Reading 1 Arsenal 2 (After extra-time)
Adam Federici’s extra-time error saw Reading’s FA Cup hopes slip away after an absorbing semi-final contest with holders Arsenal at Wembley.
Royals performed admirably throughout and more than matched the in-form Gunners with an Alexis Sanchez strike squeezing through the grasp of Federici, who was inconsolable at the final whistle, the only difference between the two sides.
After an enthralling first half, Arsenal found the breakthrough in fine fashion when Mesut Ozil picked out Sanchez to perfection. The diminuitive forward wriggled away from Garath McCleary before cooly tucking the ball past Federici.
But Reading, backed by vociferous support, levelled up shortly after the restart. Pavel Pogrebnyak got to the byline before brilliantly picking out McCleary to steer home a volley via a deflection off Kieran Gibbs.
Pogrebnyak and Aaron Ramsey both missed big chances for a winner before extra time was called and it was there the even contest was decided when Sanchez’s effort could not be stopped by Federici.
It was a truly memorable cup run and while Reading could not make history with a first FA Cup final appearance, they certainly went down fighting with a display sure to make the thousands of travelling Royals extremely proud.
Steve Clarke opted for an attacking starting line-up with Jamie Mackie, Hal Robson-Kanu and McCleary all selected as Danny Williams and Nathaniel Chalobah were tasked with patrolling the central midfield area.
As for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger handed Mathieu Debuchy his first appearance since dislocating a shoulder in January while Olivier Giroud was a surprise absentee being named on the bench alongside the returning Jack Wilshere.
After some lively opening skirmishes, Arsenal came closest to breaking the deadlock when Per Mertesacker saw a near post header stopped by Federici.
But back came the Royals.
In a real end-to-end start, McCleary did well to dart past Kieran Gibbs before digging out a cross. It was met by Jordan Obita just outside the area and the left-back’s first-time drive was well held by Szczesny.
You could not see from watching the game which was the in-form side in the country on the back of eight straight victories as Reading constantly harried and pressed their more illustrious counterparts.
Arsenal continued to struggle to get a foothold as the game ebbed and flowed. Cazorla fired over, Chalobah had an effort deflected and Ozil’s free kick flashed wide.
So it came as huge relief to Gunners fans when the deadlock was finally broken with a couple of moments of real beauty.
For the vast majority of the first half the Gunners had struggled to break through a resolute Reading defence, but with little over five minutes until the break, Ozil picked up the ball and clipped a delightful lofted pass into Sanchez.
The Chilean killed the ball with his first touch before cutting inside McCleary and slotting past Federici, despite the keeper getting a touch.
But that failed to dampen Reading spirits. Right from kick-off in the second half Clarke’s men set about trying to attack the Gunners and they found the breakthrough to give the vocal Royals fans behind the goal something to cheer.
Pogrebnyak did brilliantly to fight his way to the byline and dig out an impressive cross to the back post which was met on the volley by McCleary. The Jamaican winger guided his effort goalwards and, thanks to a deflection off Gibbs, did enough to beat Szczesny who tried all he could to claw the ball off the line.
Suddenly the Gunners looked really vulnerable and Reading must have started to believe they could find a way to take the lead. Mackie was the creator of the clearest opening as he clipped the ball to Williams on the edge of the box but he dragged his effort wide.
But Arsenal were not to be silenced for long. Gabriel, who only minutes earlier replaced the injured Mertesacker, broke free from a corner and planted a firm header towards the top corner only to be denied a first Gunners goal by Federici.
And the wait continued for the Brazilian despite a glorious chance five minutes later. After Robson-Kanu pulled back Ramsey, Ozil floated a free-kick into the danger area but Gabriel powered a header over from close range.
Both sides sensed they could find a winner in normal time. In true cup-tie fashion there were chances at both ends within seconds of each other.
First Pogrebnyak fired wide before Ozil blazed over. Then the efforts started to threaten the goal. Chalobah almost caught out Szczesny from range but the Pole parried away.
Then came another gilt-edge Gunners moment. Substitute Giroud played the ball into Ramsey, who wriggled away from the defenders before seeing his shot saved by Federici.
But the Welshman reacted quickest, finding an angle around the keeper before smashing his shot into the post.
Reading may have been forgiven for starting to think this may be their day when Mackie and Pogrebnyak led a two-on-one attack but the Russian panicked under pressure from Koscielny and lost possession.
So, to extra time it was with the game impossible to call.
The additional 30 minutes were comfortably drifting by with neither keeper being tested until one minute before the change of ends.
Ramsey, who seemed in determined mood to find another Wembley goal, let fly from outside the box and his low effort so nearly found its way in over Federici but the keeper somehow managed to turn his save over the bar.
But the Australian could not buy another slice of luck just moments later.
Sanchez, shackled so well on many occasions throughout the contest, dipped his shoulder and sent a tame shot towards the near post. But the ball inexplicably squirmed through the hands of Federici and over the line.
It was such cruel luck for a goalkeeper who has received so many plaudits for his displays for Royals this season.
In truth, Reading never really looked like finding an equaliser.
They had given absolutely everything and as the final seconds ticked away, Reading’s fans stood as one: “I’m Reading till I die”.
They could not have done any more.
Reading: Federici; Gunter, Pearce, Hector, Obita; McCleary, Chalobah (Cox 105), Williams, Robson-Kanu (Karacan 90); Mackie, Pogrebnyak (Yakubu 111)
Subs not used: Andersen, Kelly, Cooper, Norwood
Yellow card: Chalobah (45)
Goal: McCleary (54)
Arsenal: Szczesny; Debuchy, Mertesacker (Gabriel 63), Koscielny, Gibbs; Coquelin (Walcott 101), Cazorla; Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez; Welbeck (Giroud 72)
Subs not used: Ospina, Monreal, Flamini, Wilshere
Yellow card: Gabriel (108)
Goals: Sanchez x2 (39, 105)