They call it the "Mad Stad" locally and no one from Chelsea would have quibbled with that description as they left the Madejski Stadium on Saturday night. They departed with a valuable victory, but at what cost?
Petr Cech, the goalkeeper who has been such a fundamental part of their success, lies in an Oxfordshire hospital with a fractured skull. Carlo Cudicini, his understudy, was only released late on Saturday night from the Royal Berkshire Hospital having also been concussed. Suspensions beckon for John Obi Mikel, the new "wonderkid", and Rui Faria, of the coaching staff. And there will be a few more bruises to be assessed before Barcelona arrive at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
Amid the sickening drama, two positives emerged. Chelsea's spirit and desire has not been dulled by successive domestic titles, and Joe Cole made a successful return to action.
Cole, who had only managed nine minutes previously this season, came on shortly after the hour and was immediately kicked up in the air by Steve Sidwell. He survived that and emerged to comment: "It felt like being in the middle of World War Three." Cole harkened back to the victory, in similarly tempestuous circumstances, at Blackburn in 2005, a win which was an important milestone on the path to Jose Mourinho's first championship. As then, several Chelsea players celebrated by thowing their shirts to the travelling supporters.
"It's a horrible place to play because you don't get the ball down," said Cole, "but when you get the result it's amazing because you feel like you've won a war. Not many teams are going to come here and win."
No team has since Plymouth Argyle in August last year. Afterwards, Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, was at pains to make a distinction between his anger at Stephen Hunt's opening-minute challenge on Cech and his admiration for the organisation and commitment of Steve Coppell's side.
However, Mourinho added: "It was an ordeal. It was worse than Blackburn. This time we finished with nine players and with JT [John Terry] in goal.
"That was a difficult decision to put him in goal. I knew we were two or three minutes from the end and I knew that, of the outfield players, JT is the best keeper. But at the same time, if I put him in goal, it meant I was without a central defender. But I knew Didier [Drogba] could do what he did in the last part of the game."
Drogba was magnificent, in attack and defence. The more invisible Andrei Shevchencko becomes, the more Drogba grows. In the final minutes, with Cudicini out cold in the area, it was he who cleared Nicky Shorey's header off the line, securing Chelsea victory and saving the referee, Mike Riley, huge embarrassment and an apoplectic explosion from Mourinho.
Both the yellow cards given to Andre Bikey were for fouls on Drogba. And it was the Ivorian who saved Mikel worse punishment when he hauled the distressed and ranting teenager away from Riley after the Nigerian had been dismissed.
"The red card was correct," said Mourinho. "Mikel was a naïve boy." This was Mikel's domestic debut. On his European bow, in Sofia last month, he was replaced because he looked as though he was about to be sent off. He is a talented player but his clumsy tackling needs working on.
Mourinho believed Hunt should have been the first red card for his challenge on Cech. The Reading midfielder, who was inevitably pumped up given this was his first start of the season, crashed into Cech after the keeper gathered a clearance from Marcus Hahnemann.
Mourinho also felt Ibrahima Sonko should have received a second yellow for his mid-air challenge on Cudicini. Sonko leapt with full force but had it not been for his colliding first with Drogba, his shoulder would not have been turned into Cudicini's head. "He came out to punch the ball. I was jumping forward, once you are up there you have no control over anything," said Sonko.
The Senegal defender's first caution was punished enough. It came when Frank Lampard took advantage of his sloppy tackle to win a free-kick on the edge of the box. Lampard took it and saw his fierce drive deflected off both Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson past Hahnemann.
It proved the only goal as Reading, for all their effort, failed to test any of Chelsea's three goalkeepers, though Kevin Doyle, neatly turning Terry, struck the post at 0-0.
Chelsea thus kept pace with Manchester United in the Premiership but their thoughts, yesterday, were not with United or Barcelona, but with an amiable Czech giant lying stricken in an Oxfordshire hospital bed.
Goals: Ingimarsson og (45) 0-1.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty (Bikey, 36), Sonko, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Seol (Little, 64), Sidwell, Harper, Hunt; Lita (Long, 73), Doyle. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Gunnarsson.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Cech (Cudicini, 5); Ferriera, Boulahrouz, Terry, Bridge; Essien; Mikel, Lampard, Robben (Kalou, 82); Shevchenko (J Cole, 62), Drogba. Substitutes not used: Carvalho, Wright-Phillips.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Reading Ingimarsson, Sonko, Bikey; Chelsea Mikel, Terry. Sent off: Reading Bikey; Chelsea Mikel.
Man of the match: Drogba.
Attendance: 24,025.Reuse content