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04/05: Reports:

League Cup Second Round, 21/09/04, 8.00pm
Mischievous imps
By Matt Rowson

Bloody hell.

In previewing this game, it seemed natural to speculate as to the line that would be taken with regard to team selection; how to juggle the competing concerns of our relentless momentum (never better illustrated than in this game), injuries, tiredness, priorities attached to different competitions with the added joker of a League game against the same opponents coming up on Saturday. Frankly, I saw it as a risk-minimising exercise.

Which demonstrates how little I know. Irrespective of the detail of what follows below, we visited a side with a hundred percent home record, a place where our own record is less than outstanding. We rested arguably our five most effective players, three of whose replacements had eight senior starts between them. And we won three-nil. Reading rested players themselves but in lesser numbers. What was close to a first choice eleven had their applecart upset, with Danny, Gav, H, Dyche and Ards (but for a thirty-second cameo) with their feet up ready for Saturday. So much for damage limitation.

This was not, however, a victory in the crushing, irresistible nature of our last two wins at Cardiff and Millwall. Rather than a no-bullshit steamroller, this team performance was that of a mischievous imp, ducking and diving and vanishing into shadows, then appearing from nowhere and poking its adversary in the ribs before disappearing in a puff of smoke. And risking a good kicking in the process, if it ever got caught.

The game started in open fashion, appropriately enough given the vast chasms in the stands ("Why don't you all sit together?" was one chant). We looked bright and vivacious, and as Dyer and Young traded passes sharply before trying one sly ball too many, it was quickly apparent that we had the pace to trouble a slow looking Reading back line.

At the other end, however, it was evident that Reading had the tools to hurt us (unlike Millwall, at least in the threat-on-goal sense) and the confidence to demonstrate it (unlike Cardiff). Bobby Convey was the first to threaten, curling a left foot shot narrowly wide from distance having worked a gap. Dave Kitson, more elegant than his awkward frame suggests, broke on the left of the area but sent his shot wide across the face of goal. Game on.

Bouazza's jabbing run had threatened to expose the home side again on the break before we got a critical breakthrough. Ashley Young, hugely impressive all evening, released Dyer into space. Captain for the evening, Bruce roared past Williams into the penalty area before being felled in panic. Neil Cox put the spot-kick firmly to the keeper's left, the keeper went to his right (as he had done in saving the same player's spotkick in the same goalmouth two years ago). One-nil to the Golden Boys, against expectation and the run of the game.

Reading's players woke up, affronted, and some steel was added to their forward play. Dave Kitson got his head to a corner, the ball drifting wide by the narrowest of margins. Then, having been further irritated by the officials' failure to grant him a free kick when roughly dispossessed by Blizzard, he broke the offside trap but dawdled, allowing DeMerit to make a typically unfussy intervention as he prepared a shot. The reluctant looking Brooker slid another shot wide.

The last half hour of the first half was Reading's spell, but we contributed to their failure to break through with some slippery counterattacks, meaning that the home side's midfield had to be acutely aware of what was behind them as well as in front, the once again utterly magnificent Gunnarsson a key, ferocious obstacle denying any space or time for reflection in the middle of the park. Dyer powered goalwards again, cutting between two markers on the right of the box and firing a cross-shot which Hahnemann clawed away.

The closest calls came in front of us, however, as Reading turned the screw. Dyer's fierce shot was blocked at the far end and Andy Hughes seized the ball and charged fifty yards into the left-hand channel before screwing horribly wide with his left foot. Shaun Goater had a temporary sight of goal on the penalty spot before Mayo flew in to deflect the shot wide. From the corner, Goater's header - again under challenge from Mayo - hit the bar.

Had the home side taken advantage of this spell, the evening could have followed a very different path. That they didn't was down to a number of factors - luck, certainly, bad finishing too. But some fine defending as well... it's much harder for Shaun Goater to get (another) header on target when a centreback's permanently in his face. It's much harder to get a shot on target when a keeper is on his toes and flying decisively at you to narrow the angle. Most of all, this period demonstrated our current bloody-minded refusal to yield ground. All the times when we've despaired at a side's lack of fight, readiness to accept defeat, were turned upside down in this performance, an absolute refusal to be beaten.

Which isn't to say that we didn't ride our luck. Richard Lee - now nine clean sheets in fourteen senior starts and growing in stature with every game - is reassuringly decisive, but this evening his decision without fail seemed to be to charge out to meet every challenge head on. Shaun Goater's progress was rudely interrupted in this fashion on the edge of the box, but shortly before the break Lee came charging out again and Reading's failure to score descended into farce. Misjudging his ability to clear, Lee ended up colliding with DeMerit, on his backside outside the area with Shaun Goater past him in possession. An imminent challenge plus Mayo on the line saw the Bermudan hurry his shot, which hit the bar with Mayo beneath it. The rebound broke to Brooker on the right of the box, but Mayo charged out to block. A third shooting opportunity was denied by Blizzard's intervention and the half ended with the clean sheet improbably still intact.

The start of the second half suggested more of the same and the seemingly inevitable breakthrough as the home side won a free kick on the left outside the box. Ricky Newman's fine, curled effort seemed destined for the top left hand corner but Lee, improbably, flew across the goal to push the effort around the post.

Goater broke through, and again Lee was too quick on his feet and the ball bounced over him leaving him stranded. Mayo was across to cover - still looking unsure when in possession, but peerless when it comes to giving it some welly.

From then on, it all got rather easier. Rather than persevere with an approach that really ought have yielded success in the first half, the home side's resolve broke... Adrian Williams' hopelessly optimistic shot from thirty-five yards was an encouraging sign, Steve Sidwell's fouls on the galloping Doyley and again on the breaking Boris (for which he was booked) as much down to irritation as cynicism. With every loose ball fiercely contested by the Hornets in midfield, Reading resorted increasingly to lumping it up towards the admittedly tempting aerial targets in the penalty box, but Cox, DeMerit and Lee between them dealt with this approach comfortably.

A word too for Mr.Doyley. It's not easy to dominate a match from right back and, frankly, Lloyd didn't do so here. But to be honest, I'm not sure I remember him being done once this season, certainly not last night, and his highly impressive linking up with Ashley Young on the right demonstrated how far he has come in addressing the supposed weaknesses in his game. You don't correct a problem by hiding from it, Lloyd hasn't done that and is beginning to look like a highly competent full back in both halves of the pitch.

The chances came. DeMerit swooped in to attack a corner, thumping a header towards the bottom corner that his compatriot in the Reading goal did exceedingly well to push around the post. Dyer's persistence created a shooting chance for Bouazza, the volley clearing the bar - Dyer then went down with cramp, eventually being replaced by Scott Fitzgerald whose fresh injection of pace and directness was probably the last thing Reading needed. Ashley Young took the armband for around thirteen and a half minutes.

Gunnarsson nutmegged the last defender to much amusement before being caught as he pulled the trigger on the edge of the area. Darlington, whose occasional single-minded runs suffered from an apparent inability to change direction, was replaced by Andy Ferrell whose contribution in the previous round has already earned something of a cult status. And his own song, which got an enthusiastic airing as he entered the fray - in stark contrast to the hoots of derision awarded to Reading midfielder Andy Hughes on his exit, the most noise the home crowd made all evening. Reading fashioned a rare chance when Lloyd Owusu - on as one of four strikers as the home side chased the game - broke on the left of the area but slid yet another shot across the face and wide.

Bouazza's movement had been relentless, and he broke right to receive possession as we broke before gliding through a number of challenges. His inexperience told here - Ferrell, free on the left, had wanted an earlier ball but the pass came too late when, in fact, the Frenchman had done the hard work and had fashioned a clear path to goal.

The next time, he made no mistake. Evidently mindful of Reading's tired legs' fear of his pace minutes earlier, he cut inside again from the right and sculpted a gorgeous shot with his left foot across Hahnemann and into the bottom corner.

To rub salt into the wound, it was three within a minute. Murty made a complete hash of a cross-field pass that brushed the top of his head as he attempted a headed clearance. Ferrell scurried into the space behind him, made for the touchline and then slammed a low hard ball across the face of goal in search of a touch from Fitzgerald attacking the far post - a touch that proved unnecessary, as Ingimarsson inadvertently sent the ball sharply into his own net, the keeper helpless. "First team on Saturday!" sang the travelling Hornets, but there were precious few Royals left to be mocked.

So three-nil flattered us, sure, but daylight robbery it wasn't. The trump card, the critical decision that won this game was Lewington's trust in our competent, very wantingapieceoftheaction fringe players, whereas Coppell picked a near full-strength team that only realised that they were in trouble when the game ran away from them.

The win itself was fully deserved, and sets us up nicely for the next two league games... the two leading sides in the division, both at home, but perhaps the fixture list has been kind to us here. After six wins and a draw in seven, four away wins without conceding, only three goals shipped since the opening day and any number of other gorgeous statistics, fixtures that don't permit complacency are probably a good thing.

Oh look, Reading again. Bring it on.