For all of the surprises that this season’s FA Cup competition has provided, the quarter-final draw has a wearyingly familiar look to it. Unless Leyton Orient can cause one of the greatest FA Cup shocks of all time at The Emirates Stadium tonight, seven of the clubs left in the last eight of this year’s competition will be from the Premier League, including each of the current top four. Normal service, we may reasonably assume, has been restored and the divvying up of the League and Cup between an exalted trio of clubs remains well and truly on course. The tournament may yet have a sting in its tail – Arsenal found out last Sunday that cup competitions can retain their capacity to surprise and bewilder – but it seems likely that there will be some very familiar faces at Wembley in May.
And yet… Here are Reading. A mid-table Championship club, and now the only non-Premier League competition with both feet in the quarter-finals of this year’s FA Cup. They’re six points but five places from a play-off spot in the league, but last night they summoned the energy to seize the opportunity of a midweek trip to Merseyside and a win against Everton that propels them to a position in which they are now one just one match from a Wembley semi-final. It’s true that things aren’t going to get any easier for them in the next round of the competition. They don’t know who their quarter-final opponents are yet, and they won’t find out until this evening, when Manchester City play Aston Villa in their delayed Fifth Round match. A trip to either Eastlands or Villa Park awaits in the next round. Worrying about this, however, is for another day.
This wasn’t merely a smash and grab exercise on the part of the visitors, either. Reading were economical without being overly defensive. They frustrated Everton without frustrating the viewer. Consistency has been a problem for them of late – this was only their second win in their last eight matches – but this was a performance that merited the win that they came away with. David Moyes opted to start with a reasonably strong team – certainly a team that Moyes may have felt would have been strong enough to win this match – but, after a strong start, Reading snatched the only goal of the match with a low volley from Matthew Mills after twenty-six minutes. A familiar, low groan drifted into the background. Everton were back-firing again.
There may not be a more infuriating team to watch in the entire Premier League than Everton at the moment. They have held Chelsea to a draw three times this season, taken four points from six against Liverpool and have also beaten both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. They are, one suspects, good enough to be doing so much better than they are this evening. Yet there have been many occasions this season when they have just looked plain sloppy, or when the team, for all of its quality, simply hasn’t clicked into place. As long ago as September, they were knocked out of the League Cup by Brentford after failing to get out of second gear all evening and eventually losing on penalty kicks.
This evening saw more of the same. Everton as the Premier League royalty waiting for a fall. If it hadn’t been sixteen years (and, now, counting) since the club last won a major trophy, their supporters may have found it funny and, although they sit in eleventh place in the Premier League, they are just five points above the relegation places. Their dreams of ending the season with a trophy are now over. All that is left now for Everton for the rest of the season is to play out their matches, with the cold shiver of having to look over their shoulders at the clubs below them in the table. Actually getting dragged into a relegation battle remains extremely remote, but it’s still possible and certainly not entirely implausible at this point in time. Stranger things have happened.
To suggest that Reading’s win this evening was anything like entirely down to shortcomings on the part of their opponents, however, would be unfair. Mills, the goalscorer, and Zurab Khizanishvili were in “none shall pass” mode this evening, whilst goalkeeper Alex McCarthy played outstandingly, pulling off a succession of excellent saves, including one quite jaw-dropping one-handed stop from a close range Leon Osman shot with eleven minutes left to play that might rank as being amongst the saves of the season in any league. These were individual performances that didn’t need poor performances from their opponents to merit their place in the next round of the competition, and on top of that Reading were solid and well-organised enough as a team to stifle Everton’s game.
Perhaps it is a stretch too far to expect – or even hope – that Leyton Orient will be able to pull off a performance like this against Arsenal tonight. As such, Reading may well be the Football League’s only representatives in the last eight of the 2011 FA Cup. Reading, it sometimes feels, is a club that doesn’t quite get the credit that it deserves. They have been with us since 1871, just six weeks after the very first ever FA Cup matches were played and this morning sit one match away from equalling their best ever performance in the competition, a semi-final appearance that they mustered in 1927. It is, perhaps, entirely fitting that a club that has been with us since the heyday of the gentleman amateurs should be in the quarter-finals of the competition as it celebrates the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of its inception.
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