Reading: McCarthy, Bridge, Morrison, Pearce, Gunter; Baird (Taylor), Guthrie, Robson-Kanu (Blackman), Obita, McAnuff (Le Fondre); Pogrebnyak
Reading broke from the 4-4-2 formations that had seen them pick up a win and a draw against Birmingham and Barnsley, instead favouring target man Pavel Pogrebnyak as lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. As a result, three changes were made from the draw in the week, with Stephen Kelly making way for Chris Gunter in the revolving door set-up that Adkins has instigated at full back, with Jordan Obita and Jobi McAnuff replacing Adam Le Fondre and the injured Garath McCleary. Perhaps the most surprising piece of team news was that Billy Sharp was missing with a groin injury meaning Nick Blackman and Le Fondre would provide the striker cover on the bench.
Burnley made only one change from their 2-0 victory over Doncaster in midweek, with Dean Marney coming in for David Edgar, meaning that the potent attacking duo of Danny Ings and Sam Vokes were free to trouble another defence.
Despite initial concerns from many travelling Reading supporters, the early moments of the game were slightly more positive. After a fairly even few opening exchanges, Reading were the first team to look dominant, with Danny Guthrie yet again controlling much of the midfield. Sadly, despite Pavel Pogrebnyak's recent transformation from useless disinterested flop to dangerous hold-up man, he offered little in terms of goal threat despite working much harder than usual, as a stern Burnley defence preventing much from getting through.
As a result, Reading were generally restricted to wing-play, much of which initially came down the right flank but with little in terms of crosses coming in the box. Jordan Obita looked particularly promising at points but often felt a little restricted, and certainly slowed down after a bright start.
However, as was probably to be expected, Burnley began to grow into the match, putting some threatening balls through which forced Guthrie and Baird into some hard work defensively and after just 20 minutes this pressure soon paid off. Kieran Trippier found himself far up the right wing, and played what seemed a simple diagonal ball into the box only for Morrison and Pearce to both completely fail to deal with it, allowing Ings to slide in on the six yard box and score his seventh league goal of the season.
The goal seemed to give Burnley even more confidence, and allowed them to start pushing forward with much more attacking threat. Suddenly Reading seemed to lose the control of the game, with the normally dominating Guthrie having to resort to defensive duties to keep the attacking threat at bay. Indeed, only a few minutes after the goal David Jones smashed in a long range shot which McCarthy couldn't hold on to, and Vokes raced towards the rebound just as the Royals ‘keeper grabbed onto it to prevent the lead being doubled.
It seemed at this point that the game was only going to go one way, but Reading still had the odd attack and Pavel Pogrebnyak would have repeated his header against Chelsea on the half hour mark if ex-Man Utd goalkeeper Tom Heaton hadn't just tipped the ball over the bar. From there, Reading created a few more attacks but many of the crosses were either too powerful that sailed over the box, or were put in when there was nobody ready to finish it. At other times there were some good moves with just one misplaced pass breaking it down, meaning Reading were getting close to an equaliser but lacked the quality to finish things off.
The rest of the half looked very much a case of Burnley in control, with the hosts not really allowing Reading into their own half. Reading did have a good share of the possession (58% at half time) but, as some fans might be unsurprised to hear, most of it was passing between the defenders and back to Alex McCarthy.
The Clarets continued their superiority into the second half, beginning with something of a flurry of chances almost from the start. McCarthy wasn't tested by Danny Ings' curling shot, but shortly after had to work hard to stop Arfield from making it 2-0. Soon after, the Reading goalie had a double save to make after Arfield again created a chance from a Danny Ings rebound, giving David Jones a chance to which McCarthy's trailing leg stopped at the last. Once again, McCarthy was showing himself to be a fine shot-stopper, although the fact that he had to deal with so many shots was somewhat concerning for the defence as a unit. Another slight worry was McCarthy's kicking, with some goal kicks going straight out, and many hasty clearances returning possession immediately to Burnley.
McCarthy soon made another brilliant save from short range header and perhaps the realisation that Burnley were gaining a firm control of the game prompted Adkins to break his usual style and make a very early triple substitution before the hour mark. Unsurprisingly, Adam Le Fondre came on to create an attacking threat, with Nick Blackman coming on as well, alongside the somewhat interesting introduction of the young Jake Taylor for only his second ever league appearance.
Out of the three new introductions, it was Taylor that initially looked the most threatening, with a mazy run playing in Pogrebnyak at quite a tight angle, to create another promising attack, but as was so often the case there was no final cutting edge to convert the chance into a goal.
Despite the changes, Reading were still finding the game pretty tough. With Burnley continually providing a threat and getting forward with menace on a regular basis to challenge McCarthy, a second goal seemed inevitable, and on the 80th minute the home team looked to have killed the game off. A quick pass breached the back line and Vokes' pace beat Pearce to put him clean through with McCarthy. and as you'd have expected with his form going into the game, the Welsh striker duly slotted home to get his eighth goal this season.
With ten minutes left on the clock and a two-goal deficit, the situation suddenly looked very grim for Nigel Adkins side, however, as many Reading fans know, you can never write the Royals off late in a game, and it only took two minutes for the visitors to give a response. Obita ran down the left wing, with the young lad putting in a brilliant cross that saw Pogrebnyak getting a head on it just past the far post. The header put the ball across the goal and it caught the back of Jason Shackell before ending up in the net to pull a goal back. Whilst the celebrations felt slightly flat, it meant the game was back on and there was a chance Reading could still have snatched a point.
Despite this flash of promise, Reading were unable to fully capitalise and Burnley instead strengthened their own resolve to keep all three points. Whilst the Royals tried to surge forward and grab something to take home with them, there was still little cutting edge in the final third (despite having three strikers on the pitch and many promising attacking midfielders going forward for set pieces). With three minutes added on, Reading once again attempted to push for an equaliser but a strong defence and lack of true finishing quality meant that it wasn't to be. Trippier going down right in the last minute pretty much ended the game and the visiting supporters were resigned to a long trip back down south with nothing to show for the performance other than an own goal.
Overall, it has to be said that Burnley showed why they were top of the league in the game. Not only did they have two very good young strikers (who between them have got fifteen league goals) but a strong creative midfield , with the home team creating 21 shots during the match compared to Reading's seven. Burnley also had a stern defence, plus a promising goalkeeper to boot.
While it could be argued that the Royals did create enough chances to have won it with a proven finisher, the same could have been said for Burnley, who were kept out consistently all game by a strongly in-form Alex McCarthy. On the way back after the game, I overheard quite a few Burnley fans raving about the young England goalkeeper, who should be happy with his performance despite conceding twice. Perhaps most worrying from this game was the amount of shots that the hosts were allowed to attempt, with Morrison and Pearce's lack of pace looking particularly apparent against a quick strike force. Ultimately, it should be remembered that this was always going to be a very tough trip against a team in superb form and on top of the league, so a the defeat wasn't an entirely disappointing result.