Madjeski test underlines Liverpool’s difficult task ahead

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Match Report
Reading 1-1 Liverpool
FA Cup 3rd Round
Saturday, 2nd January 2010

Liverpool had to settle for a replay to decide their 3rd FA Cup tie with Reading after a 1-1 draw at the Madjeski Stadium on Saturday evening. Rafa Benitez has often been cited as perhaps undervaluing the competition in past seasons, with bigger prizes in his sights. But on this occasion the manager clearly saw the FA Cup as an opportunity to gain some much needed silverware, and elected to field a very strong starting line-up.

Despite handing starts to Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres et al, the Reds had a fine Gerrard equaliser to thank for salvaging a draw. After Simon Church had handed Reading a surprise lead midway through the first half. Liverpool were only able to muster sporadic spells of control and were often forced onto the back foot by a commendable performance from the Royals.

Benitez opted to change from his trusted formation. Instead pairing Fernando Torres and David N’Gog upfront from the start for just the second time. With Alberto Aquilani returning to the bench, Gerrard was pushed back into midfield. Gerrard partnered the influential Lucas. The Brazilians recent upturn in form continued, as he consistently made himself available for the ball and providing a flow to Liverpool’s attacking play, particularly during the first half.

However, the Reds were rarely able to exert their superior quality on the game for any sustained period. A combination of Reading’s hard work and persistence and a lack of composure from many Liverpool players contrived to undermine the Reds game plan and often allowed the home side to take the initiative.

Reading may be struggling just a couple of places above the Championship relegation zone during their second season since relegation from the Premier League, but they were up for this one. Liverpool had begun the game relatively brightly, producing some encouraging moves, if any sort of quality final ball was absent. However Reading – roared on by the home support – grew in confidence as the half progress and were allowed to assert their influence on the match.

Jobi McAnuff constantly caused concern for Fabio Aurelio and Emiliano Insua down the Liverpool left. Whilst Ryan Bertrand’s excellent delivery from set pieces was the main route of problems for some static Liverpool defending. And it was this very outlet which provided the opening goal for the hosts.

The Reds seemed to have been troubled by deep crosses to the far post during the recent match at Aston Villa, and Reading perhaps intentionally sought to exploit this. Bertrand’s free-kick on 24 minutes appeared to have been over hit, but Grzegorz Rasiak did very well to keep the ball in and head it across goal with Stephen Darby attempting to guide the ball out. And young Welsh striker Church was on hand to prod past Reina, as the Reds were punished for failing to deal with the ball.

Reading did have the ball in the back of the net prior to taking a surprise lead. Although Jem Karacan’s header was rightly ruled out with two players offside, as well as a possible foul on the goalkeeper. But Liverpool’s early play had often been disjointed as they once again failed to grasp the initiative and take the game to their Championship opponents.

Fortunately the Reds were not behind for long. Torres headed his first genuine chance narrowly wide from an excellent cross, before Gerrard fired the equaliser. The captain sent in a curling effort at Adam Federici’s goal, which Dirk Kuyt cleverly stepped over having beat the offside trap, and the ball nestled in the corner of the net.

The equaliser seemed to finally invigorate Liverpool’s play as the Reds had their best period of the half in its closing stages. The ever dangerous Torres forced Federici into a save. Before Aurelio shot across the Reading goal and wide when he probably should have done better in acres of space in the left of the box. As the home sides defence beginning to look vulnerable.

But Liverpool failed to translate their superiority in the closing stages of the first half into the second period. At 1-1 the game was there for the taking, however the Reds too often lacked regular composure and confidence on the ball. When they did have spells of control and possession Liverpool looked a genuine threat to the Reading defence. But too often this was not the case and The Royals were able to impose themselves as an attacking force.

Aquilani was introduced into the midfield midway through the second half as Benitez sought greater composure in possession and creativity in midfield. Although ultimately Liverpool seemed reluctant to push for a winner, at risk of suffering a humiliating Reading winning goal. Possibly a fear of elimination which perhaps serves to highlight the importance of this competition to Benitez’s side this season.

Torres was as ever Liverpool’s main threat and the Spaniard shot narrowly over Federici’s goal. And later N’Gog perhaps should have found Torres in space in the area, having done well to break away down the right flank. However a hardworking Reading side remained a threat and Gylfi Sigurdsson forced Reina in to a save from distance.

Fernando Torres had a superb chance to grab a second injury time winner in a week and break Reading hearts. Substitute Yossi Benayoun’s cross from the left was slightly too high for the Spaniard, although Torres was still almost able to guide the ball under the crossbar with a flailing Federici beaten.

That would have been harsh on the home side who had probably been worth their draw. With Liverpool failing to produce the sort of commanding performance which their superior quality should demand. Liverpool will surely expect to progress to the 4th round following the reply at Anfield. But this test at the Madejski Stadium has once again underlined that there is plenty of work to be done if they are to have a successful second half to the season.

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