Reading, after seven straight league losses, were always going to need something special to hold off Liverpool yesterday and they found it in goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. Making his first league start for six months, McCarthy delivered one of the performances of the season, making at least ten saves – half of them excellent – to repel Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and the rest.
It will probably not keep Reading in the Premier League. They are now seven points adrift with five games left. They needed to win this game and they never looked like they even believed it was possible, but it did at least bring some pride back to a side whose last few months have not exactly been a resounding triumph.
"It was a fantastic goalkeeping display, after being out for a while," said Royals' manager Nigel Adkins. "Alex pulled off some world class saves today. He is going to get the headlines but I am really pleased with all of the players."
This was not Liverpool's finest performance of the season and, had Suarez, Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho played to their very best, they would have scored. But they still created enough chances to, in Brendan Rodgers' accurate judgement, "win two or three games," and it was only through McCarthy's brilliance that they did not.
"I don't think our players could have done any more," said Rodgers. "You have some days like that, where the goalkeeper makes two or three good saves but we had 14 shots on target today."
Rodgers knows McCarthy from his time at Reading and predicted he would have a great career. "He was always a talent, but he's got all the qualities to be a top, top goalkeeper. He's 6ft 5in, with good feet, he's calm and assured."
The first save though, before the master-class began, was from Chris Gunter, who headed off the line when Suarez chipped Coutinho's pass beyond McCarthy. That was the one the goalkeeper missed. His first real contribution was a double save, from Sturridge from close range and then from Coutinho from distance.
When Gunter gave the ball away Sturridge played in Suarez, but McCarthy blocked his shot before Adrian Mariappa got in the way of Gerrard's follow-up. In the final minutes of the half a Suarez corner fell to Sturridge, who forced McCarthy into a reaction save, and Daniel Agger headed the subsequent corner over.
The first half, in truth, was not compelling, with one of the few notable exchanges being between the home and away fans regarding how best to mark the passing of Baroness Thatcher. Both managers claimed not to have heard anything.
Four minutes into the second half Coutinho had a goal disallowed for offside but, from then on, McCarthy was unbeatable. Coutinho shot wide from Sturridge's pull-back, and the introduction of Stewart Downing added more impetus.
Reading did have a brief flurry with 20 minutes left, with Noel Hunt failing to turn Pavel Pogrebnyak's cross beyond Pepe Reina, but the rest of the action was all at the opposite end.
McCarthy blocked from Suarez again, with eight minutes left, before making a remarkable reflex save from Gerrard soon after. Sturridge then headed the ball down to Suarez, whose ferocious 10-yard volley was repelled by the inspired keeper. Downing cut inside and, aiming for the corner, dragged his shot wide.
Even in added time there were more saves, even after Sturridge volleyed over. Suarez's curler with the outside of his right boot was flying towards the top corner, but McCarthy reached it, and then Gerrard's characteristic last-kick blast he dived down to block.