Reading 2 – 4 Aston Villa
By Stuart Roach
BBC Sport at the Madejski Stadium
Aston Villa produced a remarkable second-half comeback as John Carew’s hat-trick eased the pain of their Carling Cup defeat to Manchester United by sealing a swift return to Wembley and an FA Cup semi-final clash against Chelsea.
Championship strugglers Reading had looked on course for another FA Cup shock as two Shane Long goals carved out a 2-0 half-time lead for the home side, who outplayed their more illustrious rivals in a superb first-half display.
But Villa responded with three goals in 10 minutes early in the second half, Ashley Young starting the fightback before Carew took over in devastating fashion.
The win ended Martin O’Neill’s bizarre statistic of never having won a game in March with Villa since he took over from David O’Leary in 2006.
O’Neill was clearly intent on breaking his mad March duck as he fielded his strongest possible side against the only non-Premier League side still in the competition.
Gabriel Agbonlahor was the only notable absentee as he recovers from a stomach virus and O’Neill must have started to have a similar uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as his side made an uncertain start.
Brian McDermott’s side played with the confidence earned from a cup run that has already been decorated by the Premier League scalps of Liverpool and Burnley, as well as Championship high-fliers West Bromwich Albion.
Jimmy Kebe, in particular, looked lively for the Royals and, against a side boasting one of the finest collections of wing talent in English football, the Mali wide man looked determined to steal the show.
Kebe had the ball in the net early on when he lashed home after Matt Mills’ bundled effort had finally fallen at his feet, but Dein’s whistle had already sounded for a push by Simon Church.
Stilian Pretrov lashed long range shot just too high and wide and Kebe turned defender as he headed behind to prevent the waiting Stewart Downing benefitting from a deep Milner centre.
But that was Villa’s best spell in a first half dominated by Reading, who deservedly went ahead on 27 minutes. From a Brian Howard corner, Mills rose highest to flick on for Long to escape into space and nod home from close range.
Carew looked to have swiftly replied when he swept home Milner’s chipped free-kick but the goal was ruled out for offside – although replays suggested he was not.
The momentum was clearly with Reading, and it took a vital block from Dunne to prevent Villa falling further behind when Sigurdsson started and finished a flowing Reading move involving Church and Long.
But the home side did extend their advantage minutes later as Sigurdsson carved open the Villa defence with a perfectly weighted pass and Kebe sprinted clear before cutting the ball back for Long to slide home.
Shane Long celebrates after scoring Reading’s second goal
O’Neill clearly needed to get to work at half-time and although he resisted any personnel changes, he sent Villa out early for the second half with a clear challenge to improve or forget about a Wembley return.
Reading knew the opening exchanges of the second half were crucial, but no-one could have predicted the devastating turnaround that was about to unfold.
Young completely changed the momentum with a goal only 82 seconds after the restart. Ryan Bertrand’s sliced clearance allowed Downing to cut the ball back towards Carlos Cuellar, and though he failed to make contact Young reacted quickest to ram home at the far post.
Seven minutes into the second half Villa produced the kind of football most had been expecting from them, Downing’s right-wing cross finding Carew for an easy headed finish past Federici.
And the clinical turnaround was complete five minutes later, Young feeding the overlapping Warnock who pulled the ball back for Carew to escape Ivar Ingimarsson and apply a measured finish.
Villa’s response meant there was a feeling of how many more they would score against a deflated Reading, but the home side responded bravely to the devastating spell.
Ingimarsson had a header nodded off the line by the alert Young and substitute Grzegorz Rasiak saw his header fumbled by Friedel before being hacked clear.
Heskey wasted the chance to put the tie beyond doubt when he was denied by Federici in a one-on-one, but Villa’s comeback was sealed in stoppage time as Carew completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot afteer he had been fouled by Ingimarsson.
Reading boss Brian McDermott:
“If you are going to lose a game, that is how you lose it.
“We played really well in the first half and knew if we could keep it tight for 15 minutes in the second half we’d have a chance but that didn’t happen.
“But I am proud of every single one of our players and it is just a shame we couldn’t get through for our fans.”
Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill:
“It was a great spell by us just after half-time. The team showed such great character.
“We needed to do something because we had played so meekly in the first half.
“I didn’t need to say much at half-time because we have some fine players and they knew how second best we were in the first half.”