Ah, Reading. How we've missed your inconsistency, your inability to string wins together. It seemed to desert us for the whole of last season - what happened? Your seemingly unnatural knack of travelling to one of the league favourites and coming home with all three points, then putting in a tame performance next time out? That was certainly on display on Tuesday night. Okay, it must be said that just as Leicester City see us as their bogey team, so Fratton Park must be the ground we dread travelling to, having not won there since the 1997/98 season. But even so, expectations were high after the unexpected victory at the weekend. Brian McDermott made no changes to the starting line-up from Saturday, while his opposite number Steve Cotterill chose to leave new signing Benjani on the bench, instead bringing in former Royal Dave Kitson up-front to partner Kanu.
The game quickly settled into the pattern many expected to see - Portsmouth controlled possession and Reading absorbed the pressure before looking for quick breaks up-field to hit Pompey on the counter. Indeed, both teams had great chances in the first fifteen minutes: first Greg Halford, another ex-Reading player, forced Federici to tip a shot from the top of the box onto the bar, then from the resulting corner, Jimmy Kebe ran the length of the field and forced Ashdown into a good stop low down. Reading seemed to have found their main outlet in the Malian wizard, who had great success against the Portsmouth left side in Ward and Mullins - and his cross in the 27th minute found its way across the box to Jobi McAnuff, who volleyed over when more composure was needed.
Then came the first gilt-edged chance of the game. Portsmouth's slick one-touch passing had caused Reading problems all game, as the movement between the lines dragged players out of position, and a ball found its way through to Kitson, and with far more time than he expected (or needed), he could only find the outstretched body of Federici when one-on-one. Reading's best chance of the match came five minutes later, a short free-kick from Ian Harte, a deep cross from McAnuff, and a header from the dangerous Kebe hitting the bar. But Pompey finished the half on top. First, David Norris contrived to miss from 6 yards out with a side-footed effort, then Hayden Mullins placed effort was deflected wide by a Reading leg. For Royals fans, it was not a matter of 'if', but 'when' the goal would come for Pompey after half time.
It only took 5 minutes. And it was entirely down to poor defensive work from the Royals. Liam Lawrence whipped in a corner from the right-hand side, and with Halford being pulled down in the area, it was Kitson who somehow found space in a crowded box to volley the ball into the bottom corner. Advantage Portsmouth. This forced Reading onto the attack, but regular outlet in the first half Kebe now had 2 men on him at all times, and somehow the Royals looked without a plan B. Quick spraying of the ball around the top of the penalty area tried to release the wingers, but to no avail. In fact the best chance the Royals could muster was a ball over the top for Noel Hunt to run onto - he slotted home with aplomb, but was ruled offside.
The introduction of Benjani for Portsmouth seemed to lift their spirits, and it was he who found Luke Varney in the box after 85 minutes, but with the opportunity to finish the game, he managed only to hit the outside of Federici's post. One last attack came for Reading, and with the ball bouncing around in the penalty area, Kebe got a touch onto Jason Pearce's outstretched arm. 1,500 Reading fans screamed, 11 Reading players voiced their appeals, but referee Andy D'Urso was having none of it. Whether D'Urso ruled it ball-to-hand or genuinely didn't see it, we'll never know, but the incident was one of those which Reading fans would call a "stone-waller", with Pompey fans aghast to see "ball-to-hand" given. With play waved on, so were Reading's chances of getting anything from the match, and the game fizzled out until the final whistle. Yet again, Royals fans came to Fratton Park with expectations, and left with a sour taste in their mouths.
It'll be said in the press that we were missing Shane Long, and to a certain extent that was true on Tuesday. Away from home especially, you need somebody who can hold the ball up and bring other players into the game. Manset, despite his size and strength, doesn't seem to have Championship nous just yet, whereas Noel Hunt can leap like a salmon, but his shielding of the ball leaves much to be desired. The other problem always seems to come when the opposition wises up to Kebe being our only significant outlet - as soon as his supply lines are cut off, we look a side lost, with no other option than to pass the ball around in the hope that a gap will open up. McAnuff seemed to have lost his confidence to beat a man - this was not the Jobi who ruthlessly carved open Cardiff City just three months ago. Griffin was beaten time and time again on the right-hand side (though he was taken off after 72 minutes with injury), but it was pleasantly surprising to see Harte cope with everything thrown at him. Overall, it wasn't a disastrous performance from the Royals - we had many chances to get a result from the match - but at least it serves as a reality check: to fulfil our dreams of promotion, we need to cut out the small errors, the fine lines between hitting the bar and scoring, and allowing the ball to hit the ground at corners. These are the lines between the results we need to succeed.
Federici 6, Griffin 5 (Gunnarsson 72, 5), Khumalo 6, Pearce 6, Harte 7, Kebe 7, Karacan 5 (Howard 85), Leigertwood 6, McAnuff 5, Manset 6 (Robson-Kanu 67, 6), Hunt 6