Reading: Federici, Obita, Hector, Pearce, Kelly, Chalobah, Williams, Robson-Kanu (Blackman), McCleary (Mackie), Cox (Norwood), Pogrebnyak
It's hard to remember the last time I walked away from the Madejski Stadium feeling as positive about Reading as I did today. While you couldn't feel your toes on an absolutely freezing afternoon, it was impossible not to sense a renewed feeling of optimism among the 15 thousand or so Reading fans who witnessed a thoroughly professional performance in just about every area of the pitch.
After the goalless draw at Millwall in midweek, Reading boss Steve Clarke decided to make two changes to his starting lineup. Garath McCleary replaced Nick Blackman, while more surprisingly Oliver Norwood lost his place for the first time this season in favour of Simon Cox.
That meant Reading lined up in a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation, with Nathaniel Chalobah and Danny Williams anchoring the midfield flanked by Robson-Kanu and McCleary, while Cox played just off Pavel Pogrebnyak up front. While the attacking intent was certainly welcome, it didn't look to be the wisest move as Wednesday dominated the opening five minutes or so, barely letting Reading have a touch, yet alone advance past the half-way line.
Fortunately the home side soon sparked into life and it was everyone's favourite polarising player Hal Robson-Kanu that was the architect, threading a lovely ball through to Simon Cox inside the box. Unfortunately Cox would come up against an onrushing Keiren Westwood in the Wednesday goal, who smothered the effort from the former Forest striker, who looked surprised he was onside in the first place.
Chances have been hard to come by in recent weeks for Reading but Cox's effort was the first of a series of opportunities that Reading just couldn't quite convert. Cox would curl another chance wide while Chalobah's exquisite pass found McCleary who also missed the target when in a great position to give Reading a lead.
At this stage previous Reading teams would have run out of steam or been hit with a sucker punch but this time Steve Clarke's side continued to knock on the door and were rewarded midway through the half with an opening goal. Another marauding run from McCleary fizzled out but the winger found an overlapping Stephen Kelly, with the right-back putting in a terrific stand-up cross that was met by a leaping Pogrebnyak. Westwood was no match for the Russian's header and for the first time in 2015, Reading fans had a chance to celebrate a goal at the Madejski Stadium.
10 minutes later and things got even better for the Royals faithful, as Chalobah smashed home on his Madejski debut. McCleary's final balls left much to be desired this afternoon but on this occasion his cut-back cross found an onrushing Chalobah and the Chelsea loanee drove high into the top right of the net to give Reading a 2-0 lead. All too often we've bemoaned the lack of support in the penalty area from the midfield but this was a perfect example of how runs from deep can really pay dividends. Here's hoping it's the first of many, rather than an isolated incident.
Wednesday had offered little going forward but when Obita found himself knocked off the ball deep inside his own half it gave the packed South Stand full of Owls fans a rare moment of hope. A cross from the right was driven in and found Sam Hutchinson whose low shot seemed destined for the bottom corner, before Adam Federici somehow managed to tip the ball away past the post.
From that point on you felt that Reading would see out the game and despite a double switch from the visitors at the break, you never really thought the lead was in any great danger. In fact it was Reading who seemed the more likely to score with McCleary having an effort disallowed for offside that manager Steve Clarke claimed was at least two yards onside after the game.
Pogrebnyak was having one of his best games in a Reading shirt and the big Russian soon earned his side an even better chance to go in front, as he was bundled down inside the penalty area. Referee Brendan Malone gave the spot kick, though curiously no card was shown to the culprit Jeremy Helan. Robson-Kanu stepped up to take it but his very tame effort was easily saved by Westwood and once again Wednesday had a glimmer of hope.
The contest soon turned scrappy with a few heavy challenges flying in but the introduction of Norwood for Cox helped settle things down and outside of a few set pieces, neither team really threatened.
It's easy to get carried away after a win but this showed exactly why Reading fans shouldn't be too worried about this football club's Championship status. Reading have plenty of quality in their squad and even with so many under performing this season, the law of averages suggest you'll get enough moments of quality to ensure you get the points needed to keep your head above water. Displays like this will give a lift to everyone in the squad from the back five who've now kept clean sheets in three of their last four league games, to a forward unit who are finally seeing chances created. The midfield is also looking really deep and full of competition and my only gripe today was that we didn't see Jem Karacan given a bit of a run out.
I'll go into more depth on individual performances in the player ratings tomorrow morning but this was a game where nobody is going to get less than a six out of ten. Several players had their best games of the season, with Pogrebnyak, Williams and Kelly in particular impressing.
If there's negatives to be had then you do have to say that we do look like we're missing another striker. Cox gave it his best and was a nuisance but lacked composure at key moments that on other days could have been costly. With the transfer window closing in 48 hours, getting a forward in remains a priority. Jordan Obita was also sloppy, though again had others on form to bail him out. As for Nathaniel Chalobah, we saw why he's getting a reported £35k a week at Chelsea with some awesome passes and a well taken goal but also why he's at Reading with some careless moments on the ball and legs that tired as the game wore on.
However, those are only minor points of critique on an afternoon that left you feeling much more positive about our prospects not just for this season but heading forward. The way the defence has been transformed from one that was leaking three goals a game to one that's now keeping regular clean sheets is testament to Clarke's coaching ability. While the former West Brom head coach is slowly getting more out of players like HRK and Pogrebnyak that were floundering under Nigel Adkins.
Overall it was just a delight to welcome back the Reading of old, a team that while perhaps lacking outstanding quality, possessed a terrific team spirit and a dogged determination to get a result.
Wolves next week will be another tough test but Reading can go to the Midlands full of confidence and hopeful of causing an upset on a ground that's treated them well in recent years.
As mentioned we'll have the player ratings up tomorrow but for now please let us know your thoughts on the game below.