Coup de Fondre leaves Chelsea reeling at the finish
Reading 2 Chelsea 2:Proper acceptance will always elude Rafael Benitez but, on this evidence, so too might his ability to deliver that most demanded by Chelsea’s hierarchy. A two-goal lead was surrendered, Adam Le Fondre’s equaliser coming deep into stoppage time when the visitors had felt so secure for so long.
A chance to ease further away from fifth and even closer to Manchester City in second has been passed up. The European champions’ season remains as volatile as ever.
Le Fondre had scored with the home side’s first real shot of any note three minutes from time to offer hope but Chelsea merely retreated thereafter. He was ignored at the back post, along with two other Reading players, to volley in the equaliser in the 94th minute.
Reading, who seemed destined for a swift return to the Championship for much of the first half of the campaign had stirred of late, winning five of their last six games, to clamber to within sight of safety.
That, and the reality that Chelsea appear so leggy at present, rather drove the home side on, only for their concentration to waver just as Mark Halsey was preparing to blow for the break.
Chelseawere mustering one final attack deep into stoppage time, with Ashley Cole, Ramires, Oscar and Juan Mata exchanging short-range passes, when Fernando Torres collected the ball on the edge of the area.
Consider his options
The Spaniard had time to trap the ball and consider his options before spotting Mata’s dart behind Alex Pearce to the edge of the six-yard box.
Even so, the striker’s straight pass had to be precise, flicked over half-hearted attempts to block from Mikele Leigertwood and Danny Guthrie for Mata to dispatch first time across Adam Federici and into the far corner.
It was a rare flash of quality amid the plod. Up to Mata’s sparkling intervention, this had been sluggish at best. The sight of Oscar and Torres cramping each other’s style as they attempted to conjure a rare shot on the edge of the area, with the ball dribbling away from both, had rather summed it all up but, once their lead was established, they could sense the locals’ vulnerability.
Reading had to demonstrate more incision given their position, but that left them prone on the counter: Frank Lampard’s wonderfully floated pass over the home back-line for Oscar to volley over the bar on the spin was a reminder that Chelsea can prosper on the break.
The home side’s principal threat had been built upon Jobi McAnuff’s gliding runs from deep, and the brawn of Pavel Pogrebnyak in among opposing centre halves.
Chelsea, in contrast, were eking out clear chances as the Royals’ anxiety grew. Lampard and Oscar might have provided a second, combining in the box only for Ian Harte to deny Torres a tap-in.
Yet, from Mata’s resultant corner, Lampard found space away from Stephen Kelly and thumped a header beyond Pogrebnyak on the goalline for his 196th reward for the club.
After all that huff and puff, and even with a quarter of the game still to play, Chelsea felt secure. But they would be left to sweat as Reading substitute Hope Akpan slipped a pass inside Gary Cahill for Le Fondre to squeeze space from Branislav Ivanovic and slap a shot inside Turnbull’s near-post.
Benitez will have been infuriated by such sloppiness. His mood was darkened further in stoppage time.