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Making A Mark

Steve Clarke rotated his side heavily against Everton, giving much-needed game time to squad players and recent arrivals at the club. But what did their performances on the night suggest about their future in the team?

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Steve Clarke rested the vast majority of the side that's appeared in the league in recent weeks, bringing in a number of players that have been struggling for game time. That gave a big opportunity for the players featured in this article to, as the title suggests, make a mark on Steve Clarke's plans for the first team. Although those making their full debuts against Everton attracted the biggest attention, the likes of Ali Al-Habsi, Jake Cooper and Andrew Taylor had a lot to gain also.

So, which of them did well on Tuesday night, and what evidence did the Everton game give for their futures at the club?

Ali Al-Habsi

Goalkeepers, perhaps more so than other players on a football pitch, need to build up a solid reputation. Dealing reliably with crosses and shots that should be saved inspires confidence in the man between the sticks. For me, that's where Ali Al-Habsi is going wrong. Whereas previous Reading goalkeepers like Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy were widely regarded as safe pairs of hands, I get worried whenever the ball goes close to Al-Habsi.

For Everton's winner, Al-Habsi should certainly have done better. Although it was well hit, Deulofeu's free kick was nothing special - Al-Habsi got a hand to it and should have parried it away without much difficulty for a man of his experience. In his defence, the Oman international reacted to Gerard Deulofeu's goal by smothering the ball at the feet of Romelu Lukaku a few moments later. But, as Wimb said in his player ratings, by then the damage had already been done. One big mistake from a goalie can be so very costly and, with Al-Habsi, such an occurence seems more likely than it ever should be.

Looking at his rival for the no.1 jersey, I'm actually pretty impressed with Jonathan Bond. In truth, Reading's solid defending this season has been due to the excellent performances of the back four in front of him, but he's done a good enough job so far when called on. For an inexperienced player like Bond, he'll make a few mistakes here and there - don't expect the commanding performances of Adam Federici any time soon. But he's clearly settling well at the club, and is earning his spot in the first team.

With all of that in mind, Al-Habsi won't be troubling Bond's place in the starting XI. Although I'm happy with Bond, Al-Habsi simply isn't doing himself any favours with the kind of errors he's making.

Jake Cooper

'Coops' quietly gave one of the best performances of anyone against Everton. Before the game, all eyes were understandably fixed on the recent signings, but it was the academy graduate that had the toughest task of all on Tuesday evening. Cooper had kept a talented Norwich frontline under control in his debut, but going up against Romelu Lukaku was another challenge entirely. Despite his young age, the Belgian is a threat from short or long range, and offers a potent mix of pace and power. In other words, he's a nightmare for a defender, especially an inexperienced one.

But Cooper dealt with him confidently, and I can't really remember Lukaku having too good a sight of goal from any range. Composure and judgement are two of the most vital aspects of a defender's game, and our youngster seems to have acquired both of those in a remarkably short amount of time.

Going forwards, it's hard to see what his prospects are in an already crowded position. For the time being, Paul McShane is the no.1 pick, with Anton Ferdinand and Michael Hector scrapping it out for the right to partner him in the heart of the defence. That said, the duration of a long Championship campaign does a lot to any team's squad, so injuries and competition for places could be very kind for Jake Cooper.

Looking ahead of this season, his prospects are even brighter. The likes of McShane and Ferdinand are formiddable enough now, but age takes its toll. I wouldn't expect to see Cooper break into the first team in 2015/16, but time is very much on his side.

Andrew Taylor

Taylor seemed to me to be the forgotten man of Reading's summer transfer window. Signed on loan from League One Wigan, Jordan Obita has so far kept him out of the team to the extent that there were few calls to bring him into the side. However, on Tuesday, the experienced left back gave a very solid showing against dangerous opposition - the pacey Aaron Lennon and goalscorer Gerard Deulofeu. Taylor does lack some of the attacking instincts that the younger Obita offers, but to be fair this wasn't the game to expect those kinds of attributes to shine through.

Like Cooper, Taylor will find it tough to get first team football this season, but his performance against Everton showed that we've no reason to be worried if he's called on by Steve Clarke. I'd also be interested to see how he fits into Clarke's longer term plans. Does the loan deal suggest that Taylor isn't wanted beyond next May? Or could we go back to the Latics if the ex-Cardiff City man impresses?

For me, his future in Berkshire depends on what league we find ourselves in come August 2016 - perhaps more so than anyone else on this list. As solid as he is at Championship level, I'd be happier to see his place in the squad go to a better quality left back should we win promotion this time round.

Alex Fernandez

The ginger Spaniard gave a very tidy performance on Tuesday, keeping things simple in the middle of the park. On first seeing the team sheet, I assumed that his role in the side would be largely similar to that of Oliver Norwood - adding creativity from deep alongside a more hardworking partner (in this case Aaron Tshibola). Although that wasn't completely untrue, Fernandez didn't try anything too complicated - understandable considering that this was his full debut. Going up against a very talented Premier League midfield, and coming away without any major complaints to be made about his performance, is encouraging enough.

Being here on a season long loan deal, Fernandez will need to impress Steve Clarke if he's to turn that arrangement into a permanent one next summer. But, considering the other options available, that'll certainly be difficult. Oliver Norwood has been the standout performer in the middle of the park, with Danny Williams and Aaron Tshibola battling it out for the right to partner him. Plus, should Reading want to try a slightly different playing style, the likes of Lucas Piazon and Stephen Quinn can also be seen as options in the middle, albeit more attacking ones. That potentially leaves Fernandez very low down the pecking order, such is the strength in depth at the Madejski Stadium.

As I previously mentioned, I see Fernandez as more of a creative midfield player than one you'd expect to break down opposition attacks (although that's hard to judge after just one start). With that in mind, Fernandez could be the natural understudy for Oliver Norwood should the ex-Huddersfield Town man be ruled out through injury or suspension. Reading have looked at their best when Norwood has added a spark to the attack from his deep-lying role - Steve Clarke won't be keen on relinquishing that, so there could be hope for Alex Fernandez yet.

Paolo Hurtado

The Peruvian is very much an unknown quantity, and is arguably the least high profile player on this list. Whereas others are well known Championship veterans or exciting young prospects from big clubs (Chelsea, Espanyol and Benfica), Hurtado arrived in the summer from FC Pacos de Ferreira. That's not to downplay his potential - some of our best players in recent years have plied their trade for relative minnows before arriving in Berkshire afterall.

That said, Hurtado looked quite raw against Everton. He was clearly eager to impress, but I got the impression that he's not so used to the defensive duties that British managers expect of their wingers. Similarly, his attacking play didn't fully click. A couple of passes went astray, but on the whole it was a tidy, if unspectacular, display on the right wing. Clearly, the fitness level isn't quite there yet - making his second half withdrawal somewhat inevitable. That's something for Hurtado to work on as he adapts to life in England.

I'm not that optimistic about his potential for Reading throughout the rest of the 2015/16 campaign. This season will certainly be one of adjustment for him as he gets used to English league football - and Steve Clarke probably sees him as a prospect for the future. To cite a well known example, Hurtado could end up becoming another Jimmy Kebe. The Malian didn't immediately adjust to English football, but was terrific when he finally did.

With that in mind, we should be patient with the Peruvian - after all, the likes of McCleary and Blackman are more obvious picks for his spot on the right wing in the immediate term.

Lucas Piazon

Of the attacking options on this list, Piazon impressed me the most. The Brazilian never really threatened to explode into life, but he approached the game with a calmness that implies he's settled well in Berkshire. Until Hurtado's withdrawal, he typically floated between central and wide attacking roles, often swapping with Ola John on the left flank.

His passing was tidy and kept Reading moving - he's got naturally good technique, and is probably the best fit in the current squad for the central attacking midfield role that Gylfi Sigurdsson took up a few seasons back. That previously mentioned calmness translated well into his defensive play - Piazon closing down Everton with the discipline that goes so well into Steve Clarke's style of play.

I see Piazon doing very well for us this season, because he offers something different to most of our other attacking players. Whereas much of the threat from the likes of McCleary, Blackman, Vydra and others comes from pace on the break, Piazon is probably better suited to breaking down teams that defend deep. Time and time again, Reading have struggled against sides like that - expect to see Piazon deployed as a roaming CAM this season in home games we expect to win, in order to vary our attacks.

Ola John

The Benfica loanee offers something that we haven't seen at Reading in quite a while - an exciting presence down the left wing. That's certainly not meant as a criticism of first team regular Stephen Quinn, who's impressed in that position since arriving at the club. But the ex-Hull City player isn't a pacey, direct winger that bursts in behind defences - that's where Ola John comes in.

We saw that to great effect when the Dutchman powered his way down the left wing before whipping in a cross that Nick Blackman calmly finished, displaying the energy that puts any full back onto the back foot. That isn't necessarily what you want in a left winger all the time - but, like in the case of Lucas Piazon, John's different skill set makes him that bit more valuable an asset to the manager.

Granted, Stephen Quinn's excellent form so far this season makes him an automatic pick, but expect to see John make plenty of appearances from the bench (at least until Quinn is rested, injured or suspended). Attacking flair hasn't exactly been in abundance at this club recently, but John could certainly provide that.