Arsenal will defend their FA Cup title next month – but were made to fight for their Final berth by a committed and confident Reading side.
Alexis Sanchez fired the Gunners ahead with a 39th-minute strike, only for boyhood Arsenal fan Garath McCleary to pull the Royals level.
Extra-time followed, but the epic ended in sadness when the excellent Adam Federici let Sanchez’s tame shot slip through his grasp in the 106th minute.
Reading 1-2 Arsenal
The FA Cup Semi-Final
5.20pm, Saturday 18 April
Wembley Stadium Connected by EE
It was a stark reminder of football’s cruel tendencies. Reading’s road to Wembley, via away trips to Huddersfield, Derby, Cardiff and Bradford, at least hinted at the resilience that would serve them so well.
The Royals looked comforted by the presence of a sea of blue and white supporters behind Federici’s goal, and Steve Clarke’s side had a plan too, using the powerful midfielders Nathaniel Chalobah and Daniel Williams to shield the defence, with Williams in particular blocking a series of Arsenal through-balls.
Occasionally those blocks set up attacking moves, as Arsenal committed too many men forward. Left-back Jordan Obita had the first real chance, surging through before firing over.
Match Highlights: Reading 1-2 Arsenal
Arsenal’s approach was most familiar, waiting patiently in possession for an opening, impressing with their approach play but hardly setting the crowd on their feet.
Sanchez was always a threat, however, and after over-running one Mesut Ozil pass when clean through the Reading defence, he made amends with a goal of immense quality.
Arsenal fans were growing impatient when Ozil dropped back into the inside-right channel and chipped a pass through a crowd of players towards Sanchez.
The Chilean still had to hold off a defender but his control was instant and his turn and shot from 12 yards were perfectly judged.
Goals often change games but on this occasion neither side appeared to pay any notice. Reading continued to play with boundless enthusiasm while Arsenal seemed reluctant to loosen the tie and back their creative players to make the difference.
Up to 40,000 fans bayed for Arsenal to score, but by the 54th minute they were undone by one of their own. As a young pretender with Oxford City, McCleary used to idolise Arsene Wenger’s men and their serial appearances in FA Cup Finals.
And yet on 54 minutes he wrote his own entry in history by scoring the equaliser after Mathieu Debuchy gifted possession to Reading. Pavel Pogrebnyak played the ball in from the right, and McCleary slid in to volley through Wojciech Szczesny’s grasp.
What then followed was a breathless series of chances, mainly for Arsenal, but enough at the other end to make Reading believe an upset was on the cards.
Gabriel, on for the injured Per Mertesacker, had two chances to score from set-pieces, powering one header over, and then forcing a wonderful save from Federici, who palmed the ball on to the bar and away to safety.
With 12 minutes remaining Wembley held its breath for a second, as Jamie Mackie and Pogrebnyak burst into the Arsenal box with just an Arsenal defender for company.
But with Mackie well-placed to score, the big Russian opted to bulldoze on alone, and his left-footed shot was a new definition for wastefulness.
Then came Arsenal’s moment to hold their head in their hands. Aaron Ramsey burst in from the left flank, and crashed a low shot against the upright with Federici beaten. Olivier Giroud, on as a replacement for Danny Welbeck, then headed straight at Federici.
Extra-time started quietly, and the two teams played out 10 minutes in much the same manner as the first half-hour, with Reading repelling Arsenal through clever positioning rather than any penalty-box heroics.
In the 100th minute Pogrebnyak burst through again, but his shot was well-blocked, and Mackie was marshalled away from Jem Karacan’s cross.
Then at the other end Sanchez wove through from left side but his off-balance shot was tame. But Federici let the ball slide through his hands, and Reading were floored.
Clarke’s men deserved better, and tried for it with the introduction of veteran striker Yakubu, but the holders held out to reach the Final once again.
Reading (4-4-1-1): 1 Adam Federici; 2 Chris Gunter, 5 Alex Pearce (captain), 15 Michael Hector, 11 Jordan Obita; 12 Garath McCleary, 14 Nathaniel Chalobah, 23 Daniel Williams, 9 Hal Robson-Kanu; 19 Jamie Mackie; 7 Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Subs used: 21 Jem Karacan for Robson-Kanu 90; 10 Simon Cox for Chalobah 105; 20 Yakubu for Pogrebnyak 111.
Substitutes not used: 3 Stephen Kelly, 6 Oliver Norwood, 31 Mikkel Andersen (GK), 35 Jake Cooper.
Goals: McCleary 54.
Manager: Steve Clarke.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): 1 Wojciech Szczesny; 2 Mathieu Debuchy, 4 Per Mertesacker (captain), 6 Laurent Koscielny, 3 Kieran Gibbs; 34 Francis Coquelin, 19 Santi Cazorla; 17 Alexis Sanchez, 11 Mesut Ozil, 16 Aaron Ramsey; 23 Danny Welbeck.
Subs used: 5 Gabriel for Mertesacker 63, 12 Olivier Giroud for Welbeck 71, 14 Theo Walcott for Coquelin 101.
Substitutes not used: 10 Jack Wilshere, 13 David Ospina (GK), 18 Nacho Monreal, 20 Mathieu Flamini.
Goals: Sanchez 39.
Manager: Arsene Wenger.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.