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Jan 30, 2013

Chelsea's confidence rocked by Royals

Just when it seemed Chelsea's miserable January could get no worse, Reading rubbed salt into interim manager Rafael Benitez's wounds with one of the most extraordinary comebacks of the Premier League season.

Almost 87 minutes of this unfathomable game had passed before the home side managed to get a shot on target - a lack of attacking ambition somewhat alarming from a side who must have appreciated they were up against visitors wounded by their recent cup horrors against Swansea and Brentford.

Yet once Reading's first attempt at goal produced what appeared to be a consolation from Adam Le Fondre, Chelsea's insecurities were exposed again, with panic filtering through their previously untroubled defence and stand-in 'keeper Ross Turnbull as injury time beckoned.

A late leveller still seemed implausible, but it duly arrived as Chelsea failed to deal with a direct ball into their box and Le Fondre struck again. How on earth did that happen? It was a question the red-faced Benitez struggled to answer.

"It is difficult to explain," he said. "We controlled the game for 85 minutes, then we make some mistakes defensively that we paid for. If they don't score the first goal, we have control, but we could have scored three and four goals and finished the game.

"We can say that we have to be more clinical and avoid mistakes defending set pieces, but we did a great job for so long and I ask how we can throw away this game. We all take responsibility, and we have to analyse why we didn't kill the game. Our position in the table now could be better, this is clear, but we played so well and we have to take something from that."

Such a gloomy post-mortem hardly seemed likely as a less than impressive Chelsea performance looked set to be camouflaged by goals from Juan Mata and Frank Lampard - but Reading's late, late show will serve to undermine the Londoners' self-belief.

You can always tell when Chelsea are in the midst of a crisis - club captain John Terry emerges from his bunker to offer a rallying cry designed to inspire a reaction from his team-mates, and such was the case following Sunday's FA Cup near-miss against League One Brentford.

When Terry went public in claiming Brentford and Swansea were more motivated and "wanted it more" than his stuttering team-mates, he had been hoping to draw a response from players who should be stung by such a public dressing down from the self-styled Mr Chelsea.

At any other club, a few words of admonishment from a team captain would create headlines for a day and be forgotten the next, but Terry's interventions in the Chelsea story have tended to come when all does not seem well.

Such is the depth of this latest self-inflicted bout of trouble that not even a Terry ear-bashing was enough to rattle Chelsea cages this time. While Mata and Lampard did their best to rise to the challenge, the manner of Chelsea's performance remained concerning.

With Terry watching from the bench as he was given the night off by a manager eager not to overburden him leader as he continues his recovery from a knee injury, Chelsea's flat body language and wayward passing meant the first half nearly passed by without incident - until, that is, Mata scored the injury-time opener.

The otherwise hopeless Fernando Torres was creator-in-chief with a fine flicked pass to his compatriot, who finished superbly.

Their second-half showing was marginally better, and once Frank Lampard scored his 196th Chelsea goal with a powerful header from a 66th-minute corner, the game appeared to have ended as a contest. But nothing is clear with the Blues this season. Had Terry been playing, he may not have allowed his defence to crumble in such lamentable fashion as Reading were offered an equalising goal thanks to a series of defensive blunders, but Royals boss Brian McDermott was understandably delighted.

"That finish has changed a few headlines," the jubilant McDermott reflected. "We couldn't get a foothold in the game until right at the end and, if we had a bit more time, we might have got the third, but let's not get greedy. Our game plan was just to try and stay in the game for as long as we could and not let it get away from us. We haven't played well, but we got something from the game."

The trouble for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich after this latest problem must be that, unless he eats some humble pie and re-hires Jose Mourinho next summer, he is rapidly running out of candidates to fill a position that is as lucrative as it is damaging to many a managerial reputation.

As Terry emerges as the voice of sanity at Chelsea, he may yet become a viable candidate to take over as manager alongside a senior coaching assistant - but what seems increasingly certain is that the ill-conceived Benitez experiment is doomed to failure.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Juan Mata. Chelsea struggled to click into top gear all night, but their brilliant No. 10 did his best to inspire them once more. Mata is a class act, but he is not being suitably supported by those around him at the moment.

READING VERDICT: Chelsea confirmed their frailty as they crumbled in the closing seconds, so it was a shame that Reading took so long to press their celebrated opponents. Had they shown more ambition earlier they may have got even more reward, but their late goals take them out of the bottom three for now.

CHELSEA VERDICT: After their recent troubles, a victory in this game would have been more significant than a sparkling performance, and the fact that they got neither will pile the pressure on the hapless Benitez.

FAN BANTER: In response to a chant from Reading fans that alluded to Benitez's previously stated distain for Chelsea supporters, the visiting fans rose in unison to offer polite applause by way of approval. A cry of "there's only one Di Matteo" was not long in coming from the 2,108 Blues fans in attendance.

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