After our recent good run, which had most recently seen a midweek draw with Chelsea, confidence was pretty high around the stadium as Martin O'Neill brought his midtable Sunderland side to the Madejski. December had seen the same team comprehensively smash Reading 3-0 but this was a very different Royals team, with just seven of the eighteen who had gone to the Stadium of Light involved yesterday.
Brian McDermott also opted to ring the changes from the side who had started on Wednesday, with Garath McCleary and Hope Akpan replacing Jem Karacan and Danny Guthrie. Those changes meant that Jobi McAnuff was once again playing the floating '10' role and that there was no place for midweek hero Adam Le Fondre, who once again had to settle for a spot on the bench.
Any misgivings about the team selection were quickly eased when Reading scored just six minutes into the game through Jimmy Kebe. The Malian winger picked up the ball just inside the area from Jobi McAnuff and after wrong-footing his marker, smashed an unstoppable left-footed shot into the top corner.
From there, Reading seemed to go from strength to strength, dominating the posession and getting into plenty of dangerous positions, although Mignolet was rarely tested. However, the longer we failed to turn that dominance into a second goal, you began to get that same uneasy feeling that we had at the start of the season, when leads over Fulham, QPR and Newcastle had all failed to turn into wins.
That uneasy feeling wasn't helped when Adam Federici was forced into a double save, first denying N'Diaye and then excellently stopping the rebound from Larsson.
Despite the Aussie's heroics, there was nothing he could do to stop the equaliser, which came from the penalty spot. Sunderland looked threatening from set pieces all day and after a corner had been half cleared, Pavel Pogrebnyak took it upon himself to make a desperate lunge to force John O'Shea out of the box only to just catch his man before the ball and referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot. It was the second stupid penalty that we've given away from that scenario, following Jay Tabb's needless tackle against Manchester United a few weeks back.
The penalty looked slightly iffy at the time but replays showed it was the right call, not that it placated the majority of the crowd who were already displeased with Mason for a serious of dodgy calls and the first minute booking of Jobi McAnuff. We'll some up Mason later on but this one he got right, as did Craig Gardner who placed an excellent penalty low to Federici's right to equalise.
Reading responded well the the blow by pouring forward and Pogrebnyak nearly made up for his mistake with a great glancing header that forced Mignolet into a fine low save that fell kindly to McCleary only for the winger to mis-control the ball and see it harmlessly out for a goal kick.
Into the second half and Ian Harte had a couple of good chances to score from free-kicks, with the first pushed away low by the Sunderland keeper and the second drilled straight into the wall. Meanwhile Adrian Mariappa smashed the bar as Reading desperately sought the goal to clinch all three points.
For all of Reading's hard work they were still struggling to carve out many clear cut chances and as the game wore on, so grew the nerves of the home side and Sunderland's belief that they could escape with all three points. James McClean, who was so nearly a Royal, came on and caused plenty of problems on the flank, linking up well with half-time sub Danny Rose. However the big change for Sunderland came with 11 minutes remaining as new £5m deadline day signing Danny Graham took to the field. Graham scored three goals against Reading during his time at Watford and he came so close to making it one with Sunderland as he got on the end of a corner only to see Federici make a fine save.
Reading brought on Le Fondre and new signing Nick Blackman but neither were able to seriously test Mignolet. However, Reading's new signing did win a free-kick late on that set the stage for the winner. Ian Harte took the free-kick on the right, which found Kebe waiting towards the back post and the Malian nodded home to send the home crowd wild.
There were a few nervous moments late on but Reading hung on to claim a third win in four Premier League home games and make it 14 points from the last 21.
Performance wise this was perhaps our best 90 minutes since Newcastle, as Reading matched Sunderland for possession and actually had a few chances on goal. It wasn't an overly dominating display but we shouldn't expect to dominate any Premier League game and really this was about as good as it's going to get. A second goal while we were on top would have killed it a lot earlier but I think on the balance of play Reading were the more deserving of the three points.
Sunderland had their moments but looked a bit stale and off the pace. N'Diaye was absolutely woeful and the number of times a move broke down or ended due to him skying one 30 yards over the bar or placing a pass 10 yards away from a Sunderland player made Mikele Leigertwood look like Xavi. That being said it was clear there was plenty of talent in the squad and the likes of Fletcher, Graham, McClean and Johnson will help them get more than enough points to stay safe.
As for referee Lee Mason.... While I can't disagree with his penalty decision, his overall performance frustratingly inconsistent. Bookings were seemingly handed out at random, while what was a free-kick one minute was perfectly acceptable five minutes later. All referees are human but some consistency is the least you ask for, especially in the Premier League.
As for Reading? Well we've decided to change the usual format and we'll be putting them in their own separate article which you can find here.
After a set of midweek internationals we head to Stoke who have only won one of their last five at home, so there's certainly a chance for Reading to get another positive result.
Overall I can only give praise to Brian and the players. Whatever happens come May they've given the fans genuine hope and they've proved they can compete in this division. Whether that's enough to stay up remains to be seen but they can hold their heads up high whatever the outcome.
Reading: Federici; Harte, Pearce, Mariappa, Kelly; McCleary (Le Fondre), McAnuff, Akpan, Leigertwood, Kebe; Pogrebnyak (Blackman)