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THE Royals are heading back to Wembley - hoping it's fourth time lucky in play-off finals. In a semi-final second leg every bit as dramatic as it promised to be, Jaap Stam's unlikely army came marching through magnificently on the back of a Yann Kermorgant penalty goal and a super show by keeper Ali Al-Habsi to dump red-hot favourites Fulham out of promotion contention. All season Reading FC have been dismissed as over-achieving also-rans. Even the boss and his coaching team thought a top ten finish was a decent enough target for this season. But they've defied the critics, the bookies and the scoffing other teams who laughed so heartily at the ridiculous 7-1 defeat at Norwich recently. This was the night all that became totally irrelevant. The team was magnificent, the crowd was magnificent, and Stam got his tactics just right for the second time in four days to stifle one of the top-scoring teams in the division, a team with an amazing away record. WATCH Jaap's post-match interview on Sky TV.
It was a game which swayed from end to end - and of course, Fulham were always going to be dangerous. But for the first 15 minutes they hardly had a kick, and would have been behind but for a sensational save from Marcus Bettinelli. Kermorgant brought down a loose ball in the area, turned and rifled a low shot through a forest of legs. Bettinelli plunged to his right to push the ball away. The Fulham keeper also did well to keep out a Lewis Grabban effort which lacked power, but was headed for the far post after he cut in from the left. That jerked Fulham into life, and for 20 minutes they first eased into the game, then started to look dangerous. Al-Habsi did well to keep out a low fizzer from raiding right-back Ryan Fredericks, then the Omani pulled off a fabulous double save. Fredericks, who revealed himself as a good “diver” on Saturday, cleverly ran straight into Tyler Blackett on the edge of the area, and from the resulting free kick Tom Cairney found the curve and dip to get the ball over the wall and on target. Al-Habsi leapt to his left to push the ball out, then got up fast enough to keep out Sone Aluko’s follow-up. Royals then got a grip again and towards half-time had Fulham under pressure again, without really threatening.
Royals started the second half as they had the first, and Bettinelli had to move smartly to keep out a header which Lewis Grabban might have done better with. Then, three minutes into the half Royals made the breakthrough. Kermorgant chased down a long ball to the left of goal, and Tomas Kalas blatantly hooked the ball away from the Reading player with his left hand. Premier League referee Martin Atkinson had a quick think to make sure, and pointed to the spot. Kermorgant rattled his shot hard and low to the keeper’s right and into the corner. Straight away there was almost a second, Bettinelli keeping Swift’s effort out. And on 55 minutes Swift could have killed it. He was two yards out on the end of Reading’s best move of the game, looking just to tap Chris Gunter’s cross into an empty net. He made connection but could only steer it straight at a grateful Bettinelli. Fulham were desperate to get the goal back and they almost did it when Ilori did well to block a goalbound effort from ex-Royal loanee Lucas Piazon. As they did on Saturday, Fulham showed themselves adept at trying to win penalties, and Scott Malone was booked for taking an unconvincing dive under challenge from Williams.
Royals had another chance to end it when Kermorgant was on the end of another good breakaway move but skied his effort from a good position. Then it was Fulham again, twice more bringing the best out of Al-Habsi. First the keeper leapt to tip over Kevin McDonald's clear shot from ten yards, then he dived bravely at the feet of Chris Martin to prevent the Derby loanee turning in a low cross. Liam Moore was also doing sterling work at the back, and as the clock ticked into five minutes of added time, Fulham threw keeper Bettinelli into the attack as well. But the only really anxious moment came when Martin was surprisingly granted a free header ten yards out, but he sent it wide. A couple more half-hearted attempts and then the Mad Stad erupted to salute a magnificent Royals performance. CLUB PICTURE GALLERY. On Wednesday evening Huddersfield were confirmed as Reading's Wembley opponents after beating Sheffield Wednesday on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
ON the night when Reading FC clinched a place in the Championship play-off final at Wembley, there was almost as much drama off the field as on it. Because while Jaap Stam's team battled to their heroic 1-0 win over Fulham, in the boardroom the deal was being signed and sealed to sell a majority shareholding to Chinese billionaire sister and brother, Xiu Li Dai and Yongge Dai (right). For the past six months, the current Thai owning consortium has reportedly been ready to sell a controlling interest. The Thais intend to keep 25pc of the club shares and the entire "Royal Elm Park" development project around the stadium. The sale was not sanctioned immediately by the Football League, but a Royals club statement recently confirmed that a potential deal was still in progress. CLICK HERE for club statement.
It was in November that the pair’s interest was first revealed, but it’s believed the Football League was originally cautious about sanctioning their takeover because questions had previously been raised about their aborted bid to buy Hull City in August last year. That was apparently vetoed by the Premier League, reportedly not for a problem with the brother and sister, but because of others involved in their bid. Yongge Dai and Xiu Li Dai are among the wealthiest and most influential people in China. Their father is a former head of the China Central Bank, and the pair are billionaires on the back of a network of underground shopping malls in cities across China.
In early 1992 the Chinese government began to look for alternative uses for a number of huge Cold War-era underground bomb shelters. Joining forces with her younger brother, Xiu Li Dai, then living in London and married to British teacher Tony Hawken, formed Renhe Commercial Holdings, an investment company which started to transform several former military bunkers into shopping malls. Profits were generated through shop rents and management lease deals and by 2008 Renhe had earned a listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Having built the empire of shopping malls to over 30 Chinese cities, Renhe sold that side of the business last year for a billion US diollars, investing instead in major expansion of an agricultural wholesale markets business it had acquired in 2015. The company website lists its “business model” as : (a) the leasing or providing of space in the form of trading halls or open areas to traders for the trading of agriculture produce; (b) the leasing or providing of warehouses, icehouses and other designated space to the traders for the storage and packaging of agriculture produce; (c) the provision of transportation and third-party logistics information services to traders; (d) other value-added services including packaging of the agricultural produce.
Xiu Li has appeared in a recent version of the influential Forbes Rich List as having a net worth in excess of two billion dollars. She and Mr Hawken were divorced in 2014, rather bizarrely because he was quoted as saying he did not enjoy the lifestyle of a billionaire, or the time they spent apart while she was on business in China. They met on a blind date after she arrived in England in 1991, and it was whilst living in South Norwood, near Croydon, that Xiu Li developed her interest in football, attending various Premier League matches with the couple’s son, William. On the back of that, Xiu Li and her brother bought a Chinese League club, then based in Shaanxi, but now relocated to the capital, and known as Beijing Renhe. That, presumably, will become a sister club to the Royals, although in recent seasons it has not been a great success, suffering relegation two years ago to its present Division One status, finishing fourth there last season. The club plays at the 31,000 capacity Beijing Fengtai Stadium.
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THE bookies wrote them off as 5/1 no-hopers in a two-horse race - and in-form Fulham strode out basking in the historic glory of the 5-0 tonking they gave the Royals back in December. But this turned out a whole new ball game, and Reading FC head back to the Madejski Stadium for Tuesday's second leg of the Championship slightly in pole position after a terrific battling performance at Craven Cottage. After an even first hour, Royals were ahead through an opportunist strike by Jordan Obita on 53 minutes - and might have gone two up had Danny Williams been awarded what looked, from TV pictures, like a decent shout for a penalty.
Eventually Fulham conjured an equaliser on 65 minutes, their best move of the match ending in the net off Tom Cairney's head - but only, in the end, because Ali Al-Habsi pushed out a cross-shot he might have held. Royals had been on top at that stage, and the lead was almost restored by an outrageous lobbed volley from 40 yards out wide right by Yann Kermorgant. But any hope they had of an upset win disappeared on 80 minutes when skipper Paul McShane was sent off for a mistimed challenge. That left ten minutes plus five more of added time, but Reading's ten held out without any real alarm - despite Fulham's repeated attempts at diving in the penalty area, which, to the referee's credit, he ignored.
The second leg on Tuesday pits one of the best home records in the division against the best away one - with extra time and penalties on the menu if necessary. Royals, of course, will be without McShane, whose error of timing was not unconnected to the fact he was being pulled back at the time of his fatal tackle. However, manager Jaap Stam, in his post-match media briefing, is sure that whilst it is in no way going to be an easy task, Reading have the players in their squad to finish the job on Tuesday. However, they might also be missing Obita, who twisted his ankle in the last minute of the game. That means after surprising Fulham with his 3-5-2 line-up, Stam may have to revert to 4-3-3 to allow a back line of Chris Gunter, Liam Moore, Tiago Ilori and Tyler Blackett. Fulham are dangerous down the wings, and not only will Chris Gunter need support in case he again faces the mob-handed left wing thrusts which brought Fulham their goal, and most of their other danger moments, but on the other side, Blackett will have to be less easily conned than he sometimes is if Ryan Fredericks renews his Tom Daley tactics down the right.