Nowadays when you turn up to a Reading cup game, you have good reason to see the opposition get mauled. Millwall 4-0, Exeter City 9-0, Swindon Town 5-0, the Royals had built up an impressive record across the League Cup and Papa McJohn's Trophy Cup of putting sides to the sword.
It was a different story today against MK Dons though, an uncharacteristically competitive knockout match. The visitors drew level in the first half after Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan's early opener, Reading went 3-1 up in the second and threatened to pull away, but didn't, and a late consolidation from MK Dons ensured a nervy finish.
Still, job done. Reading didn't NEED another battering today, as nice as it would have been. Reading were still crying out for a morale-booster after recent league defeats, and got just that.
It's still reassuring to see Reading get this kind of win. Putting poor opposition to the sword is one thing (hi Swindon Town), but having to up your game after being pegged back to 1-1, as well as seeing off a late rally, are just as creditable.
In a way, those aspects to Reading's performance today were particularly reassuring, given what's been going wrong for this side recently. Mentality (or a lack thereof) has been an issue, shown in capitulations against Charlton Athletic and Portsmouth, but that wasn't repeated today. Reading showed they could get the job Don.
Signs of growth today? Hopefully. We'll know more on Tuesday when league action returns.
It looked like normal cup business early on when Reading came out of the traps flying. Lewis Wing played a lovely ball in behind for Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, who intelligently got the ball onto his stronger right foot before slamming the ball in at the near post.
But as the half went on, you could tell things were set to be different. There’s not really a huge amount to say about the period before the interval other than Reading were severely lacklustre all round in a dull contest, with the visitors the better side. Although MK Dons didn’t distinctly outclass us or cause us too many problems (debutant Joel Pereira didn’t have hard work to do), they were still decent value for their equaliser. Customarily it came from a wide area, with the low cross (sent in from Reading’s left) converted at close range.
Reading had set up differently to usual, going to something akin to a 4-1-4-1 (although the formation sometimes looked more like the familiar 4-2-2-2 or a 4-1-3-2. Either way, Sam Hutchinson was the deepest central midfielder, Caylan Vickers and Lewis Wing were higher (the former sometimes pushing up, the latter sometimes dropping deeper), Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan was up front, while Ben Elliott and Paul Mukairu were on the right and left respectively.
Ruben Selles made two changes at the break to liven things up. Off went the poor Elliott and Mukairu, replaced on the right and left respectively by Femi Azeez and Harvey Knibbs. While the latter two haven’t shown themselves to be notably better than the former two in terms of end product, they do seem better out of possession, and accordingly their arrival prompted a much better all-round second-half display.
After the break, Reading were suddenly far more able to win the ball back in MK Dons’ half, forcing a few turnovers in the first five minutes following the restart. Chances came too, generally involving Azeez. The substitute skied one opportunity when played in by Knibbs, put the ball back in for Ehibhatiomhan to convert from close range (ruled out for offside), and played a low cross to Matty Carson, whose effort was blocked.
Just when the hosts were fading, they came up with a quickfire double to ignite the tie. First Wing doubled his assist tally by putting an inswinging corner onto the bonce of Knibbs, who dutifully nodded home for 2-1, then he was the beneficiary of Reading winning the ball back really high. Dom Ballard (who’d come on alongside Michael Craig for Vickers and Hutchinson), put the chance on a plate for Wing to make it 3-1.
From then on in, Reading threatened to pull away, and would have if it weren’t for poor finishing. Ballard saw a couple of opportunities go begging - one hit the side netting, another was cleared off the line - while Azeez pulled an effort agonisingly wide of the far post with his right foot.
It could have been 4-1, 5-1 or more, but next it was 3-2. As if to underline the theme of this being a less comfortable cup win than usual, the visitors tucked the ball into the net on the rebound in time added on after Pereira had made the initial save. 3-2 it would end however, despite a few “oh for God’s sake, are we seriously about to blow this lead?” minutes before the final whistle.
Reading are into the next round of the cup though, with the second-round draw set for Sunday afternoon at 2.30pm. Wembley here we come?