I love this tournament, I really really do. The McPizza Street Motor Vase (otherwise known as the EFL Trophy or the Bristol Street Motors Trophy, formerly the Papa John’s Trophy) has given me, and any other Reading fan who’s turned up to the games this season, some of the most fun matches we’ve had in years.
We kicked off by battering Exeter City 9-0 at St James’ Park, then took Swindon Town apart 5-0, and wrapped up the group stage by seeing off Arsenal’s under-21s 5-2. 19 goals scored, a competition record.
The visit of Charlton Athletic in the first knockout round offered an opportunity to continue that run of entertainment, and it belatedly delivered. It was an uncharacteristically low-scoring, unruthless (is that a word?) performance in this competition from the Royals, who ultimately needed a penalty shootout to progress. Still, that counts as fun - just of a different sort.
The Royals have a few people to thank for that. Mostly obviously that’s the Addicks’ Louie Watson, whose spot-kick hit the bar in the very final act of the contest, sending Reading through, but a few others should come in for praise.
Charlie Savage was, ultimately, the only one who delivered in front of goal in normal time, finding a way through the visitors’ stubborn defence with a beautiful strike from range to make it 1-1. Joel Pereira also came up with a vital bit of Joelkeeping (sorry) in the shootout, denying Alfie May who took Charlton’s first spot-kick.
And, of course, Reading executed a perfect set of penalties themselves. Harvey Knibbs, Matty Carson, Femi Azeez (his third ‘goal’ in as many games) and Caylan Vickers kept cool heads to convert in front of the away end. It was a satisfying improvement from the League Cup game against Ipswich Town when a few penalties went astray.
The evening started with Reading naming a pretty strong side, matching up to the visitors in that regard. A number of first-teamers came into the XI, leaving the Royals looking like this in the 4-1-4-1:
Pereira; Mbengue, Bindon, Abbey, Mola; Hutchinson; Vickers, Wing, Elliott, Mukairu; Smith
Reading had a promising-ish, patchy but ultimately annoying first half. There were good signs going forward, but momentum wasn’t maintained through until the interval and opportunities were passed up. Lewis Wing and Amadou Mbengue were among those to have those chances, but the best fell to Caylan Vickers, who missed an open goal after Wing’s shot was saved.
Charlton did find the finishing touch however. Typically for Reading their opener came via a wide area, with a low cross from the hosts’ right prodded home for 1-0. Given the Royals’ superiority (but not outright dominance) until that point, it was an annoying flashback to the league fixture at The Valley when Reading were similarly punished against the run of play.
The Royals looked far better offensively down their right in the first half, despite a goal being conceded from there. Mbengue did really well to launch a couple of attacks with quick interceptions, while Vickers looked sharp as a right-winger on his return to first-team action. It was a different story on the other flank though: Paul Mukairu was too narrow as the winger, while left-back Clinton Mola badly lacked confidence on the ball.
In the middle, Ben Elliott and Wing had flashes of quality, such as when the former played the latter in with a delightful ball over the top in the build-up to Vickers’ open-goal opportunity. They didn’t provide all much fluency though, helped neither by their lack of game time together as central midfielders, nor by an underwhelming display from Sam Hutchinson that won’t trouble first-teamer Michael Craig.
Reading changed things a touch at the break, bringing Matty Carson on at left-back, with Mola moving to right-back and Mbengue heading off. To be fair to Mola, despite being in an unfamiliar position, he looked almost completely revitalised in the second half, far more confident and capable going forwards.
The broader second-half performance only really started to improve with a triple change later in the half though. Knibbs, Savage and Azeez replaced Mukairu, Hutchinson (who’d been poor as the holding midfielder) and Wing. Later, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan would replace Sam Smith as the lone striker, giving him a bit of a rest ahead of Saturday.
Reading had their openings and were capable of getting into the final third well enough, but just weren’t quite able to add the end product. Carson went just wide of the post from range and Ehibhatiomhan couldn’t quite find a low cross... but Savage did rifle one home from the edge of the box for 1-1. It was a great reminder that he’s a real goal threat from range, having also netted against Millwall and Bolton Wanderers earlier this season in such a fashion.
Although the Royals couldn’t put away one of their numerous chances after that point to win the tie in normal time, Pereira and co got the team over the line in the shootout. Cue a terrific full-time celebration from Joel ‘El Gato’ Pereira in front of the SJM Stand that was an absolute delight to watch in real time:
In a way, of the two cup matches Reading have played this week, this was the better one to win. The Royals have an upwards trajectory after the disappointment of Sunday, going into Saturday’s tough match against Barnsley on a positive note, and the dramatic nature of the victory certainly helps. Having to go the whole nine yards to get the job done ultimately makes the achievement feel that bit more rewarding.
But Reading can still take heart from the broader performance. Although this display wasn’t as good as those against Wycombe Wanderers and Carlisle United, Reading were much better going forwards than at Eastleigh. Sure, that’s a low bar to clear, but this was again a half-strength side and some of those players (particularly Elliott as a central midfielder and Caylan Vickers out wide on both flanks) showed promise going forwards in the 4-1-4-1.
Tonight’s a nice tee-up for Saturday, and hopefully a result that’ll lead to a charge deep into the Pizza Cup.