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Championship Play-off anguish for one half of Wales

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Swansea FC will have the chance to become the first Welsh side in history to play in the PremiershipThe Npower Championship play off semi-final second legs were every bit the nervous, nail biting and frenetic occasions they always promise to be this week as both Wales clubs Cardiff City and Swansea City pitted their wits against English counterparts Reading and Nottingham Forest for a place at Wembley to take part in arguably the richest game of football, reportedly worth some ninety million pounds and providing the lure of a prestigious place in England’s top flight for the victor.

After both first legs finished 0-0 for the first time in years, the ties were finely poised providing an atmosphere of tension yet anticipation at the Welsh grounds. The cliché ‘there’s no time for losers’ could not be more relevant as these games represent a whole seasons trials and tribulations coming down to just 90 minutes of football and possibly more as the lottery of extra time and penalty spot kicks looms large in the heads of the players.

However at the Cardiff City Stadium on Tuesday night extra-time was not an issue. After a tight first-leg, Reading settled the quicker in the Welsh principality, and with the absence of Craig Bellamy who pulled a hamstring in the first leg Cardiff looked second best for long periods. Arsenal loanee Jay Emmanuel-Thomas looked the brightest spark for the hosts often finding himself in large spaces on the left hand side of the field but ineffective in terms of finishing. Frustration was etched across the face of prolific strike force Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd midway through the first half as Derby County loanee and stand-in goalkeeper for regular number one Tom Heaton, careered out of his goal and got caught in a terrible mix up with the onrushing Shane Long who swiped the ball from under the former West Ham stopper to loop the ball up into the back of the Cardiff net.

This early setback was compounded just before the half-time whistle on 45 minutes when Israeli centre back Dekel Keinan – signed from Blackpool in the January transfer window – clumsily tugged Matthew Mills’ shirt right under the nose of referee Howard Webb from a Reading corner leaving the World Cup Final referee no choice but to point to the spot. Penalty duty was handed to the Republic of Ireland international Shane Long who capped his fantastic season by tucking away the penalty past Bywater to take his seasons tally to 25 and conveying his supremacy as the Championship’s top scorer surpassing the efforts of Watford’s Danny Graham.

Punishment of Keinan’s sloppy error effectively ended Cardiff’s hopes in the tie with the second half providing some Cardiff chances but none really forcing any save of note from Reading’s Australian stopper Adam Federici. Cardiff tried to impact the game from the bench by bringing on crowd favourite Jason Koumas and big battering ram Jon Parkin up front for the final half hour but their efforts were thwarted by the impressive displays of the assured Zhurab Khizanishvili who has played in the Premier League at Blackburn and captain Matthew Mills’ who similarly enjoyed a spell in the Premier League, albeit short and on the fringes at recent FA Cup winners and big spenders Manchester City.

The tie was finally killed off on 84 minutes when Jamaican winger Jobi McAnuff cut inside and pounced on some sloppy midfield play and strode through the centre of Cardiff’s defence cleverly keeping his balance to smash the ball past Stephen Bywater and get the Reading fans thinking of Wembley. The anguish was etched all across the face of Cardiff boss Dave Jones who looked as shell shocked as the fans who started to depart in their droves. Cardiff’s failure to deliver on the big occasion again after their near miss in the play-off final against Blackpool last May was a massive disappointment for everyone connected with the club and made even worse by noisy neighbours and arch-rival’s Swansea City’s successful march to the final on May 30th.

The Swans’ route to the final was sealed on Monday night as Brendan Rodgers side effectively navigated past Billy Davies’ Nottingham Forest by 3 goals to 1. First-half goals from Leon Britton and Stephen Dobbie put the Welsh side 2-0 up before former Cardiff man Robert Earnshaw put some seeds of doubt into the Swansea minds with 10 minutes to go, but these fears were short lived as substitute Darren Pratley capitalised on the fearlessness of goalkeeper Lee Camp who desperately came up the field for a corner with this gamble backfiring as Pratley broke from a Lewis McGugan air shot to steal the ball and fire from long range into an empty net and set up a mouthwatering tie with their Berkshire counterparts Reading on May 30th.

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