Reading: McCarthy, Obita, Hector, Pearce, Gunter, Akpan (Taylor), Guthrie, Robson-Kanu, Blackman (McAnuff), Drenthe (McCleary), Le Fondre
Arriving at the Amex on the back of 'Woe-vil' and 'McAnuff-gate', Reading supporters undoubtedly had apprehensions about this tricky away fixture. Brighton and Hove Albion's possession game has seen Oscar Garcia's men rack up countless one-nil home wins this season. A win for Reading would see them edge past an FA Cup-committed Wigan side, who are currently bang in form and back into the play-off places.
Management Consultant and part-time freelance PR guru Nigel Adkins made four changes following the mid-week round of international fixtures. Michael Hector was handed his first start in place of Kaspars Gorkss, Nick Blackman replaced Garath McCleary on the right of midfield, Royston Drenthe came in for Jobi McAnuff and Hal Robson-Kanu moved Pavel Pogrebnyak aside.
As the team of three wingers was announced over the public address system, the away fans were left pondering what shape the team would take. From the outset it looked like Robson-Kanu would fulfil the number ten role, with Blackman and Drenthe out wide.
It was a positive start for the Royals with Drenthe setting a trend for the game, cutting in from the left, beating two defenders and firing across the box. Initial concerns about a re-run of January's FA Cup game seemed to be unfounded as Reading started brightly, hassling Brighton in possession and disrupting Albion's normal fluid passing style.
Reading's tempo relaxed fifteen minutes into the first half, allowing Brighton to pass it around neatly in the middle of the pitch without ever posing a true threat to the Reading goal. And then it happened, from seemingly nowhere.
Sixteen minutes in, a cross from the Brighton left aimed into the lonely and isolated Ulloa in the box, the Argentine outnumbered at least four to one by Reading defenders. Alex McCarthy advanced to claim the ball. Catastrophically, Chris Gunter had other ideas, as he managed to nod it perfectly past a stranded McCarthy. One-nil Brighton.
Reading continued to look motivated and up for this key fixture, with Danny Guthrie taking the initiative, passing the ball around well from his deep central midfield position. The Royals survived a five minute period of pressure from Albion's high pressing defence midway through the first half, despite McCarthy's insistence on restarting play by passing the ball to Alex Pearce's feet - something the big centre back looked decidedly uncomfortable with. Michael Hector on the other hand was a delight in possession, making simple, effective passes in a composed manner. Maybe that time in Scotland has done him some good?
The remaining twenty minutes of the first half passed in a similar vein, with midfield tussling and shots high over the crossbar. In what would later turn out to be a particularly poor piece of decision making, Gordon Greer clumsily clattered into Adam Le Fondre, resulting in a yellow for the Albion captain. Reading's now unfavoured four-five-one looked a good match for a competent Brighton team.
Over a half time pie in the concourse Reading supporters forecast the imminent involvement of Garath McCleary to replace the ineffectual Nick Blackman. The change was not forthcoming. The Reading players, led by Royston Drenthe in what can only be described as a Parky-esque dash to the far side, re-entered the field of play for the second half. Was their slightly early return a sign of the manager's hairdryer treatment at halftime?
The second half started brightly for Adkins' men, with Robson-Kanu crossing into the box early on. Barely a few minutes had passed when Le Fondre picked up the ball on the Reading left and took on the out of position Greer. Knocking the ball past the ageing Scot Le Fondre went to go around his man, only to be violently checked by the central defender. The ensuing huddle of players around the referee highlighted the Brighton players' concerns regarding the inevitable outcome. As Le Fondre continued to lay prostrate on the turf, Greer was given his marching orders and immediately Brighton sacrificed a midfielder for a defensive replacement.
The Amex went from public library to hostile cauldron as Reading sensed blood - first Drenthe, then Le Fondre, then Guthrie all going close. Nick Blackman was starting to put his sloppy first half behind him as he repeatedly advanced into Kuszczak's box. The Reading back line was not being overly troubled, with Pearce seemly permanently affixed to Ulloa and Hector continuing to look assured in possession and doing all the right things in defence.
On 64 minutes the omnipresent Drenthe cut in from the right and into the Brighton box. Striking a powerful left-footed shot through a maze of defenders, he beat Thomas Kuszczak at his near post with pure power. Arms spread wide apart, like a crucified man, he ran to the away dugout to celebrate. Perhaps this wasn't to be a repeat of the Yeovil game after all?
Reading continued to press down both flanks as Drenthe was booed vociferously by the home faithful. With twenty minutes to go surely it was only a matter of time before the Royals landed the killer blow. From the back Obita and Gunter overlapped and provided service into the six yard box, but to no avail, and with 15 minutes remaining Drenthe was spent, replaced by McCleary.
The Royals continued with the wide approach with McCleary and McAnuff (who had earlier replaced Blackman) both forcing their way past and/or through the Brighton full-backs. With McAnuff clean through on goal, after skilfully beating his man, he managed to place the ball squarely into the chest of the Albion keeper when it seemed harder not to score.
Six minutes of added time was greeted with hysteria by the Brighton supporters and Albion continued to look a real threat on the break, at one stage forcing a world class single-handed save out of Alex McCarthy with just minutes to go.
Yet again it had happened. With the opposition down a man and Reading working tirelessly to force a break through, there was only a meagre end product, but this wasn't the doom and gloom of Yeovil - this was more akin to Millwall and QPR. Some light at the end of the tunnel? Well, if that light is shaped like Michael Hector, then possibly 'yes'. The big man lived up to the hype which surrounded his lone spell north of the boarder - classy with the ball at his feet and effective in the tackle. I am many loyal Royals would like to see Big Hec retain his place for the trip to Elland Road.
Thanks again to Andy and we'll have his full player ratings up later today.