Federici; Gunter, Hector, Cooper, Obita; Ake, Karacan, Chalobah; McCleary (Appiah 63), Mackie (Stacey 63), Blackman (Novakovich 81)
After Saturday's brilliant performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup Semi Final, it was back to the Championship, and Birmingham City came to town - the reverse fixture saw Nigel Adkins lose his job as the Royals were spanked 6-1. Steve Clarke rang the changes - Alex Pearce, Danny Williams, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Hal Robson-Kanu all missing out on Wednesday night.
The flags were out for Federici in support of the Aussie keeper whose mistake saw the Royals lose in extra-time on Saturday at Wembley, and confusion between him and Jake Cooper almost let Clayton Donaldson in on goal. Instead, Cooper took control and delivered a sumptuous long ball to Garath McCleary on the right wing - he dribbled in-field and shot left-footed, but his effort bounced wide of Darren Randolph's left post. Diego Fabbrini looked like Birmingham's biggest threat, and he beat Michael Hector on the left wing before cutting inside and unleashing a shot which took a deflection and looped out for a corner.
The Royals started to take control of the game, and Jamie Mackie fired a shot wide from the top of the box after Nathaniel Chalobah found Jem Karacan in the area. Then Jordan Obita won a free-kick out wide - his delivery found Hector whose effort was saved, and neither Mackie nor Nick Blackman could find the net as their follow-ups were blocked in the six-yard box. Reading recycled, and McCleary fired in again left-footed; this time his effort was on target, but Randolph palmed away for another corner.
Fabbrini found himself in space on the left wing after half an hour and fired in a cross which was air-kicked by Donaldson. Paul Caddis was backing him up and found himself with a chance from 18 yards, but blazed harmlessly over. At the other end, Chalobah had a couple of pot shots from distance - the first, a curler to the far post, was tipped wide by Randolph, then his connection on a volley was sweet but, again, straight down the keeper's throat. And Adam Federici was finally called into action with five minutes to go in the half, as Jonathan Grounds met a corner with his head, but Feds collected with ease.
The second half was a largely insipid affair, as Reading created opportunities but couldn't finish, whilst the Blues struggled to even fashion a chance. Nathan Ake had a tame effort saved by Randolph, then Blackman and Chalobah combined wonderfully to race into the box, but neither wanted to get the shot in, and the danger was cleared. Obita had a pot shot from 25 yards which sailed harmlessly wide, whilst Blackman had a very soft penalty shout after a slight push in the back in the penalty area.
The Royals had been reduced to shots from range, and for the most part it was easy pickings for Randolph in the Birmingham net. Chalobah found astonishing power on one such strike from outside the box, and the keeper had to react quickly to stop his goalbound effort. Jack Stacey, introduced as a sub on the hour mark, tried a far-post curler which was heading wide but was palmed away in facile fashion. Then Ake tried his luck, but his effort was always going over.
Steve Clarke made changes which seemed like scouting missions, bringing on two Academy products and one loanee to see what he has at his disposal. The Blues had the player who changed the game, and has no doubt been the scouting mission of many a Premier League scout - Demarai Gray. His pace instantly caught out Gunter on the right flank, then he cut inside and fired off a shot at goal. Federici had to be alert to make his first meaningful save of the game with his legs. From this attack, the Royals broke up field and Stacey released Kwesi Appiah in the box. Appiah took too long in deciding to shoot, however, and the threat was nullified.
Birmingham suddenly had more pace, more passion and more desire to get forward and find a winner. It so nearly came from Andrew Shinnie, whose low drive was palmed wide by Federici for a corner. Short the set-piece went, and Stephen Gleeson's cross was nodded over the keeper by Donaldson. Same old story eh? Reading threw Cooper up top in an attempt to win the inevitable barrage of long balls forward, but instead it was the Blues who nearly added to the scoreline. Donaldson outmuscled Hector and ran in on goal - the striker went for the nutmeg on Federici, but he closed his legs and saved the effort.
A muted reaction at full-time from the Reading fans - some boos, but far more noticeable was the apathy. The "should have known" feeling. A frustrating evening, and one which was typical of the Royals in recent times - no goal threat.
Reading have now won one League game in the last eleven. They have failed to score in nine of the last thirteen home games. I've attended all four of the Royals' last matches (Bournemouth, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal and tonight against Birmingham City) and I've come out of every single match thinking we deserved more. Or, at least, could have got more if we had a striker who can stretch teams, create chances for himself and others, and put the ball in the net.
That was the main frustration this evening. Twice (at least), Reading players found themselves in on goal but wanted to create the perfect finish or, simply, didn't have the confidence to shoot. Twenty shots is what the BBC report tells you, but plenty of those were speculative efforts from range which rarely troubled Randolph. It was generally a dull game, but just like the last three matches, I thought we did more than enough to get more from the game. Sadly, the killer instinct is missing.
There will always be the question of motivation after such a slog on Saturday, but I felt as though Reading had the upper hand if one team was going to grab the first goal. Birmingham didn't threaten until Gray came on, but when he did, everyone in the stadium saw the spark of a match-winner. He wasn't involved in the goal, but he completely changed the game in the Blues' favour.
Reading, sadly, seem to lack a player with that influence. McCleary created moments but his crossing was poor. Mackie was anonymous - a rare poor performance in his recent purple patch. And the midfield trio of Karacan, Chalobah and Ake were functional in defence but offered very little creativity going forward. And that's how I would describe this side at the moment. Functional, but lacking the edge to put teams to the sword.
As I said previously, and as many will no doubt say tonight and over the next few weeks - we need a striker. Hypotheticals are all good and well, but one is led to wonder how this team would fare with Glenn Murray still in the side, or with another powerful presence up top to finish the multitude of opportunities we've created over the last few weeks. Of course, our top scorer Simon Cox wasn't even in the squad tonight. On a night where rotation was the policy, his exclusion must speak volumes for his status in the pecking order.
Change is coming in the summer. This team is potentially one piece away from some respectable results. But that midfield trio's deals all expire this summer, as do Federici's and Mackie's. Hector had another composed, commanding game (the last-minute mistake aside), and Premier League scouts will be doing their due diligence on him over the next few months. The fans will give Clarke a chance to shape the squad the way he wants (Cox is mentioned above, but our "Player Of The First Half Of The Season" Oliver Norwood has been similarly sidelined in this new era), but results and the goals scored column weigh on everyone's mind.
One more game at home to persuade the Reading faithful to stump up the money for next season's matchday subscription. At least give us a bloody goal...!