McCarthy saves the game, but can’t save the season

Posted by Jon Keen

Andrew Powell/Getty ImagesTime and again on Saturday, Reading's young starlet goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy, right in green, came off his line to deny Liverpool a goal.

Amid all the controversy about minutes of silence, the return of former manager Brendan Rodgers, sacked by Reading in December 2009, went largely unmentioned. But Royals took their first point from a Rodgers team since then, thanks to a spirited second half performance and some miraculous late saves by goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.

And although it's too little, too late to salvage Premier League survival, and Reading are bottom of the table, Loyal Royals will be relieved to wave goodbye at last to the 23 points figure which they reached on 2nd February with a win over Sunderland -- that's all of seventy days ago!

- Walsh: Reds lack ruthlessness at Reading
- Keen: McCarthy saves game, but can't save season
- Rodgers tips McCarthy for England
- Liverpool fail to make chances pay

But irrespective of what was said beforehand, all the post-match talk was about the performance of McCarthy. As Liverpool pressed in the last ten minutes, stretching Reading in all directions, McCarthy was simply superb. He produced four world-class saves, including an unbelievable full-stretch fingertip touch to keep out a Steven Gerrard thunderbolt. Less than a minute later he followed with a short-range block, and in injury time he produced two more stunning saves.

Before the match I'd spotted England Manager Roy Hodgson -- and while he almost certainly wasn't here to look at Reading players, he can't have failed to have noticed this outstanding performance by McCarthy, who has already been capped at the Under-21 level. A call-up to the senior squad soon may not be that far-fetched an idea.

But such performances make me fear for Reading's prospects of keeping hold of this prodigious talent if/when relegation is confirmed. McCarthy is, in my opinion, the most promising player to ever come out of the Royals Academy, and it'd be a real tragedy not to see him develop his career here.

Whether Adam Federici is injured or whether McCarthy was recalled simply because new manager Nigel Adkins is taking a look at all his players to assess their merits isn't clear -- but he does seem to be taking a look at everyone. We even had a second half cameo from the "lesser-spotted" Daniel Carrico, who had so far played just 45 minutes in a Reading shirt since joining at the start of January.

Despite Adkins's four changes, including a completely new front line of Noel Hunt and Pavel Pogrebnyak, this Royals team looked much the same as always in the first half. They had a few sporadic breaks -- which didn't produce a shot on target -- and spent much of the time chasing possession. And, as usual, there was some desperate defending, with McCarthy keeping the Reds out well -- and when he was beaten, Royals were rescued by a superb header off the line by Chris Gunter to keep out a Luis Suarez lob.

And, as always, there was a sloppiness that gifted possession far too easily and a tendency of trying to over-elaborate which comes with loss of confidence. Twice Royals players had good shooting chances on the edge of the box, but both times tried to get the ball under control -- and so the chances slipped away. I can't help but think that the Liverpool players -- or even the same Royals players in a winning, confident team -- would have instinctively pulled the trigger with a first-time volley.

But that's what happens when you're low on self-belief. It was noticeable how deep the Reading players were playing, presumably for fear of losing the ball and leaving themselves open, but of course that meant that when Reading did attack they were short of supporting numbers.

As a result, Adkins was frequently screaming at his players to get forward, and once he'd spoken to them at halftime their second half performance was much, much better. Although Liverpool still had their chances -- and had a 47th minute Philippe Coutinho "goal" ruled out for offside -- Reading took the game to Liverpool much more and looked far brighter and more inventive.

Although they still lacked finesse, this was suddenly a different Reading team. Running at Liverpool, especially down the flanks, and fighting for every ball in midfield, the Reds looked rattled at times and suddenly they were the ones losing possession as Reading created a number of good chances.

The best was a superb 66th minute move where Hunt won the ball close to the centre-circle and fed it to Pogrebnyak wide on the left. He beat a defender and miraculously managed to return the ball to Hunt in the area -- Hunt was the only attacker among four Liverpool defenders -- and Pepe Reina needed to make a great close-range save to keep Hunt's shot out.

A minute later Reina flapped at and missed a long throw from Sean Morrison to give Royals another chance, and again ten minutes later he was forced into action to tip a deflected Jobi McAnuff shot over the bar.

For the first time in weeks Loyal Royals had something to cheer about, as their team was playing with enthusiasm and at least making a game of things. At the back, the Royals defence was looking secure, mopping up everything thrown at them and Suarez was looking more and more frustrated as he was caught offside again and again.

But as the match entered its last ten minutes Liverpool turned the screw and looked for a win -- which is where McCarthy's heroics came in to salvage the point.

And they might have had all three when McAnuff went down in the Liverpool box right at the death -- but it looked soft to me and I half-expected referee Mark Clattenburg to pull out his yellow card.

That's assuming he could, of course -- as it transpired that he'd left his cards in the dressing room at halftime -- and had to get a spare set from the fourth official in order to book Danny Guthrie five minutes after the break, to general hilarity. At the time it looked like that might be the most entertaining incident in this match, but Reading's second half spirit and the heroics of McCarthy at last gave Loyal Royals a good feeling as they left the stadium

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