Watford’s 2022/23 Emirates FA Cup campaign came to an end at the hands of Reading at the third-round stage, with a brave performance from a particularly young Hornets side resulting in a hard-fought 2-0 defeat.

With a host of new faces in the starting line-up and on the bench, the two-time finalists showed plenty of character throughout a lively opening 45 minutes, but went into the break trailing after Kelvin Abrefa flukily broke the deadlock in stoppage time.

More changes in the second half saw the debut count increase to five by full-time, and Yáser Asprilla was among those closest to making it 1-1 as the visitors increasingly grew in confidence, but Shane Long doubled Reading’s advantage late on to make sure of the result.

Though disappointed to exit the competition the Golden Boys’ attention will quickly shift back to the Sky Bet Championship and the visit of Blackpool next Saturday (January 14, 3pm KO), with Slaven Bilić hopeful of being able to welcome back some of his many absentees sooner rather than later.

Head Coach Bilić made a series of changes to the XI that had triumphed at Norwich City last time out (January 2), with recent arrival Ismaël Koné lining up for his debut, 17-year-old Michael Adu-Poku coming in for his first senior appearance alongside fellow Academy starlet Adrian Blake, and several other Young Hornets being named among the substitutes.

All in attendance at the Select Car Leasing Stadium paid tribute to former Watford boss Gianluca Vialli with a minute’s applause prior to kick-off, following his recent passing at the age of 58, and with the match underway Adu-Poku and Blake quickly made their pace and presence known to the Reading backline with a succession of encouraging runs.

Home forward Femi Azeez tried his luck from the edge of the box on the nine-minute mark, with both sides searching for the opener having enjoyed periods of possession, but his shot was too high and wide to force Maduka Okoye into a save.

A heavy Okoye touch nearly opened up another home chance two minutes later, but the Nigeria international did well to recover and clear, and then a Joe Hungbo free-kick at the other end caused the Royals some problems until they eventually cleared.

Blake showcased his confidence with a shot that deflected out for a corner in the 19th minute, after Mario Gaspar did well to steal possession on the right flank, and with quarter-of-an-hour to go until half-time Okoye demonstrated his quality with a smart stop to deny the lively Azeez.

There was a brief break in play as home striker Long received treatment after going down on the pitch, before Lucas João was first to react to an Okoye save but could only skew his attempt well wide from just inside the box.

Azeez thought he had finally got his goal in the first of three minutes of injury time at the end of the first half, but his close-range tap in at the back post was correctly ruled out for offside by referee Peter Bankes.

But there was still time for the home side to edge their noses in front before the whistle, with youngster Abrefa’s looping cross diverting past Okoye and into the net to make it 1-0 at the death.

Defender Ryan Andrews took to the field at the start of the second half to make his senior debut, in place of Gaspar, while Leandro Bacuna was also brought on in place of Blake to add some fresh legs to the midfield.

Away appeals for a penalty were waved away by referee Bankes in the 50th minute, after Hungbo was felled by Amadou Mbengue in the box, before Bacuna’s afternoon was ended early by injury and Jack Grieves came on for his senior bow.

Chile international Francisco Sierralta did well to block a seemingly goal-bound Mamadou Loum effort from a tight angle in the 65th minute, and then defensive partner Mattie Pollock rose highest to clear the danger posed by a teasing cross from the left.

Hungbo was the victim of a late challenge in the air that saw Mbengue go into the book with little over 20 minutes left, and with growing confidence Watford went close to equalising when Asprilla shot on target before Andrews had a go from the edge of the area.

Tobi Adeyemo became the latest Academy product to earn senior minutes, when he came on for Hungbo in the 75th minute, and as the Hornets kept pushing the former went close to notching a debut goal in the follow up to a sliced Morris shot.

But deep into injury time Long put the result beyond doubt with a second Reading goal, the veteran striker capitalising on Watford’s all-out attack by finding space on the counter-attack and coolly finishing past Okoye.


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