Just what Steve Coppell needed the day after suffering the curse of being Manager of the Month. The curse of facing the champions. The result tells the story everyone anticipated. The reality is different as Coppell's men were beaten by a goal from a free-kick, dubiously won by Frank Lampard, and which had its place in the pinball arcade rather than the football pitch.
It was a game which began in subdued fashion as Coppell's well-drilled rearguard allowed the Londoners few opportunities; yet it degenerated in the second half, following the dismissal of the John Obi Mikel, for two bookable offences, around the hour.
The Nigerian youngster had to be restrained by his team-mate Didier Drogba from making his situation even worse as he harangued the referee, Mike Riley. It was all characterised by the England and Chelsea captain, John Terry, being cautioned for dissent; not the first occasion he had been guilty.
There had been a suspicion that Chelsea, with 20 players on international duty in midweek, and with Wednesday's Champions League game against Barcelona on their minds, may have been mentally baring their necks for a potential kill against a team who had held Manchester United here three weeks ago, and were undefeated in four games. Jose Mourinho's men were not at their most imperious, but just produced sufficient class and grit on a day when Manchester United had earlier advanced by three points.
The home rearguard are not the wild bunch that may be expected of a promoted team. Last season, Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson received just one yellow between them. Coppell's demand for teamwork and industry does not include physical excess. Before yesterday, Reading had committed the fewest fouls in the Premiership.
Andre Bikey spoiled that late on by being sent off for a second bookable offence, but it had taken Reading only a minute to concede a yellow card when Stephen Hunt, replacing the injured Bobby Convey, caught goalkeeper Petr Cech in the face with his knee as he slid in on a through ball. It appeared innocuous, but after a near four- minute delay, the Czech Republic goalkeeper was replaced by Carlo Cudicini and taken to hospital with mild concussion.
Undefeated at home for 14 months, all of 25 games ago, Reading started the day three points behind the champions. Mourinho concedes that teams coming up from lower Leagues as winners have a good mentality. He was to prove correct. Though Chelsea played smooth, precise football, they found it difficult to break through.
They came closest in the early stages when Paulo Ferreira dispatched a cross which Marcus Hahnemann had covered, only for James Harper to intervene and head against his own crossbar. Then Robben fired across goal. Ferreira spent most of his time in the Reading half, leaving Chelsea with three at the back. They could afford to do so.
But it was Reading who came closest to taking the lead 12 minutes from half-time when Hunt cleverly worked the ball to Kevin Doyle deep in the area. The Republic of Ireland striker had his back to the goal, but he turned superbly to get in his shot, only to strike the post.
Reading's relative composure in defence was disrupted when their captain and right-back Graeme Murty departed, to be replaced by Bikey. In added time, Lampard was brought down on the edge of the area by Sonko. The England midfielder took the free-kick himself, and it looked to be deflected wide by the wall, but then struck the unfortunate Ingimarsson and ricocheted into the net.
After the interval, Chelsea appeared to be easing themselves towards victory when Mikel was sent off, having already been booked, for yanking Sonko's shirt. The outcome was now in question, and Joe Cole was brought on, in place of Shevchenko, who had again been below par.
Steve Sidwell came close to an equalier with a fine drive in the final minutes; then Drogba headed off the line from Shorey. In the same mêlée, Cudicini was knocked to the ground by Sonko. Terry ended up in goal. The match finished as it had started. A goalkeeper flattened.
And Chelsea still clinging desperately to the leaders, Manchester United.Reuse content