Richards settled a nervy confrontation against their Championship opponents when he rose to power David Silva’s corner past Alex McCarthy to send his side into a meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
City have met United in the last four once before, when the Blues came out on top 3-0 at Bramall Lane in 1926 before losing to Bolton in the final, which could in fact repeat itself.
This is a different era though. The hype will be massive as Roberto Mancini’s men embark on their first semi-final since 1981 knowing victory over the club who have lorded it over them for so long will leave them one step away from the end of that 35-year trophy drought.
Having once again abandoned the traditional Monday draw to suit their television paymasters, the Football Association arranged for England coach Fabio Capello to pluck out the ball that confirmed who the winner of the late kick-off would face in the semi-finals.
For City, who have for so long watched their neighbours lift silverware whilst their cupboard remained bare, losing in the last minute in last season’s Carling Cup semi-final the latest heartbreak, the pairing was something to relish and fear at the same time.
Reading began with confidence befitting a side boasting a seven-game unbeaten run, including a victory at Everton in the previous round.
Skipper Jobi McAnuff sparkled around the Blues box and Noel Hunt was not far off with an early header. City quickly started to dominate though, even if their attacks centred around the twinkle-toes of Silva.
If anything, the Spain star has started to eclipse Carlos Tevez as the Blues’ most dangerous player. The pair combined to set up the returning Shaun Wright-Phillips, whose shot brought the first in a series of excellent saves from McCarthy. Silva pounced on the rebound but also failed to beat McCarthy, who denied the former Valencia man with his legs.
It was also Silva who set Yaya Toure free with a perfectly-timed pass.
The angle was slightly against the Ivorian, which probably explained his hesitancy and why he too failed to beat McCarthy.
Wright-Phillips thrashed a shot into the side-netting and Silva lashed one wide before half-time but the lethargy in City’s play, so apparent in Kiev during the week, was in evidence again, despite the huge prize on offer.
After all that industry prior to the interval, Reading almost committed suicide immediately after it when Shane Long strained to reach an Aleksandar Kolarov corner and succeeded only in turning it towards his own goal. Even McCarthy was stranded as it flashed past him, so how relieved must Long have been to see Jay Tabb head it off the line from his far post station.
Funnily enough, it was a better effort than City could muster themselves.
Tevez twice fluffed his lines in excellent positions, first when Silva had rolled a low cross into the six-yard box, the second time when Wright-Phillips had been the provider.
There was an element of frustration about Toure’s decision to belt a volley goalwards from an impossibly tight angle, although it startled McCarthy who could only push it away.
The young goalkeeper was required again to tip Richards’ downward header over the bar.
Even before Thursday’s grass allergy scare in Kiev, City fans had learned to expect the unexpected from Mario Balotelli, who was given 20 minutes to try and avoid a replay.
It was the Italian’s unselfish running that earned the hosts the corner that brought their goal.
Five years ago, Richards scored a very similar last-minute equaliser in a fifth-round tie at Aston Villa. Richards was a teenager then but judging by the way he rose to meet Silva’s curling effort, he has not lost any of his spring, nor his power as it flashed past McCarthy.