just two months of the 2019/20 season it had become mightily clear that Gomes wasn’t going to be the right man in the long term. His motivation style of management had been the perfect galvanising tool for a half season to reach survival with a team of loanees, but his tactical organisation was clearly hurting the team. With Gomes moved on, this match was the first in charge for new manager Bowen.
Rafael was one of the few players to come out of that period well, keeping two clean sheets, and making three saves a match on average. This game was the opportunity for Reading to turn their sliding season around though and Rafael took it well. Preston were chasing the Premier League at the time, coming into the game in the playoff places.
Rafael faced four shots on target that day, turning away all of them... although admittedly one did come off a Preston player’s stomach. Rafael’s concentration and more importantly the clean sheet helped Reading to injury time though, when a late late late Matt Miazga goal was enough to give the Royals all three points.
Cardiff 1-2 Reading
This early-season 2020/21 game showed off Rafael’s shot-stopping ability and was a classic example of him standing tall as his net was shelled. Reading had started the campaign well with solid wins against Barnsley and Derby County. Rafael was yet to concede a goal under Veljko Paunovic and, at this time, Reading tactically did a fantastic job of keeping opposition shots to the outside of the penalty box. That meant Rafael had seen just four shots on target at all during his first two games. Things looked as though they would be tougher against Cardiff in Wales if Reading wanted to maintain momentum though.
The final 15 minutes of this match were an absolute firing gallery in Rafael’s net. After not doing much all game, Rafael made four excellent saves in the final 15 minutes, demonstrating his composure and reflexes. One such save, a fantastic stop with his feet, was made after Rafael had already begun diving one way before the ball deflected back across Rafael’s body. He even got close to stopping Cardiff’s consolation goal, but held back the Bluebirds long enough to take a memorable victory back to Berkshire.
Millwall 1-1 Reading
This might feel like an odd match to highlight, but it was crucial to the early momentum of the 2020/21 season. At this time the wheels had been falling off Reading’s incredible start to 2020/21 for a few weeks. Reading hadn’t recorded a point in a month, but on this day Rafael made sure they took one home, making seven saves on the way to a 1-1 draw. That momentum helped Reading to three wins in their next five.
Rafael showed great determination to keep the Royals in this game, after one of his first involvements was to pick out Jed Wallace’s special free kick. He didn’t let that get to him and kept his concentration well as Millwall searched for the win in the second half. He made an outstanding seven stops that day, with the pick of the lot being a diving outstretched arm to divert a ball that was headed for the top corner.
Scrappy, low-scoring games are part and parcel of the Championship, and in them small plays can make a world of difference to a team’s momentum. Rafael’s work to get Reading back on track last year in one-goal or tighter games really showed his worth to the team.
Swansea City 0-0 Reading
I’ve saved one of Rafael’s best-ever performances for last. Reading, absolutely reeling from an injury crisis at the time (sound familiar?) made a mid-week trip to in-form Swansea City. The Swans were in good form and challenging for the automatic promotion spots, while the Royals were just trying to pick their way through December.
This was a game in which Rafael’s experience and composure really told, because in front of him was a back four of Tomas Esteves, Tom Holmes, Michael Morrison and Tom McIntyre. Morrison was able to marshall his young troops to a stout-enough parking of the bus, but Rafael’s quick reflexes came up huge when Morrison’s organisation couldn’t.
Rafael pulled off an excellent six stops this day and made up for all of his defence’s shortcomings. His save on a bouncing header from Andre Ayew was brilliant and saved Esteves’ blushes. He made a further stop from a bouncing header on a corner later before saving the best for last. Close to full time Reading’s defence parted again, but Rafael stood firm, smartly anticipating Ayew’s late run into the box and making an outrageous reflex save to his right. While his cross-claiming ability was always somewhat suspect, nobody could ever accuse Rafael of not having a superhuman save in him.
All the best Rafael! You’ll be fondly remembered in Berkshire.