Rafa Benitez left bemused as Reading score two against Chelsea in final minutes
Reading 2 Chelsea 2: “I bet that's changed a few headlines. eh?” The words of a laughing Brian McDermott after his Reading team had erased a deficit that stood at two with 87 minutes on the clock. It might also have accelerated the demise of his opposite number at Chelsea, the unloved Rafa Benitez, who also offered a smile, one of bewilderment. It was either that or cry.
If a crisis meeting was deemed necessary after the scratchy FA Cup draw at Brentford, what next for Benitez after arguably the most bizarre result of his 20 match-reign? Chelsea were coasting to victory here after goals from Juan Mata and Frank Lampard. Reading offered nothing until the last orders were rung. McDermott admitted afterwards that his principal concern at the start of the game was to avoid embarrassment against the European champions.
McDermott might want to give derring do a go next time. The bench is certainly no place for Adam Le Fondre, who for the third successive league game earned rewards following his late introduction. That's 12 goals for the season, six of those as a substitute and five in the last three matches. Benitez can count himself lucky that Le Fondre was on the pitch for only 24 minutes.
"It's difficult to explain," Benitez said. "We are as surprised as you, controlling game for 85 minutes. We had chances to kill the game. The team did a perfect job for 85 minutes. They had their first shot after 78 minutes. We all have to take responsibility. These little things make the difference."
Benitez seeks succour in the technical details, utterly failing to recognise the negative emotions associated with his posting at Stamford Bridge. In this state of denial he proceeds towards his own execution. "We are still in a good position in the table but it could have been better. The team is improving. For 85 minutes we were really good. We just made mistakes. At this level they know they have to be more clinical. We win together, we draw together."
McDermott got lucky here, and accepted as much. "We are trying to stay in games. What I have learned is if you open up in a game in this division then you get beat. We have not played particularly well today but we have got something. If you have Le Fondre coming off the bench you know you have a chance.
"We got a draw with the champions of Europe from being two down with three minutes to play. It's about our players tonight."
Eventually. A neat strike from Mata with the final kick of the first half and a smart header from Lampard looked to have claimed the easiest three points of Chelsea's season. A fixture that should have generated the tension ordinarily associated with teams battling for survival had none, until Le Fondre's late intervention. The Madejski came alight for the first time in the match after his opening strike, planted left-footed beneath Ross Turnbull, hinting at what might have been had McDermott the courage to take the fight to Chelsea at the outset.
Benitez endeared himself to the Chelsea support further with the omission from the starting line-up of the team's heartbeat, John Terry, and new talisman Demba Ba. It is hard to imagine that captain, leader, legend voted for that during the meeting with Benitez and Lampard, despite concerns about his fitness. The selection of Fernando Torres over Ba bore even less scrutiny.
The first real opening took 40 minutes to fashion. It fell to Torres, who swung wildly at the ball with his right boot. The outcome was both sad and comic, the ball travelling parallel to the goal as it flew away from the target. It is clear that Torres can never be the player he was at Anfield. The most he can hope is to run around like a journeyman linking the play as best he can.
As fate would have it, he played that very role as Chelsea stole the lead in the last attack of the opening half. Lifting the ball cleverly over the defender's head, Torres picked out Mata as he advanced toward goal. There was plenty to do to accommodate body and ball, but he managed it with a drilled left-foot volley on the turn from close range.
In the second half a typical Lampard break saw him feed the ball through to Oscar, who pulled the ball square in the direction of Torres. A peak Torres would have been halfway to the halfway line in celebration before the defender could respond. This version didn't even get his toe to the ball and Ian Harte cleared.
Not to worry, there is always Lampard. A Mata corner was met by Lampard with typical elan, steering the ball high into the net to double Chelsea's lead. That seemed to be that until Le Fondre joined the party. His first was clinical, the second equally so sidefooting the ball coolly past Turnbull, exposed by a hapless Chelsea defence.
Man of the match Le Fondre.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee M Halsey (Hertfordshire).