Sport Soccer

Thursday 22 February 2018

McDermott makes his mark but Reds survive

Church 24
Gerrard 36

Steve Tongue

APPROACHING his opposite number for a handshake after Saturday’s game, Reading’s caretaker manager Brian McDermott realised he was unsure of the appropriate form of address. "I called him Mr Benitez," he said. "What did he call me? I don’t think he knew my name."

Football fans all over the country would have been equally unfamiliar with the bald, bespectacled chief scout in charge of a league team for only the fourth time. Asked if he will still be there for the replay on Wednesday week, he admitted: “I wouldn’t have a clue.” But the face is likely to grow more familiar, with Reading in no hurry to secure a permanent replacement for Brendan Rodgers, who was sacked after four months of the season.

Last year was a dreadful year for Reading,fullnotsomuchofwhat-mighthave-beens as what ought to have been.

Winning at home to Birmingham City on the final day of last season would have ensured automatic promotion straight back to the Premier League but the game was lost, as was the play-off semi final with Burnley. Steve Coppell felt obliged to resign, players like Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt were sold, and the Madjeski Stadium, once something of a fortress, continued to become a gift shop. Astonishingly, Reading have won just one home League game since last January.

On Saturday, however, McDermott’s team showed less respect to illustrious opponents than he did to Benitez and it is a reasonable assumption that the 31 text messages on his phone after the final whistle were highly complimentary.

Feeble in a 4-1 defeat at Plymouth last Monday that cemented their parlous position in the Championship – two points off relegation – Reading reduced Liverpool to a curious performance, good in parts but even then not good enough to see off modest opposition.

In the end it was just as well that Benitez, aware of the need to win a trophy this season, did not emulate other Premier League managers in sending out so many reserves. Were he the kind of manager to believe in omens rather than such mantras as “working hard” and “small details”, he might even have recalled that the one campaign in which he won the Cup involved a televised Saturday evening third-round tie at Luton where Liverpool were 3-1 down. Jamie Carragher recalled that game on Saturday night, admitting: “All the praise and credit goes to Reading and it was similar to the game we had at Luton. Towards the end we were making sure we didn’t lose it because they had a few setpieces.”

Conceding another goal to one of them, Simon Church bundling the ball in following a deep free-kick, again raised the question of Benitez’s preference for zonal marking. He is unlikely to undergo a conversion, however, whatever happens on the road to Wembley or anywhere else: “Every week I can see a lot of highlights and you see man-to-man marking conceding goals.

The last four or five games we didn’t concede so we are much better now. We have to keep working at set-pieces, but I felt that we are not worse than other teams. Everybody knows that it is the best way for us to defend.”

The best way to attack, meanwhile, is to give the ball to Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres, whose importance to the team bears continued restatement. Torres missed with two headers, but Liverpool’s captain, abetted by Dirk Kuyt’s clever movement, was credited with another crucial goal.

Reading (4-4-2): Federici (Hamer 69); Gunnarsson, Mills, Ingimarsson, Bertrand; McAnuff, Cisse (Howard 74), Karacan, Sigurdsson; Rasiak (Long 77), Church. Substitutes not used: Tabb, Kebe, Robson-Kanu, Pearce.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Darby, Skrtel, Carragher, Insua; Kuyt, Lucas, Gerrard, Aurelio (Benayoun 79); N’Gog (Aquilani 68), Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Basbale, Spearing, Degen.

Referee: M Atkinson.

Booked: Reading: Mills Liverpool: Insua.

Man of the match: McAnuff.

Attendance: 23,656.

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