Reading gains respect despite recent Premier League slide.
By Robert Wagman (in Washington, D.C.)
(Tuesday, October 24, 2006) -- Through the first seven matches of the 2006-07 season, the three newly promoted members of the English Premier League -- Reading, Sheffield United and Watford -- have produced quite different results. While Reading has been respectable through a killer early schedule that included the top three powers -- Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal -- in the last month, Sheffield and Watford have struggled and sunk to the bottom of the standings.
Reading (4-4-1, 13 points) sits in a tied for eighth place after dropping two straight matches, including being drubbed 4-0 at home by red-hot Arsenal, which has won six straight league matches.
The Gunners from London got off to a flying start, taking a lead in the first minute. The ball was taken down the right wing and crossed to Francesc Fabregas in the box. He took the ball almost to the touch-line and then pulled it back to unmarked striker Thierry Henry, who beat Reading's stranded American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann for a 1-0 lead..
Reading worked its way back into the match by creating several chances, but the Royals were twice thwarted by Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann. Hahnemann, meanwhile, controlled his area well, but was beaten again in the 39th minute on a counter-attack. Three quick passes moved the ball from the Reading end before a pair of internationals -- Czech Tomas Rosicky and Aleksander Hleb of Belarus -- worked a textbook give-and-go. Hahnemann managed to get an arm on Hleb's blast, but he could not keep the point-blank shot from putting Arsenal ahead 2-0.
Arsenal picked up where it left off in the second half and, on another counter, Hleb and Henry worked another give-and-go in the box. When Hahnemann advanced to face Hleb, he squared the ball to Robin Van Persie who found the open net for a 3-0 advantage in the 50th minute.
Twenty minutes later, Henry converted a penalty kick off a post to make it 4-0 after Rosicky came in alone on Hahnemann and the American slid and tripped him without getting to the ball.
Hahnemann then stopped Hleb one-on-one from close range and Henry from distance to prevent furher damage.
For the second match in succession, U.S. midfielder Bobby Convey sat out with a groin injury, replaced by Stephen Hunt in the starting side.
The schedule is unrelenting for Reading, which travel to Anfield to meet Liverpool for a Carling Cup match tomorrow and league game November 4, wrapped around Saturday's visit to fourth-place Portsmouth for a Premiership meeting.
The Arsenal matc was the first time this season Reading was badly outclassed. Last week, it was unlucky to lose 1-0 to two-time defending league champion Chelsea. The Royals have gained a reputation for its strong, physical play and ended up sending two Chelsea goalkeepers to the hospital.
In the first 30 seconds of that match, Hahnemann stopped a shot that started with the opening kickoff. Reading quickly countered with Chelsea's Czech international keeper Petr Cech sliding to control a ball that Reading's Stephen Hunt was trying to control. Hunt could not stop and hit the prone Cech in the head, knocking him momentarily unconscious. He was carried off on a stretcher and subsequently required surgery for a depressed skull fracture. Although Cech is said to be recovering well, he will miss considerable time.
Hunt was not disciplined after the play was closely reviewed by league officials.
Italian keeper Carlo Cudicini replaced Cech and neither side did much in the game. Chelsea dominated possession, but its only goal came on a fluke in first-half stoppage time when Didier Drogba forced a good save from Hahnemann. Then, Frank Lampard's low free kick bounced off several players in a defensive wall, completely changing directions before being diverted past Hahnemann off his defender Ivar Ingimarsson.
As the match moved into its final minutes Reading came alive and stormed the Chelsea goal. After a hard Reading shot was cleared off his goal-line by Drogba, Cudicini went up to control a ball and was crashed into by Reading's Ibrahima Sonko and knocked unconscious. His injury looked considerably worse than Cech's and medical personnel spent considerable time stabilizing him before he was removed.
Defender John Terry finished the final minute of stoppage time as Chelsea finished with nine players to Reading's 10 after each team had one player sent off earlier.
After treatment at the hospital, Cudicini was released with a stiff neck and a diagnosis of a concussion. He missed Chelsea's midweek Champions League win over Barcelona and will be out several more weeks.
The home loss was the first for Reading since the opening of 2005-06 League Championship season -- a stretch of 14 months and 31 matches.
On October 1, Convey assisted Seol Ki-Hyeon's 25-yard strike which came 79 seconds into a 1-0 road decision over West Ham United before 34,872 in the driving rain at Upton Park.
Hahnemann made 10 saves, including two excellent stops on low shots from newly-arrived Argentine striker Carlos Tevez. He also did well to handle a long-range bullet from U.S. defender Jonathan Spector, who went the distance for West Ham.
Watford's bad fortune contrasts starkly with Reading's success. At 0-5-4 with five points, the Hornets are in 18th place and must improve or face the real danger of returning to the League Championship next season.
Over the past two weekends, Watford went down 3-0 to Arsenal, before Saturday's 0-0 draw with last-place Charlton Athletic.
U.S. defender Jay DeMerit has settled into playing right back for Watford after being used in the middle all last season. With several new arrivals, DeMerit was shuttled to the bench, but has now moved out to the right and seems to have found a home.
This rebuilt defense has shown promise and did well to blank Charlton, but was victimized before 60,018 at Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium.
Watford held its own for the first half hour against Arsenal, but could not connect on several good chances. In the 33rd minute, Fabregas' deep free-kick was flicked on by Emmanuel Adebayor where, under pressure from Kolo Toure, Watford defender Jordan Stewart put the ball past his own goalkeeper for a Gunners 1-0 lead.
Ten minutes later, Henry won a duel with DeMerit to latch onto a flick from Adebayor. Henry confidently stroked home his fourth goal of the season to make it 2-0. Arsenal made it 3-0 in the second half and came close on another half dozen occasions.
Watford's defense was also beaten three times and failed to protect a late lead in a 3-3 draw October 2 with visiting Fulham.
Watford lead 2-0 when U.S. striker Brian McBride scored in the 71st minute and Heigar Helguson tied matter 12 minutes later before Fulham went ahead 3-2 on an own goal in the 87th minute.
Two minutes later, Ashley Young recorded his second tally to give 3-3 tie to the Hornets, who have only seven total goals in nine outings and have been shut out in four of their last six league matches.
U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra started and played 53 minutes for Fulham while McBride was replaced in the 59th minute.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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