The Thursday Preview: Reading Vs Aston Villa
There’s some good games coming up this weekend in the league. The fallout from Neil Warnock’s West London journey has captured the imagination and the matches at Selhurst Park and Loftus Road involving Sheffield United and West Brom respectively deserve attention. Swansea’s trip to Nottinghamshire is another that stands out, too. Forest are unbeaten at the City Ground since September, and they will hope to maintain a three horse race at the table’s head by taking points from the next pretender to the top two.
Even so, Reading’s Cup Quarter-final against Aston Villa on Sunday afternoon surely knocks each of these into a cocked hat, marking as it does the first time the Royals have reached the last eight since 1927.
Reading’s progress has been particularly well received by the fanbase given the club’s propensity to rest key players outside league campaigns in recent seasons. Aspiring to the comfortable side of the Premiership’s middle, manager Steve Coppell militantly set about stripping down his Cup lineups, indoctrinating his charges to the extent that cult striker Dave Kitson memorably ended up taking a pop at the FA’s flagship tournament: “We’re not going to win the FA Cup and I don’t care about it, to be honest […] Our Premier League status isn’t protected by winning the FA Cup and it’s as simple as that.”
Times have changed in Berkshire, and the club have this year used the competition to help kick start a disappointing season which has seen them flirt with the bottom three for months. I’m no fan of misusing the word, but the Royals literally crumbled to pieces (or should that be ‘metaphorically crumbled’?) when I saw a completely average Plymouth side feast on their tremble-stricken souls in December, but that performance seems to have been brushed under the carpet by a Cup-inspired run of form that has elevated the Biscuitmen to a position of relative comfort in the league.
Reading’s previous game was a 5-0 drubbing of Sheffield Wednesday, with enigmatic winger Jimmy Kébé starring with two goals, so the Royals go into the tie on a high. Gylfi Sigurðsson, their best player and scorer of the winning goals against West Brom and Burnley in the last two rounds, should shake off an ankle injury he picked up against the Owls to further boost the side, and he will be joined in the midfield by that big-game player Brian Howard. Matt Mills, Reading’s dominant and pacy centre-back, is likely to return after recovering from concussion.
Besides beating Burnley and West Brom, Reading did of course win at Anfield in a third-round replay back in January. Carragher, Gerrard and Torres each started those ties, so a match against the Villans should hold no fear for the Royals. Coming off the back of a disappointing Wembley outing, Villa will be eager to set up a quickfire return and there’s no question that O’Neill will start with his best XI. For reasons unbeknown to me, though, this second City side have historically struggled at this stage of the season during O’Neill’s tenure, and a trip to the resurrected fortress that is the Madejski Stadium is no soft tie. I still think they’ll win, but only by a very tight margin.