The shock of the FA Cup third round had already come at Old Trafford when Leeds knocked out Manchester United but there was still room for another major surprise to be sprung. After 210 hard-fought minutes, Reading ousted Liverpool, with more than a sprinkling of late drama.
The historic extra-time victory at Anfield saw the Royals offer up an extension of their fine performance in the original tie at the Madejski Stadium. Beleaguered in the league and with confusion over the permanency of manager Brian McDermott’s job, the boys from Berkshire put on a second stunning showing in 11 days to lump even more anguish on harassed Reds boss Rafa Benitez. Reading’s chance to progress looked to have evaporated after their dominant home display ended only in a draw but a collective effort greater than the sum of the parts made it second time lucky.
Much like after the first game, Royals fans will be wondering where these performance have been hiding all season. This was the Reading of recent years, the swashbuckling underdogs that feared no one under Steve Coppell. The names might have changed but this was the spirit of Premier League Reading resurrected. Jem Karacan played from the fourth minute with a sword hanging over his head, booked for a crunching mistimed challenge on the edge of the area. Instead of shrinking or receiving his marching orders for a second yellow, he bossed the game with as fine a performance as he has put in with a blue and white shirt on. His direct opponents may have been Steven Gerrard and the £20m Italian international Alberto Aquilani but Karacan showed as little fear of reputations as Steve Sidwell did in Reading’s first top flight season. The Turkish under-21 starlet has looked off the pace in games in the past but he has proved in both Liverpool matches that he is more than capable of rising to the big occasion.
Simon Church does not yet have the goals to show for his blossoming reputation in footballing circles. If he can become a regular scorer, then Reading are in for a treat. Having signed a new contract until 2013 in between the two matches, he celebrated his long-term tie to the club with a phenomenal effort of pace and energy. Jobi McAnuff was the big threat at the Mad Stad but at Anfield he was overshadowed by Church. That is not to say that McAnuff was quiet. He took longer to get in to gear than the previous fixture but his lightning counter-attack almost led to a goal by Church before the half hour mark. The one-time Jamaica international later went all John Barnes-like and slalomed through the Reds’ defence, only to pull a shot wide. Ryan Giggs’ 1999 semi-final winner against Arsenal has been replayed a million times. McAnuff was inches from being the star of the new video of choice.
It was a night of some surprising performances. Brynjar Gunnarsson and his ageing legs lasted the full 120 minutes and after 100 of them he became a wing wizard replete with drag back, nutmeg and perfectly flighted cross. Shane Long finally showed signs that he can fill Kevin Doyle’s number nine shirt, proving a nuisance in the penalty area to win a penalty and then head the winner in his substitute cameo. Adam Federici has curiously been linked with a move to Liverpool in recent days and if there is any truth in the rumours then he certainly did his chances no harm. His occasionally suspect handling was faultless, right down to a calm catch under pressure right at the death. If there was anyone in a Reading shirt who underwhelmed, it was Grzegorz Rasiak who never seemed to recover from missing his early sitter. The Pole is a decent striker but his lack of mobility was not what the Royals needed against a Reds defence troubled by pace.
For the fans of the club, there is every reason for this victory to be enjoyed and dined out on for as long as they care to. A win at the home of the five-times European champions does not happen often, and for Reading it was the first ever time. To achieve it without still being a Premier League club ranks it as possibly the greatest victory in the history of the club. For the players, the celebrations need to have stopped as soon as the team bus got back to Berkshire. There is no point in putting in these performances in a cup they are very unlikely to win if they cannot reproduce it when it matters. The bread and butter of the Championship resumes on Saturday at Nottingham Forest and the team will need to keep their game raised to come away with three points from a team who are flying at present.