The stats don't lie. Under Brian McDermott, all four of Reading's games against Cardiff have finished all square between the two sides, showing there really is nothing between them. After a 0-0 draw on Friday night, it means a team will have to be victorious on Tuesday.
If the result ends up like in recent history between the promotion contenders, we will have extra-time, and if still needed, the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
So what if it does to penalties? Who will take, and how will we get on? The Tilehurst End will try to answer both questions (without giving away too much in case any opposition goalkeepers are reading!).
In the last 10 years, The Royals have featured in 5 penalty shoot-outs, 4 in the League Cup and once in the FA Cup. Winning in 2001 against West Ham, losing to Walsall in 2003, in 2006 winning against Darlington (two current Royals featured), going down to Stoke in 2008 (featuring seven current Royals), and finally a defeat to Northampton in this season's Carling Cup.
So in those 5, we have 2 wins and 3 defeats, losing the last 2. It doesn't exactly fill you with confidence, although only Shane Long remains from those who have taken penalties in previous seasons (He scored against Darlington and Stoke), so those past results will likely mean nothing for the current Reading squad. However, the defeat to Northampton earlier this season, in which Simon Church and Jake Taylor missed from the spot, may play on the back of the players minds if they have to step forward at Cardiff.
But who will be stepping forward if required? Who has the ability and mental toughness to put the ball into the net with all that pressure on their shoulders?
First up on almost all Reading's fans list will be Ian Harte. Famous for his set-piece ability, the experienced full-back would be pretty dependable if spot-kicks are required, and scored for Carlisle in a shoot-out win over Morecambe last season, being bought on in the final minute of stoppage time simply for the shoot-out! This season for the Royals he has scored 4 penalties, against Crystal Palace, Hull, Scunthorpe and Derby. However he missed his most recent penalty against Derby, so there may be doubts in his mind if he steps forward to take.
Most likely to be next up is top scorer Shane Long, who has scored the most penalties for the Royals this season with 6. However after misses against Hull and Nottingham Forest (his most recent one) this season, Shane may not be too high on confidence. What is a positive for Shane though, is he has a 100% record in shoot-outs, scoring against Darlington, Stoke and Northampton. Lets hope he can make it 4 out of 4 if it goes down to the wire on Tuesday.
Who next then? I would go with either Noel Hunt or Simon Church, depending on whether or not either are on the pitch. Both have 100% records from the spot in the league, albeit only 1 in 1. Hunt's coming against Barnsley last season and Church's also coming last season, this time at home to Coventry. Church meanwhile also scored against Southampton in a pre-season friendly this season. However, the pressure may be on Simon as he missed in the penalty shoot-out against Northampton earlier this season. Will he be able to put that to the back of his mind if he steps up from 12 yards again?
After all this, it may be time for an experienced head, so who next? Andy Griffin and Zurab Khizanishvilli could be ones to step forward although neither have taken a penalty in their career as yet. Mikele Leigertwood could be another, but he also is yet to take a penalty in his long career. So experienced in playing time, but not from the spot.
If playing, Brian Howard would be favourite though, after scoring many penalties for Barnsley and Sheffield United. He has only taken one penalty for Reading however, and missed it against Nottingham Forest last season. He is also yet to take a penalty in a shootout, having been subbed off when Barnsley beat Swansea on penalties in the 2006 League One play-off final. He also did not take when Reading lost to Northampton, something you would expect him to do.
So who else? Hal Robson-Kanu would be a likely taker if he is on the pitch having scored in the shootout against Northampton. Mathieu Manset also has scored from the spot this season against Lincoln for Hereford in the FA Cup this season (1min30 in the video). Jobi McAnuff could be another despite not yet taking a penalty in his career, however with so much play-off heartbreak before, will the pressure be too much for him?
By now, it seems we have the 5 required takers with a couple in case more are required. Anyone else?
Jay Tabb might see it as a chance to break his Reading duck, although is yet to take a career penalty, Adam Federici is most definitely the time of goalkeeper who would fancy himself from the spot, especially against Cardiff, the club he scored against in 2008. David Mooney has the best penalty record of the Reading squad this season, with 5 goals from 5 penalties while on loan at Colchester, however he is unlikely to feature on Tuesday.
So will we win if it goes to spot-kicks? Who knows? Penalties are a real lottery and whoever takes for Reading will be doing it through real strength of character. Of course penalties are still unlikely despite our close record against Cardiff, so we cant focus on them too much. But if they do happen, we need to be ready. One thing's for sure, I don't think my heart could take it.
However, if you want some signs of encouragement we actually beat Cardiff on penalties 13 years ago in an FA Cup 4th Round Replay back at Elm Park. The hero that day was Reading goalkeeper and now Director of Football Nick Hammond so lets hope if it does come down to it we can make it 2 out of 2!