Reading 0 Cardiff City 0: Match report
Reading and Cardiff battled out to a goalless draw in a fiery encounter at the Madejski Stadium, with neither side able to take an advantage from the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final encounter, writes Nate Saunders.
Goalscoring chances were a rarity throughout the match, with Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham coming closest; unleashing a shot from 25 yards out that fizzed past the post just after the hour mark.
Both sides displayed their attacking intentions, but ultimately each lacked real quality in front of goal, and at times the tension of the occasion was apparent with some heated altercations and crunching tackles throughout the tie.
The match failed to live up to the billing of the match programme, which had hyped it as a “Battle Royal”, as neither side really managed to get going. The goalless score line mirrored the result in the other play-off match, as Nottingham Forest and Swansea had cancelled each other out the night before, highlighting just how close the race is to join Queen’s Park Rangers and Norwich City in the Premier League next season.
While managers Brian McDermott and Dave Jones admitted they were pleased with the result, both will have cause for concern. An injury to Craig Bellamy put a dampener on what was a good defensive display from Cardiff, and Jones will sweat on his skipper’s fitness in the build-up to the second-leg clash on Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, McDermott was forced to bring off Hal Robson-Kanu in the second half after suffering a hamstring injury, a further blow as Reading were already without influential winger Jimmy Kebe, who had suffered a similar injury in the final weeks of the season.
Cardiff, who for so long this season were on the brink of automatic promotion, came into the game arguably feeling the pressure slightly more than Reading, who were on the back of a phenomenal run that had seen them lose only once in fifteen league matches.
As well as stories of players drinking the night before a 3-0 loss to Middlesbrough, which put paid to their automatic promotion hopes, the accusations of ‘choking’ had been levelled at Cardiff on more than one occasion, a reference not only to their failure to go up automatically this season but the two previous; losing 3-2 against Blackpool in last year’s final after a monumental collapse the year before saw them finish just below the play-off positions.
Perhaps inspired to shrug off this label, it was Cardiff who started off the brightest with two chances in the opening exchanges. Israeli Dekel Keinan rose above the Reading defence from a corner to head over, before Bellamy was put through by Whittingham only to see his effort brushed wide of the post by Adam Federici in the Reading goal.
The home side responded almost immediately and almost profited from a goalkeeping blunder as Cardiff’s unconvincing Stephen Bywater flapped at an Ian Harte corner, but the ball sailed just wide of the far post with no Reading player in a position to capitalise.
Cardiff’s promising start could have easily come to a halt when Bellamy limped off only 17 minutes in, but £4million striker Michael Chopra was hardly an inadequate replacement, and the visitors continued to pressurise the Reading defence. The best they could manage, however, was a Darcy Blake shot that was easily collected by Federici.
Reading seemed to bring themselves back into the game towards the end of the half, testing the visiting defence with a series of though-balls which all eventually came to nothing. They nearly forced a golden opportunity on the half-hour mark, but Kevin McNaughton made a crucial tackle on Reading’s Noel Hunt as he moved in on goal. Reading had their best chance of the game a few moments later, as Hunt backheeled Jem Karacan’s cross towards goal, only for Bywater to get down and prod the ball wide of the post.
On the stroke of half-time the pressure began to show on either side, with Matthew Mills booked for a tackle on McNaughton before Cardiff’s Jay Bothroyd saw yellow for kicking the ball away, with the Reading fans venting their frustration at several decisions by referee Mark Halsey. The pressure of the occasion was perhaps heightened by the last encounter between the two clubs in January, which saw a skirmish after Bellamy’s stoppage time equaliser leading to fines for both clubs.
It was 0-0 at the break after McNaughton made another crucial last-ditch tackle on Hunt, who then inadvertently blocked a Karacan cross that would undoubtedly have otherwise found the onrushing Shane Long on the edge of the six yard box. Karacan was finding joy down the flank, working well in combination with Andy Griffin, and they were arguably the most likely to set up a scoring opportunity for the hosts.
Cardiff started the second half as they had the first, with Bothroyd glancing a header wide of the post in the opening minute. Reading skipper Mills then had a golden chance at the other end, stretching to meet a flick-on from Long but unable to do enough to put it on target. Cardiff were still threatening going forward, and just after the hour mark Whittingham had the best chance of the game, firing in a shot from 25 yards that fooled the Cardiff fans for a second as it brushed past the side-netting.
Reading had lost Robson-Kanu to injury only moments before, but they reacted well with a good spell of pressure which ultimately came to nothing; substitute Mathieu Manset unable to get his head on a cross from Long.
By this point, the tackles were flying in; Leigertwood connecting a crunching tackle on Chopra, who then flattened Karacan at the other end. Halsey resisted the chants of the home fans and decided to keep his cards in his pocket, but it is clear that bad blood still exists between the sides from their clash earlier in the season.
The incensed Reading fans rallied behind their team who were now surging forward at every opportunity they received. Long soon beat two Cardiff defenders but chose to pass across goal instead of shoot, and it was cleared to touch by a waiting defender. Keinan again beat the Reading defence from a corner but nodded the ball straight into the arms of Federici.
The game wound down in the final stages with both managers making tactical substitutions. Manset was almost put through on goal by Long, who had been influential throughout, but the Frenchman saw the ball nip through his legs as he stretched to control it.
Reading pushed on in the dying minutes and looked the most likely to score but, despite some passionate encouragement from the home fans, the visitors were able to shut up shop until Halsey called proceedings to a close after three minutes of stoppage time.
Reading manager Brian McDermott said he was delighted with the effort of his players and insisted there was plenty of life left in the tie.
“We’ve got to do it all again. I was delighted with the way we tried to play on the front foot and get the win,”
He also admitted that a draw, the result of all four games he has overseen against Cardiff as Reading boss would not be enough on Tuesday declaring “it’s another game and our motto is always to win the next game.”
Cardiff’s Dave Jones was in an equally optimistic mood, praising his players for seeing out the goalless draw – a result that gives the Bluebirds a narrow advantage going into a tie in front of home support at Ninian Park.
Reading: Adam Federici, Zurab Khizanishvili, Matthew Mills, Andy Griffin, Ian Harte, Hal Robson-Kanu (Mathieu Manset, 52), Mikele Leigertwood, Jem Karacan, Jobi McAnuff, Shane Long, Noel Hunt (Brian Howard, 84)
Cardiff City: Stephen Bywater, Dekel Keinan, Paul Quinn (Lee Naylor, 85), Kevin McNaughton, Peter Whittingham, Darcy Blake, Seyi Olofinjana, Chris Burke, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Jason Koumas, 91), Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy (Michael Chopra, 17)