Sheffield Wednesday booked their place in the fifth round of the Emirates FA Cup after a convincing 3-1 win over Reading on a night of spectacular and strange goals.
Two strikes from Atdhe Nuhiu and one from George Boyd was enough for a Wednesday side to get their first win over The Royals in seven games, with a late freak own goal from Cameron Dawson not enough to mount any possibility of a last gasp comeback.
Unsurprisingly, both sides were much changed from those who competed against Cardiff City and Brentford last week respectively, with Jos Luhukay bringing in seven new faces, while Jaap Stam brought in eight.
Reading, who last year had reached the Play-Off Final, have struggled this season and suffered somewhat of a goal drought this month, only finding the net against League Two Stevenage.
In a much quieter Hillsborough, with the attendance around half of what it usually is for league games, it was The Royals though who looked to gain the quick advantage. Leandro Bacuna played in David Edwards, only to find Owls goalkeeper Dawson leaping out of his goal to deny the Reading play-maker.
The away team looked like a team early on ready to prove a point, and were quick to capitalise on Wednesday’s indecision at the back. In an astonishingly bright fluorescent orange kit, Reading looked like creating avenues at every opportunity within the first ten minutes, so it was not a surprise when Pelle Edwards dispossessed Joey Pelupessy just outside The Owl’s 25-yard box, with the debutante forced to foul his man and receive a yellow-card.
Confidence is a significant barometer of how a team can control a game, and having just won two of their last 14 competitive matches, Wednesday’s ability to impose themselves in the middle of the park reflected a team struggling to find consistency week in week out.
Marco Matias, frustrated, frequently signalled to his team-mates to press a Reading back-line that had pushed so far up the pitch that the away fans in the Leppings Lane end probably needed binoculars to spot them.
Wednesday’s biggest problem though was their inability to cut off The Royal’s supply line on the right hand side, with Bacuna and Edwards linking up and constantly running circles around the despairing Morgan Fox, subsequently finding the space behind the left wing-back to launch dangerous whipped crosses into the box.
By half an hour it was evident to see that Stam’s tactic to pack the midfield to combat Luhukay’s favoured 3-5-2 formation was working, with Wednesday reduced to attempts from 35 yards out. As an ambitious Pelupessy strike flew over Anssi Jaakkola’s crossbar, the majority inside Hillsborough had let their team know what their feelings were.
Football tends to be a funny old game though. With Reading’s back-line so high the danger was always there that a picture perfect pass over the top would deceive everyone and that is exactly what happened.
Against the run of play Federico Venancio’s looping ball from the half-way line found Nuhiu on the right, and it was a matter of time until the ball would hit the back of the net, such was the calmness of the finish. Nuhiu’s third goal of the season was certainly a welcome one.
Suddenly the tempo of the game had changed. In a flash The Owls fancied their chances of doubling the lead, but after a neat move down the left flank, Fox’s fierce attempt was pushed out by Jaakkola, with the onrushing George Boyd not able to find the net on the rebound.
By now Reading’s ability to control the pace of the match had deserted them, and as the front three became more isolated, the presence of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson became paramount. But even then, the player who had scored all three of his team’s FA Cup goals this season, fluffed his lines with a scuffed left-footed attempt from the edge of the box. The sarcastic cheers from those behind the goal summed up the quality of the shot.
Yet minutes later there was a deafening silence from the crowd when Daniel Pudil and Bodvarsson collided, after the Icelandic had accidentally slipped. With both in a lot of pain, the injuries looked severe but in the end the pair continued on.
There was no doubt that Stam would’ve been hurting walking into the dressing room at half-time, wondering how his side had found themselves 1-0 down. He needed a snapshot reaction from his players, and just two minutes into the second half nearly got one when Yann Kermorgant latched onto a Garath McCleary cross, but the shot was straight at Dawson.
And just minutes later it was Dawson who found himself at the centre of attention again, this time receiving a standing ovation from the crowd after his pterodactyl like stance denied Bodvarrson from what looked like a certain goal.
There are moments in matches in which you look back on and think, that was the decisive piece of action which decided the result. Dawson’s miraculous save was just that. Minutes later Wednesday pounced, and after pinching possession from The Royals by their own corner flag, Nuhiu’s awareness proved the difference as he budged ahead of his marker to fire home the cross.
Even Luhukay, a man who personifies serenity on the touchline, could not help but punch the air in delight. It was not long until he repeated that exact action.
With the home crowd sensing blood, it was Boyd who provided the hammer blow to Reading’s hopes, latching onto an Adam Reach through ball to calmly place the ball past the wrong-footed Jaakkola.
The Owls had lost nine of their last 11 FA Cup games against teams from the same division as them, but it was clear that Reading were not going to add themselves to that list. In fact, just after the hour mark it looked more likely that the home side would add to their commanding lead, but Matias could not control his lob after bursting down the right.
With Luhukay and Stam introducing substitutes for different reasons, the game opened up with both sides missing a catalogue of opportunities. First, Bacuna struck the post from 35-yards out, just before Kermogant’s acrobatic volley from ten yards out had looped over the bar. Then, The Owls broke down the pitch, but Matias could not finish off the counter-attack.
Reading, in the end, did make the score-line respectable after the ball ricocheted off Venancio’s stretched leg onto the post; with Smith poking it in to make sure it crossed the line. But it was too little too late. The writing had been on the wall.
POST MATCH STATS
Sheffield Wednesday: Cameron Dawson, Jack Hunt, Morgan Fox, Glenn Loovens, Atdhe Nuhiu, Marco Matias, Adam Reach, George Boyd, Joey Pelupessy, Daniel Pudil, Frederico Venancio.
Reading: Anssi Jaakkola, Chris Gunter, Liam Moore, Roy Beerens, David Edwards, Garath McCleary, Yann Kermorgant, Leandro Bacuna, Tiago Ilori, Pelle Clement, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.
Daniel Pudil OFF
Liam Palmer ON (63)
Adam Reach OFF
David Jones ON (71)
Marco Matias OFF
Jordan Rhodes ON (89)
Garath McCleary OFF
Modou Barrow ON (66)
Leandro Bacuna OFF
George Evans ON (79)
Yann Kermorgant OFF
Sam Smith ON (79)
Sheffield Wednesday (2): Joey Pelupessy and Marco Matias
Reading (1): Tiago Ilori
MOTM: Marco Matias
Yos Luhukay: “We enjoyed the game and it was a very intense game. We needed stability. When we had the ball we lost it easily but we were very effective with our chances, and in the right moments we scored the goals.
“Over 90 minutes it was very hard but our team fought from the first minute to the last minute and over the game and they had the fans behind them.
“I wasn’t so easy in the first half and at half time we had to change the system. First half we had three strikers but we didn’t have any opportunities.
“It’s very important we have two very young goalkeepers [Cameron Dawson and Joe Wildsmith]. I see it every day and they work unbelievably hard to be better goalkeepers. They are both very important players for us and we’re both very happy with them.
“Tomorrow we must recover well and then look to Middlesbrough. I have a lot of trust in these players and these players can play Tuesday when they are 100% but the others of course can play in the first eleven.
“The atmosphere in the team is very positive and we have good stability and good defending. Today it was important that we scored three times, and hopefully looking forward we have that confidence and trust.”
Jaap Stam: “We had a couple of opportunities to score ourselves and we made it very difficult for ourselves. It’s disappointing and from the opportunities from the start we needed to score ourselves. Basically before the second goal we should’ve scored but instead lost the ball from the recovery and they crossed it and went in. Of course after that it was difficult.
“I was very surprised that it was 3-0 at that time but our decision making was the reason why we gave away the game.”
“Everyone knows how it goes in football and when results go badly the manager, you know, what’s the saying, you’re off. But we need to stay focused and stick together and keep believing in ourselves. If you have that then the squad has a better feeling.
“It’s always about confidence and of course when you see certain heads going down after conceding the second goal then it’s disappointing but sometimes in a team sport that can happen.”