Reading: Federici; Gunter, Kelly (Williams 72), Gorkss, Pearce; Guthrie (c), Taylor, Obita; McCleary (Pogrebnyak 84), Blackman (Drenthe 56), Le Fondre.
There is little doubt in my mind that Brighton think they’re on a premier league club in all but the on-the-field, and even in the January mist the AmEx stadium proved to undoubtedly be at the forefront of this vision. I remember being unimpressed with it on our last visit in March 2012, but over 18 months on and the spacious and overall more complete arena felt like an excellent venue for a football match in the greatest domestic cup competition of them all.
Such a scene was not the one set in any minds of 2000+ Reading fans who travelled to Brighton, myself amongst them on the (as always excellent) STAR coaches.
Good form, good spirit and a positive frame of mind felt absent as the team warmed up, and claims that our strongest team was to be the one on the pitch were perhaps contradictory to the result. Jake Taylor gained his full Royals start as Jordan Obita, Kaspars Gorkss, Adam Fedrici and Adam Le Fondre all came in. It was totally agreeable to have further academy products Sweeney, Long (no, not that one) and Tanner on the bench, and ultimately no player can demand a starting place on this form.
Kicking off with a 4-3-3 that saw Taylor and Obita as standard central midfielders, it seemed they were to be the weakness Brighton could attack. Nevertheless, Reading settled into a passing and pressing game for the first 5 minutes before Brighton really got deep into Royals territory. As soon as they offered any willingness to chase us, however, we resorted to hoof-ball tactics and found defending to be the key theme of the first half. Brighton’s Keith Andrews had the first effort of the game, hitting the bar from range, expressing urgency from the home team.
Despite this, whenever Reading could get out their half they were positive in attack, with McCleary from the left and Blackman from the right, but there was no getting past the home side’s defence to create a chance. Balls crossed into the box were far from any attackers, and Adam Le Fondre was powerless to win headers against a comfortable Brighton centre-back pairing of El-Abd and Greer.
Majoratively attacking down the wings, Brighton should have taken the lead on the 25th minute as March had a deflected effort tipped onto the bar, and striker Ashley Barnes had the follow-up clip the opposite end of the bar as an open goal chance went begging.
Not needing to wait too long for their next opportunity, Brighton took advantage of Stephen Kelly’s inability to control a long ball over his shoulder to create another move. Ashley Barnes beat Gorkss to a direct ball, chesting down for Andrew Crofts to drive at goal, his shot deflected off Alex Pearce and nestled into the corner for the first goal of the game.
Sadly, after that Nigel Adkins team struggled to respond with any major pressure, only causing themselves more problems in defence. Jordan Obita, for some reason, decided to take a quick defensive free-kick short to Chris Gunter, and after a scramble attacking midfielder Kemy Agustien took control to run at the away side. Waltzing through plenty of poorly timed and obvious challenges, he should have scored, but as he finally decided to shoot a last-ditch Kelly challenge saved Federici from action.
Into the second half and Reading had a brief spell to excite the travelling fans into action, but once again overlaps and crosses fell to little. Alfie finally got a Reading shot in, but a weak effort from Gunter’s skidding cross rolled softly to keeper Brezovan.
Further Brighton attacks forced Federici into good near and far-post saves, Reading struggled to get out their half for too long and the game felt like it was slipping away. With Drenthe replacing Blackman there started a period of genuine territory for the away team with which to threaten the home sides generally comfortable hold on the lead. The Dutchman shot wide from distance and joined McCleary and Obita in creating movement down the flanks, but overall a serious lack of end-product and no killer through balls saw it all come to nothing.
Danny Williams gave Reading a foundation to attack from when introduced, exposing how Guthrie and the quiet Taylor had failed to do so, but consistently moves were halted as soon as they reached the penalty area, and no clear cut chance was created. Pavel Pogrebnyak was introduced late on, but it was Le Fondre who spurned the chance we had waited for, heading an excellent cross from Taylor over the bar while unmarked from 10 yards. After a fairly isolated but steady performance from the much-idolised striker, all it seemed he needed was that one poacher’s effort to prove his worth to the team, yet ultimately this was another game that Alfie started and did not score in. With our style of play, wingers pinging balls into the box and possession to work it in from the final third, Le Fondre reminded me of Jamie Cureton, popular with the fans but often found wanting when it came to doing something that wasn’t finishing.
Jake Taylor also had a half chance to slice over the bar before the silly fouls began in stoppage time, and Reading were out of it for this year in the cups.
It genuinely felt like we deserved something after a strong final half hour, but in reality the stats tell the true story- all style and no substance. No shots on target against a team that ultimately sat back on an occasionally-flimsy lead that they could probably have lengthened if they so desired to.
It’s hard to think that we’re on the verge of breaking out of this winless habit, and it’s equally hard to envisage any serious January bargains arriving. For the next few games, and probably the season; this manager, squad and staff have to totally internalise and find a way to stop this dismal run of form, because it could all slip into mediocrity very quickly.