I haven’t seen the post-match interview but I’m guessing that Kelly Chambers will have been very proud of the performance today while also deeply disappointed with the end result - as the Royals conceded a late goal, from substitute Rachel Williams, to narrowly lose 1-0 to Manchester United. It’s a result that otherwise would have been a very welcome way for the Reading manager to celebrate her 150th match in charge.
The Reading performance from kick-off to the final whistle was a team at one and fully committed. Like the afternoon sun it warmed up the stadium and shone with maximum effort, unity and a genuine care and desire not to be overawed by a Manchester United team looking to go top of the league – after Chelsea’s match was bizarrely postponed following just six minutes of play.
Team: Burns, Mukandi, Caldwell, Evans, Woodham, Vanhaevermaet, Eikeland, Troelsgaard, Rowe, Wellings, Harries
The Royals presumably won the toss and chose to change ends so that it was the England international, Mary Earps, in the United goal who had to deal with winter setting sun. It was a first half that ebbed and flowed with waves of pressure from both sides and surely one that surprised the visitors (after their comfortable 6-0 over Liverpool last week) who were pressurised constantly and unable to control the match.
Justine Vanhaevermaet was a tower of strength all afternoon and was unlucky with several aerial attempts, the first effort headed wide from a Rachel Rowe corner in the 11th minute. The Belgium international put in an impressive performance and came close, just five minutes later, with an audacious lob from wide on the right wing, and nearer to the halfway line – seeing her lofted effort dip on the top of the netting with Mary Earps floundering as the ball flew over her head.
Reading were effective on the counter attack and, with a bit more belief, Emma Harries had a wonderful breakaway opportunity on 27 minutes, but chose to try and square a pass rather than taking a shot on her weaker right foot.
With six minutes of the first half remaining Gemma Evans got caught out by the touch and skill of Alessia Russo and a penalty was awarded. The United captain, Katie Zelem, took responsibility for the spot kick and saw her shot saved by Jacqueline Burns, diving to her right and catching the second rebounded effort one-handed and to safety. Cue celebrations and hugs from the Reading team for the Reading ‘keeper who has impressed and continued to make this position her own.
There was still time for some further late drama when Diane Caldwell’s unforced error saw her free kick go directly to a Red shirt, presenting Manchester United with a great opportunity to bear down on the Reading goal. In a spirit that summed up the Royals performance, it was Caldwell herself that got back with a last-gasp tackle to block Nikita Parris at the near post, in what looked like a certain goal.
Double relief and joy for the home fans, at the end of the first 45 minutes, meaning it was all square at half-time.
The second half continued in pretty much the same format but with United having the better of the attempts and pressure on the Reading goal. The Royals have been guilty of some poor defending this season but this afternoon was completely different – with the back line defending sensibly, bravely and in numbers – blocking a number of efforts from the visitors – meaning that any attempts which got through the blockade were saved comfortably by Burns.
On the hour mark both teams made substitutions. Kelly Chambers opted for a bold and positive change with Sanne Troelsgaard replaced by Tia Primmer, while Marc Skinner replaced Nikita Parris with Martha Thomas.
It was, however, the next substitution for United that changed the fortunes of the afternoon. Lucia Garcia left the field and Rachel Williams entered, with only six minutes of normal play remaining. It was Williams who scored just three minutes later, cutting in from the left across the Reading penalty area, and executed a right-foot finish high into the Reading net – giving the Royals goalkeeper no chance. It was a great bit of skill from the United striker that put a couple of Reading defenders on the floor as she danced across the box and delayed her effort to perfect timing.
If the Royals could bottle this afternoon’s spirit and passion and deliver that for every WSL match this season, they would surely be looking up the league, rather than at the fear of relegation. Although the stats may suggest otherwise, this was not a result the visitors, the Reading team or the home fans deserved – in what was a new SCL Stadium home record crowd of 5,108.
Reading now have another WSL break, with next Sunday’s match away to Leicester (January 29) in the FA Cup - before another important match (aren’t they all?) at fellow league strugglers Liverpool on February 5.