Reading: McCarthy; Gunter, Pearce, Gorkss, Obita; McCleary, Akpan, Guthrie, McAnuff; Drenthe (Blackman 79); Robson-Kanu (Le Fondre 32)
Nigel Adkins named an unchanged side from the one which won 4-2 at Elland Road in the week, and one of the goalscoreres that evening, Royston Drenthe, whipped in a fantastic free-kick from deep which striker Chris Martin did well to clear. Reading took the corner short and Jobi McAnuff ran into the box, going down rather softly under a challenge from a Derby man - referee Mike Jones waved away any half-hearted appeals.
Jamie Ward was the main danger for Derby and he fashioned a couple of good chances for the Rams early doors. He drove past Obita all too easily and crossed into the middle, where Hope Akpan was able to clear to safety. Then a poor pass from Chris Gunter split Guthrie and Akpan, finding Ward instead - his shot from 25 yards sailed harmlessly wide. The central midfield of Derby was running rings around the Reading defensive front, and Simon Dawkins on the left wing found Ward again, whose snapshot was blocked by Obita; McCarthy saved the follow-up from Martin easily enough.
Drenthe was the main dangerman for Reading, with Garath McCleary looking very off the pace in the first half, and his run onto a Gunter through-ball broke the high defensive line of Derby. He bore down on goal, and with only Hal Robson-Kanu in the middle, he shot into the side-netting of the goalkeeper's near post. The game somewhat slowed down when both Robson-Kanu and young talent Will Hughes were forced off due to injury at around the half hour mark. Adam Le Fondre replaced the Welshman and instantly showed some rapport with Drenthe as the flying Dutchman played a slide-rule pass to the striker which just had too much heat on it, allowing Lee Grant to collect.
Derby had perhaps the best chance of the first half with five minutes to go as they took a quick corner, and Craig Forsyth fired over from no more than six yards. But neither side had created anything clear-cut - though Derby were looking by far the most likely side to break the deadlock.
Reading started positively to open the second period, and Danny Guthrie released McAnuff on the left-wing - he cut inside and at least troubled Grant with a shot he had to move to his left to collect. But the Rams had the first real chance to score, as Andre Wisdom drilled in a cross from the right wing which found Dawkins unmarked at the back post. He dallied on the ball, which allowed Gunter to make a goal-saving block to keep the match goalless.
McCleary had looked extremely sluggish all match, not wanting to commit to challenges and being half a step off the pace of the match, but after an hour he found himself in space on the right wing - memories of that thunderbolt against QPR were summoned as he let fly again, but the ball dribbled wide of the left post. The Jamaican winger then hit the byline and fired in a cross which found Le Fondre open two yards out, but with too much power and height on the centre, the poacher couldn't adjust in time to divert the ball goalwards.
Patrick Bamford was introduced by Shteve McClaren on the sixty minute mark, and he had two golden chances to increase his ever growing reputation. First, he curled wide from the top of the box after the ball fell to him 20 yards out. Then he was released through the middle and found himself one on one with McCarthy, but the 'keeper came out on top as he parried the striker's shot for a corner.
Into the last ten minutes, and Adkins threw on Nick Blackman for the tiring Drenthe, and the new introduction had an almost instant impact as he fired in from 25 yards - it hit a defender and deflected to McCleary, far more in the game now, and he crossed to the far post again. This time Hope Akpan was waiting, or rather stretching, as his diving header went wide of Grant's goal. McCleary had another chance to cross a couple of minutes later, and this time he found Blackman 12 yards out, whose sidefoot towards goal just went over the top of Grant's net.
The two best chances of the match came in the final five minutes. Bamford got onto the end of another corner and had at least two bites at the cherry, but with a wall of Reading shirts in the six-yard box, somehow the Royals survived a good-old fashioned goalmouth scramble. And in an spookily similar series of events, Adam Le Fondre appeared to head in at the death to give the Royals victory. But just as against Swansea in the Premier League last year, it was disallowed for hand-ball - and it was even the same referee, Mike Jones, in a true Groundhog Day moment.
And talking of Groundhog Day, this match summed up the average Reading match in a nutshell. Enough chances which went begging to win the game, but equally this wasn't a match we necessarily deserved to win. Derby are four places above us in the table, but at times they looked in a different league to the Royals, passing neatly and fashioning more clear-cut chances. Four unbeaten for Reading, but in two of those were draws against teams playing with (at most) ten men - fine margins which could haunt us in two months time.
This result leaves us in 7th, with the long awaited charge of Wigan and Brighton in full swing. Ten games to go, and we need to pick up results sooner rather than later - and consistently too. The good news is the relatively large gap between 8th and 9th which should see us there or thereabouts come May. The bad news is that it's no longer in our hands, and there are teams in finer form than us at the moment.