Reading: Federici; Obita, Pearce, Hector, Gunter; Blackman, Williams (Cooper), Norwood, McCleary; Cox, Murray
New Reading manager Steve Clarke immediately went back to basics, selecting exactly the side you called for in this week's squad selector. That meant a recall for Alex Pearce who was also given the captaincy ahead of Chris Gunter, who returned to a more familiar right-back slot. Jordan Obita moved back to left-back, with Nick Blackman earning a start wide on the left in a pretty orthodox 4-4-2.
The changes almost made an immediate impact as Blackman sent over a fine ball to Glenn Murray at the far post, only to see the Palace loanee drill his volley over the bar.
That was pretty much as close as the Royals would get from that point on during the first half, as they were forced to concede most of the possession to a Watford side who were one of the best technical sides we've seen at the Madejski this season. However despite Watford's superiority in controlling the game, Reading's defence looked a million times improved on the shambles at St Andrew's as the visitors were restricted to a few long range pot shots and one decent header at the far post that Federici tipped wide.
Reading's other half-chances saw Norwood blaze a free-kick over from 20 yards, while Murray was unlucky to see an effort at the near post find the wrong side of Heurelho Gomes near post.
The apparent turning point came in first-half stoppage time, when the already booked Gabriele Angella tussled with a breaking Garath McCleary just outside the box. The defender looked to have handled the ball as well as tripping the Reading winger but on seeing the replay you have to feel a little sorry for the Hornets' defender. However, given he was lucky to avoid a yellow after remonstrating in giving away the aforementioned Norwood free-kick plus a cynical first yellow, I don't hold too much sympathy for the Watford man.
Despite being down to ten-men it was the visitors who started the second-half the better. Even after sacrificing Matej Vydra for a defender, Watford still forced a couple of corners and kept Reading pinned in their half for the first ten minutes after the restart.
That all changed when a long ball from Obita found its way to Murray who capitalised on indecision from the Watford defence to race through to the right of Gomes' goal. Sadly once again the Reading striker couldn't find the target, seeing his attempted curl miss the far post.
Gunter was linking up well with McCleary down the right and both almost certainly put in their best performances of the campaign, with the later setting up our best chance of the second-half. McCleary's low cross beat everyone in the Watford box to find Blackman sliding in at the far post but the former Sheffield United man couldn't convert from inside the six-yard box.
As has so often been the case this season, Reading would regret their poor finishing just minutes later when Watford scored with their only clear cut chance of the second period. McCleary and Williams combined poorly in the middle, with the later giving the ball away. That allowed the ball to be shifted out wide to Ikechi Anya who sent a low cross across the Reading box to the onrushing Almen Abdi who slammed a drive past Adam Federici to make it 1-0.
To their credit Reading never gave up but with the players tiring and Watford with something to cling on to, we once again saw a Royals team totally run out of ideas. Chris Gunter had a half-decent penalty shout turned down while a series of long-balls and corners created a few ooohh's and aaahhh's but Gomes hardly had to make a save as Watford saw out their fifth away win of the season.
Certainly there was some positive signs to mark the start of the Clarke era. For starters Reading's defence looked solid against one of the league's best attacking units while there seemed to be a greater sense of urgency in our play. Garath McCleary showed glimpses of the man who was attracting Premier League interest last year, while it was pleasing to see another 90 minutes out of Danny Williams, even if he didn't perform especially well. Glenn Murray looked to be enjoying his football a lot more and there seemed a greater sense of balance with Obita back in the left-back slot.
Sadly there was also plenty to remind us just why we've had to appoint a new manager in the first place.
Once again Reading lacked the nous to break down a determined and disciplined defence, as the forward line again failed to really test a goalkeeper who is always prone to an error or two. While the passion and commitment was great to see, the technical execution of passes in key areas was lacking and too many crosses failed to really pose a threat to the Watford defence. Reading still desperately need a plan B or someone that can make something happen in tight areas because nobody bar McCleary and perhaps Murray ever really looked like causing Watford any major issues.
Watford's near 3,000 traveling fans helped make it a slightly better atmosphere in the ground but again there were far too many empty seats for my liking with a crowd of 18,522 more than 2,000 down on the same game last season. With that said, the fans that were there did their best to get behind the team and personally I felt there was a much more positive atmosphere around the ground, or at least a far less negative one.
I'll get more into individual performances in the player ratings but for now I feel reasonably optimistic about the Clarke era based on the very small amount we've seen today. With so many injuries there was pretty limited scope for Clarke to make major adjustments either before or during the game but those who did make it out there this afternoon did look a lot more confident than we've seen in recent weeks.
Still it's been three games and around five hours since the home fans have seen a goal and with the club just six points clear of the relegation places, the new Reading manager won't have much time to enjoy his new surroundings before fans start to demand results.
Meantime, Merry Christmas and here's hoping Santa can bring us all some better luck on Boxing Day at Brighton.