While its probably fair to say that last Sunday’s Carling Cup Final wont go down as one of our better and more memorable occasions since we made the choice to follow the claret and blue cause through thick or thin, I didn’t think that there would be too many amongst us who’d baulk at the opportunity to travel down to Wembley Stadium on a couple more occasions over the course of the next three months, before the eyes and ears of the world turns its attention to the goings on in South Africa, and World Cup 2010. Am I not right? Yes, I thought as much.
On the face of things, a sixth round F.A. Cup quarter final against Championship opposition, lowly placed Championship opposition at that, should hardly have provided the most taxing of sixth round opponents, albeit at their own stadium, however the feeling was very definitely in the air that our opponents certainly fancied their chances against us, and after them seeing off the likes of Liverpool, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion in previous rounds, perhaps they were very much entitled to fancy their prospects of progressing through to the semi-finals, and earning an April date at Wembley Stadium for themselves.
So while we quite rightly entered the game at The Madejski Stadium as favourites, we would have been both arrogant and foolish to dismiss out of hand, the chances of our hosts, Reading Football Club, continuing their impressive march in the competition.
Hopefully our lads wouldn’t have been experiencing a hangover following last weekends disappointment, but with plenty still to play for this season, surely that would not be the case?
Rumours that we had heard as we journeyed down to Berkshire suggested that Gabby would be missing from our starting line-up, and that was confirmed when we arrived at the stadium. It meant that a strike pairing of Heskey and Carew would carry our goal scoring hopes, while Martin O’Neill decided against making any other changes from last Sunday’s line-up, suggesting that MON believed that the desire to return to Wembley would give that extra little additional lift to the team.
Friedel, Cuellar, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Downing, Milner, Petrov, Ashley Young, Carew, Heskey. Subs: Guzan, Luke Young, Sidwell, Albrighton, Delfouneso, Delph and Beye.
Talk in the pub pre-game suggested that most traveling Villans would have preferred to see Luke Young in at right back, with maybe a starting role also for youngsters Delph and Delfouneso, if only to freshen things up a bit.
Certainly with the home supporters in very good voice, and a typically healthy traveling support from Brum also making themselves heard, we looked set for another typical old-fashioned cup tie atmosphere, something akin to the previous round at Selhurst Park.
Reading started the game on the offensive, and were by far the better and more threatening side. We looked very much out of sorts, tired and jaded, lacking inspiration and creativity, and showing no threat up front whatsoever. We were very much on the back foot, and a neutral observer would have marked us down as the Championship side, as Reading probed and prodded at every opportunity.
Even more worrying perhaps was how hesitant and unsure we looked at the back, and it was no surprise to anyone when the home team deservedly went ahead, Shane Long finding himself completely unmarked to head home, when the ball was diverted to him in acres of space following a Brian Howard corner. It wasn’t the first time that Reading had had the ball in the back of our net, an earlier effort being ruled out presumably for a push on Stephen Warnock. Actually 2-0 at that stage would have been a fairer reflection of play.
John Carew immediately put the ball past Federici in the home goal, the effort though disallowed for offside, and with no protests from the Villa players, we had to believe that the referee had got it spot on.
Old Archie, sitting just in front of us, had only just finished saying ‘Well, if we go in at half-time only 1-0 behind, we can consider ourselves fortunate’, when Shane Long scored his second of the afternoon, to give the home team the two goal lead their dominance fully deserved. Once again acres of open space in our defence allowed Reading to break down the right, and the impressive Kebe’s cut back found Long, who gave Brad Friedel no chance. Woeful defending once again, and our hopes of a return to Wembley looked in tatters.
We could have no complaints though as the whistle sounded for half-time. We hadn’t turned up, had been completely outplayed, and were somewhat fortunate to find ourselves only the two goals behind.
One can only imagine what was said in the dressing room at the break, because we came out a good five minutes early in readiness for the second forty-five, and the way we begun the second period was in marked contrast to anything we had witnessed before. We looked a completely different team, one now ready and fully committed to the task that lay ahead.
Within two minutes of the re-start Ashley Young netted to put us back into the game. Stewart Downing did well on the left., with John Carew helping on his cross to Carlos Cuellar. Our Spanish central defender come right full back performed one of his typical miscues, but fortunately for us on this occasion it didn’t cause panic at the back, but instead found an unmarked Ashley Young at the far post, and Ashley had the simple task of forcing the ball home.
Celebrations had barely died down when John Carew met an inviting Stewart Downing right wing cross to send the ball past the home keeper. 2-2 and now it was well and truly game on. You suspected at this stage that only one team would now go on and win the game, and that feeling was strengthened when five minutes later John Carew scored his second goal of the afternoon, turning in cleverly Stephen Warnock’s low ball from the left to put us 3-2 ahead.
Anyone though who thought that we’d now experience an easy thirty minutes or so run-in to the semi-final was in for a rather rude awakening, as the spirited Reading team clawed their way back into the game, causing us several shaky moments at the back, as they pushed for the equaliser.
Emile Heskey had a glorious chance to clinch the tie by putting us 4-2 ahead, but after breaking clear of the home defence he saw his effort parried by Federici, cue more frantic efforts by the Championship outfit to earn themselves a Brummagem B6 replay.
Into added on time we went, and the opportunity presented itself for John Carew to notch himself a hat-trick. He turned well in the box leaving Ingimarsson for dead, was taken down by the Reading defender, hauled himself to his feet, before slamming an unstoppable effort past the keep from the resultant penalty. 4-2 to the Good Guys, and we were home and dry.
Celebrations and relief at the final whistle, accompanied by the feeling that we’d somehow managed to dig ourselves out of a huge hole after that alarming and worrying first forty-five minutes. Whatever words were uttered by MON at the break certainly achieved the desired reaction, it was a completely different looking Villa team in evidence throughout the second half.
Hopefully though, that first half showing has well and truly removed any hangover blah’s from our system, and with the club now destined to return to Wembley Stadium for the F.A. Cup Semi-Final, lets also hope that our campaign is now well and truly back on track.
The team were rightly hammered by the traveling Villans for that completely inept first half shambles, in fact they left the field at the break with the boo’s and jeers ringing in their ears, a repeat of that evening at Wycombe Wanderers when we trailed 3-1 at the interval, before turning the game on its head second half, but in balance you have to acknowledge and admire the very fact that this team, not for the first time, have proved themselves to be more than capable of digging deep, and getting their act together when all looked lost.
A credit to Martin O’Neill and his backroom team, as well of course to the dressing room spirit and togetherness that quite obviously exists amongst the squad.
We exited the stadium into the glorious Berkshire sunshine, everyone now focused on the semi-final draw, due to take place later in the day. Four thousand happy Villans, heading back home to Brum, and wherever else they choose to lay their hats.
Right, here we go with Glensiders expert and well informed ‘Man of the Match’ ratings
Brad Friedel 5
Carlos Cuellar 5
Richard Dunne 6
James Collins 5
Stephen Warnock 6
Stewart Downing 6
James Milner 7
Ashley Young 8
Stan Petrov 5
Emile Heskey 6
John Carew 8
……and so to the scenic Potteries we now travel. Have yourselves a great week.