An FA Cup Quarter Final might not seem something worthy of mass celebration but for Reading it is hardly an every day occurrence. After 83 years without getting past the Fifth Round, the Royals are ecstatic to have finally got within two rounds of the Final.
The Championship is still the most important item on the Reading agenda with survival still far from guaranteed, but things look a lot brighter than they did at the start of the cup run. Brian McDermott and his team can be forgiven for enjoying their biggest cup event for generations. A packed house is expected at Madejski Stadium, with tickets selling at a rate rivalled only by the Third Round glamour tie with Liverpool. In the middle of a streak of five successive home matches, it is the visit of Aston Villa that is taking centre stage and Sir John Madejski has not been shy in pushing the occasion. The long-standing chairman has described Reading’s recent upturn in form as a ‘renaissance’ and is urging fans to be present at the Villa match, hailing it as something people will be able to tell their grandchildren about. That might seem a bit over the top to a neutral, but Madejski has a point. Very few people present in the crowd on Sunday will have had grandparents tell them about the time they witnessed Reading play in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup, and history hardly suggests the club will be back at this stage any time soon.
It has been a frustrating year for the supporters, who have seen the club blow a great chance to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, then go the best part of a year without winning at home. The hugely popular Steve Coppell has departed, Brendan Rodgers has arrived to great fanfare and left in the space of just months, and McDermott has taken over a team languishing in the depths of the second tier. After the best years the club has ever enjoyed, 2009 was a massive disappointment, so who can blame the fans for lapping up the good moments that are beginning to happen again? The Royals go in to the clash with the Villans on the back of the biggest result of the season after Sheffield Wednesday were handed out a hammering for the second year in a row in Berkshire. The 5-0 thrashing saw a ticking bomb explode, with the Reading attack running riot with months of pent up frustration at having not scored more than twice at home in 2009/10. The Owls’ defence was bordering on woeful at times but the Royals showed a ruthless streak that has been missing from the list of attributes displayed in recent history.
Too many times this season, the dominant comment on Reading performances has been that they created chances but failed to take them. When Jimmy Kebe is on a scoring streak, you know things are going well, and Kebe was joined by Simon Church and Grzegorz Rasiak in putting the Wednesday backline to the sword. It is in attack that McDermott has a big call to make with regards to team selection against Villa. Having just seen his side hit five goals, it would be natural for the manager to name the same strike force of Church and Rasiak. It will also be tempting to bring Shane Long back in to the team, with the Irishman in his best form for the club before he picked up the four match ban for his red card against West Brom. How much effect the enforced absence will have had on Long’s form remains to be seen but McDermott will be glad to have the option of playing him again.
The question McDermott needs to ask himself is which combination will do the most damage to Aston Villa, rather than who performed well in a game against Championship strugglers. Wayne Rooney enjoyed success in the air against the Villa defence in the Carling Cup Final and it is Rasiak and Long who possess the best aerial ability of the trio. At the same time, Villa like to hit clubs on the break, getting bodies forward quickly to support the attack. It is a tactic Reading might opt to use themselves to counter Villa’s strengths and Church’s pace and Long’s energy would take preference over the more immobile Rasiak. Playing a lone striker has also worked for the Royals of late and would leave an extra body up against a Villa midfield packed with quality.
Whoever McDermott selects, they are sure to be pumped up for this historic cup tie for Reading and will hope that a first FA Cup Semi Final since 1927 follows on from the first Quarter Final since the same year.
Watch all Reading matches live on your computer – click here