MANCHESTER // London should prepare for an invasion from Manchester. Whether Manchester United against Manchester City is the dream or nightmare scenario - and for many, it would have made for a tantalising final - the reality is that it is the most eagerly-anticipated FA Cup semi-final for years.
"I am very happy for the squad, they deserve to go to Wembley," said Roberto Mancini, the City manager, following his side's 1-0 victory over a spirited Reading side at Eastlands yesterday. "It is a great semi-final. I think every semi-final will be hard."
Given City's long wait for an FA Cup appearance at London's Wembley Stadium, spanning three decades since Tottenham Hotspur pipped them in the 1981 final replay, perhaps it was appropriate that their longest-serving player ensured their progress.
• There is a lot to cheer about for Arsenal
• Stoke City overcome hiccup to beat West Ham to rare FA Cup semi-final spot
• Wembley has always been kind to me, says Bolton's Coyle
A header by Micah Richards ended an afternoon of frustration and, in particular, the remarkable resistance of an unknown.
It was a statement of the obvious to brand this the biggest game of Alex McCarthy's career. The 21-year-old goalkeeper was making only his sixth start for Reading.
He made it a memorable occasion, performing save after save until, finally, Aleksandar Kolarov bent in a corner, and Richards rose majestically and headed emphatically into the Reading net.
In the process, the Championship's interest in the FA Cup was terminated. Brian McDermott's team defended doggedly but, eventually, pressure told.
For a fatigued City, it was a belated reward at the end of a gruelling week. The match kicked off barely 60 hours after their return from Kiev, in the Ukraine. After a 2-0 defeat in the Europa League, the FA Cup assumed a greater importance if silverware is to be secured.
Given their crowded programme, Mancini's has been a delicate balancing act.
The Italian's most eye-catching selection was that of Shaun Wright-Phillips, starting at Eastlands for the first time in 2011. The occasion was almost marked with a goal, too, the winger thrashing a shot that McCarthy parried, along with David Silva's more delicate follow-up.
The inexperienced goalkeeper excelled again to block Yaya Toure's low drive, with the Ivorian the beneficiary of Silva service.
While McCarthy subsequently saved from Silva, it was a moment memorable for the build-up, a delightful piece of juggling by the Spaniard to deceive Ian Harte.
Swapping flanks, the former Valencia winger's winding solo run afforded him an opening. His low cross was played at pace; arriving at similar speed, Carlos Tevez attempted a back-heeled flick. Once again, McCarthy made the save.
He managed, too, to tip one Richards header over although not, sadly for Reading, a second. Yet with Brynyar Gunnarsson almost as impressive at the heart of the visitors' defence, it was very much a team effort.
Indeed, when McCarthy was beaten, his colleagues came to his assistance. Vincent Kompany met Kolarov's corner with a header but Jay Tabb headed off the line.
Although McDermott had been positive in his selection, choosing two strikers from the start, Reading's attacks were isolated affairs. Noel Hunt skewed an effort wide and Joe Hart gathered a Shane Long shot, but they came closest immediately after City scored, when Gunnarsson headed narrowly wide from a free kick.
With the draw made before the game, the challenge for City was to keep their minds focused on Reading, rather than United. A raucous atmosphere was a sign of the reward for victory.
"I'll let you guess how much the next opponent means to us," said City's Belgian defender Vincent Kompany. "There's no easy ways to the final. We have to play them and we are looking forward to it. Definitely no complaints from ourselves and we are looking forward to it."
The blue hordes can now plan their journeys south, knowing semi-final defeat would be all the more painful but a triumph still more satisfying.