At the home of the Royals, football's new aristocracy came to rattle their jewelry. They missed chances with a bacchanalian swagger, dispensing with opportunities like a drunken lord, but never faced any serious prospect of suffering a hangover. Yes, it was just one goal but, with Chelsea, one goal now appears enough. This was the 11th time this season they have prevailed by such a slender margin. And that's a sobering thought for their rivals everywhere.
Reading are no paupers although even the chairman John Madejski's millions are dwarfed by the Abramovich billions but in front of their biggest-ever crowd the First Division side could offer little, although a late header by Ivar Ingimarsson was cleared off the line. By contrast, Hernan Crespo missed five clear chances in the first-half alone. His nemesis was Reading's American goalkeeper, Marcus Hahnemann, although the striker was more at fault than foiled.
But his presence was a signal of intent by Claudio Ranieri who, despite making six changes from the weekend, fielded much nearer a first-choice team than Manchester United or Arsenal have in this competition. On a potentially testing night there was no rest for his spine of John Terry or Frank Lampard, but Ranieri did leave £45m of talent on the bench and did not even ask Damien Duff to travel. Such is his armoury. "Always I put out a strong team," Ranieri said, mindful of expectations. A trophy is, after all, a trophy.
Also, in the first period, the recalled Marcel Desailly flashed a header over from Jesper Gronkjaer's deep cross. It prompted the chant: "How much did you pay for that?" Well, since you ask, it was £7.8m for the provider, £4.6m for the recipient (although both are pre-Abramovich). Either fee would easily swallow the entire home squad who, admirably, did not freeze.
In Nicky Forster they presented an intelligent attacking edge, while a header from the luxuriantly named Bas Savage, alarmingly beating Glen Johnson, who endured an error-ridden evening, had the debutant Neil Sullivan scrambling.
"I'm pleased we were not passive partners," said Reading's manager, Steve Coppell, adding that the half-time introduction of Claude Makelele was a "sign of respect". Before that Crespo side-footed weakly and then headed at Hahnemann. "He will be allowed to shoot into an empty net tomorrow," said Ranieri with wicked humour.
The Argentinian's strike partner, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, watched it all with increasing exasperation (his usual pose) and was booked for tossing the ball away. Just as he had worked himself into a huff, Crespo, breaking through, thought twice about embarrassing himself again and checked. He waited for Hasselbaink's run and found him. Twelve yards out, he thrashed the ball into the net.
Given that Chelsea came into the match with six successive clean sheets it appeared all over. Still Reading, as they pushed forward, drew comfort from the fact that the last scorers against them were Notts County in the previous round. Despite their attempted pressure the only other moment of note was a 25-yard shot by Graeme Murty it was Chelsea's misses that grew.
Twice Geremi shot weakly, twice Lampard was sharply dispossessed. Another header by Crespo failed and Hahnemann spectacularly tipped over a shot from the substitute Adrian Mutu. "Fantastic," was Ranieri's verdict on the goalkeeper. It's his favourite adjective and he could afford to be magnanimous.
Reading (4-5-1): Hahnemann; Murty, Mackie, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Savage, Hughes (Murray, 61), Watson, Sidwell, Salako (Tyson, 75); Forster. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Newman, Young.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Sullivan; Johnson, Desailly, Terry, Babayaro; Geremi, Lampard, Cole, Gronkjaer (Mutu, 78); Hasselbaink, 72), Crespo. Substitutes not used: Ambrosio (gk), Makelele, Gallas.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Orpington).