Federici 7; Cummings 7, Pearce 7, Gorkss 7 (Harte), Griffin 6; Kebe 8, Karacan 7, Leigertwood 7, McAnuff 9; Church 6 (Antonio), Le Fondre 6 (Hunt 6)
There’s something special about a Boxing Day match, isn’t there? Maybe it’s the hangover of Christmas Day, with the remedy being sitting in a cold stadium watching your team. It could be the general festive cheer carrying over. Or maybe it’s the fact that Reading now haven’t lost on the 26th December since 2003, when a certain Jobi McAnuff netted the final goal to give his Wimbledon side a 3-0 victory at the Mad Stad. Eight years later, and the winger was on the scoresheet again as his wizardry saw the Royals grab a fifth victory in six. One change from the side which triumphed at Elland Road saw Jimmy Kebe replace Hal Robson-Kanu on the other wing.
The Royals came out with all guns blazing, determined to score another first half goal, something dearly lacking all season. It seemed as though McAnuff would be involved heavily in the action right from the off, as he crossed for Jem Karacan whose header was turned at goal by Kebe and saved at point blank range by Kasper Ankergren. A minute later and another McAnuff cross, this time from the right, saw Simon Church volley wide from 12 yards. Reading were rampant and creating chances at will, so it was no surprise to see them take the lead after 17 minutes. Kebe beat his man on the right, hit the byline and pulled the ball back for McAnuff, who finished crisply into the corner of the net from around the penalty spot. The goal saw Brighton come back into the match, with crisp one-two passing but no real penetration. The one time they beat Reading’s defensive line, Matt Sparrow could only drill wide from just outside the area. But the Royals finished the stronger as a rejuvenated Kebe won the ball from Taricco and crossed for Le Fondre, who headed wide. But as ever Reading came good in injury time. Griffin got the ball just inside the Brighton half and found McAnuff – the winger cut inside El-Abd and shot from 20 yards into the back of the net. It may have taken a deflection but the shot was crisply struck and heading in anyway. Relief around the stadium as the Royals, for the first time this season, took a lead in to half time at the Madejski Stadium.
The first half was also accentuated by some quite embarrassing play acting from the Brighton players, as they fell to the floor at every opportunity. Church slid in on Dunk in the south-east corner and the centre back gasped out for treatment as the Welsh striker simply dusted himself off. LuaLua and Cummings came together innocuously but the Brighton winger stayed on the ground, adjusting between looking up to the bench and playing dead. Then Taricco and Le Fondre both challenged for the ball, legs came together, and yet again the Brighton man was left sprawled on the floor as the Reading player got straight back up. It was demonstrated further as Leigertwood, on a rare foray forward, was pushed into the ad boards of the South Stand. Instead of writhing around and demanding the physio, he got straight back up and continued the match. These antics continued into the second half – Buckley was fairly slide-tackled by Griffin but in order to save himself from embarrassment, he stayed simply sitting on the floor, waiting for a referee, a physio or possibly a mother figure to tend to his childlike attention seeking. Taricco wasn’t to be outdone in the fake stakes, as he was, again, no more than robustly tackled – yet the scream of a man having just broken his leg escaped his mouth. Nope, sure enough, one pep talk from the physio and he was raring to go again.
It’s a shame that Brighton had to ruin their performance in such a way, as their second half was full of promise and chances. Buckley shot over from inside the 6 yard box after good work from LuaLua, while Ryan Harley had a low shot saved by Federici. Craig Mackail-Smith, a player who left one promoted League One side for another last summer, tried to show Peterborough and Reading (who were rumoured to be interested in him) what they were missing. Instead he contrived to only miss a host of glorious chances, first side footing wide from inside the box, then heading past the post after a long ball over the top. He was also dragged back by Griffin inside the box after lunging for yet another cross, but the referee gave no penalty. Maybe he’d been affected by the Seagulls’ previous displays of amateur dramatics. But Kebe made the game safe with yet another injury time goal, his cross being turned past Ankergren by the unlucky El-Abd. Job done for the Royals, who have now won to nil in the last three matches.
As Reading fans, we experienced something not yet felt this season yesterday – winning at half time at the Madejski Stadium. Whether it was relief, joy or festive cheer, the atmosphere was so much better than any other home game so far. These collective jinxes are slowly being overcome – after not winning at half time in any game up to last week, that’s now two on the trot during what’s typically perceived as the tough Christmas period. It’s also a third clean sheet in a row with Kaspars Gorkss and Alex Pearce stopping anything coming their way yet again. And with Griffin playing his second straight game at left-back, he certainly showed that he still means business, despite having lost his regular slot on the right hand side to “Most Improved” Shaun Cummings. The solid back line of course gives confidence to the midfielders to strut their stuff, and McAnuff had one of his best days in a Reading shirt. He tore Greer apart, grabbed two goals and set up numerous other chances. It was one of those days where he gave that extra yard of effort, and even to the last minute he was busting a gut to travel the pitch. Kebe on the other side showed glimpses of his quality, and set up two goals to show that he very much does still want to play – whether it’s still for Reading come February? Only time will tell. The only disappointment was the striking department. Neither Church nor Le Fondre had any glorious chances, though Alfie did fire just wide from around 25 yards. And Hunt, when he came on, was his typical scurrying self without causing too much threat. Indeed Antonio, in the 5 minutes he got on the pitch, provided a more meaningful contribution than any of the other three, pressuring El-Abd into the own goal. But when your midfield is coming up with the goods, you can forgive the front-line. Yesterday was all about Jobi – he did more than Anuff to secure the win, which takes Reading into the playoffs for the first time this season.
(forgive the pun, it’s Christmas!)