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Reading FC 2-1 Bristol City: Royals Pass The Acid Test?

On a cold November afternoon Reading put in an impressive display to shoot The Robins down. The Inspector gives his take on the win.

Ian Walton/Getty Images

This was it. The acid test. The day when we'd find out whether Jaap Stam's developing Royals were the real thing, a team which could grow into serious promotion contenders.

After a series of victories over teams from the lower half of the table they embarked on a run of matches against top-half sides, which would, by the end of December, give a clear guide about the true merit of the team.

After all the talk ( and mickey-taking) over their Barcelona-style this was a day when they could have fallen flat on their faces. How their rivals would have loved that (especially the Brighton fans, who, for some reason, grew apoplectic about Mad Dog Allen's dopey description, which was not only irrelevant and inaccurate but placed an emphasis and pressure on our brave lads, which they didn't really need).

Also this was the day to discover whether Stam has stumbled upon (I use the phrase advisedly as it's taken him so long to come up with it) a back-three based system, which, combined with their possession football, can carry the Royals to success over the coming months.

And then their was the depth of the squad and the quality of the players? Were they good enough? Will they all be staying in January? And where does Satm need to strengthen?

The answers were revealing and fascinating...

First Half

For 45 minutes what a joy it was to be a Reading fan. In that opening period they set off with a style and purpose which was a delight to behold, playing some lovely football and cruising into a two goal lead.

The passing, movement and interchanging of positions was highly impressive. Chris Gunter, for example, protected by the new-look back three had licence to pop up in all sorts of positions performing like an extra forward as he used his pace to provide confusion in the Bristol defence.

Roy Beerens, previously considered an orthodox wide man, was finding pockets of space  between the midfield and attack, often in the old inside-left channel, leaving Jordan Obita to maraud outside him on the left wing.

The system also gave freedom to individual members of the back three to break forward, knowing that there would still be sufficient numbers in defence to deal with a counter attack. Tyler Blackett made the most of the opportunity, not hesitating to surge upfield  and get involved as an extra midfielder/forward.

This potent mix was too much for  Bristol side, which started slowly and was two goals behind before they had got going. Of Reading's two goals one was lucky, the other brilliant.

The award of a penalty, on the linesman's say-so, for a trip by Hörður Magnússon on Dominic Samuel was harsh in the extreme. The two players were chasing a long ball, with very little threat to the goal and there appeared to be no deliberate attempt by the Bristol defender to commit a foul. Had it been awarded against Reading in similar circumstances I (and I suspect plenty more) would have been fuming.

The fact that it was Reading's ninth penalty of the season is a remarkable statistic. What's even more remarkable is that despite this figure the team still does not have a recognised, reliable penalty-taker.

As the ball was placed on the spot a cry went up up from near my seat in the East Stand: 'Oh, no, not McCleary'. The Jamaican international duly telegraphed his kick to the right of the goalkeeper, who obligingly patted it back into his his path to enable McCleary to score - just as he did at Barnsley.

Stam's men were lucky to get the penalty and lucky to score it. ...... but, when your luck's in, take it.

The second goal was far more memorable. It demonstrated Gunter's role as an extra attacker, as the wing-back raced on to McCleary's chipped pass and volleyed it first time across the penalty where Beerers hit a meaty volley on his weaker left-foot, which took a slight deflection ,on its way past a stranded Frank Fielding. Yes, a goal-of-the-season contender.

The visitors, who barely mustered an attack in the opening ten minutes, grew stronger as the half progressed and, with the rangy Tammy Abraham looking a handful, showed that they could a be a danger.  This threat led to the other highlight of the first half when Ali Al-Habsi added to his catalogue of stunning reflex saves to keep out a close range header from Bobby Reid.

Replays of the incident showed that it was both an incredible save and an incredible miss, as the Bristol midfielder managed to directed his point-blank range header towards the Reading keeper when he surely would have scored if he had guided towards a large gaping hole on the keeper's right.

Second Half

All change. Bristol took up the attack and Reading struggled to get out of second gear. Gone was the lovely attacking football of the first half to be replaced by dogged defence and sporadic, but largely ineffective counter-attacking.

Happily for the Royals the back three were immense. While many of the players (Beerens, McCleary, Evans and Obita) could be pleased with their first half contributions, they became peripheral figures in the second half, failing to influence the game and relying on the defence to save them.

In Paul McShane, Liam Moore and Tyler Blackett, Reading had three heroes, who were up to the task. McShane gave a captain's, inspirational performance, barely putting a foot wrong and coming up with some crucial, goal-saving interventions.

One second-half, body-on-the-line block and a last minute recovery to deny the on-rushing Abraham were particularly memorable. Moore and Blackett were not far behind, the ex-Man Utd defender having arguably his best game in a Reading shirt, looking strong and assured and breaking forward impressively when possible. He is starting to look as if he could be a fine acquisition.

Inevitably, faced with a red tide of pressure, Reading's goal had a few hairy moments. Bristol gave their strong following of supporters plenty of reason for optimism. Yet Reading stood firm.

When their defence was finally breached a few minutes from time the goal came as a surprise. So often had Reading managed to block efforts or seen them comfortably saved by Al-Habsi, that to see a shot from Gary O'Neill, which got past the defence and left the goalkeeper flat-footed was a shock to the system.

It led to an anxious finale but, in those nervy final moments, Reading's game management was admirable. Gunter craftily won a free kick to halt Abraham and Al-Habsi came off his line to grab a threatening cross - and the Royals had the three points safely in the bag.

Conclusion

This was a thoroughly enjoyable game. Two contrasting halves of football, with enough drama and quality to keep any, but the most demanding fan happy.

Reading were impressive in different areas of the team at different stages of the match. The defence shone over the 90 minutes, while the attack had a good first 45 minutes.

The team suffered for the lack of an effective striker. Dominic Samuel looked some way short of what is required.

Given a supply of aerial balls he barely won a header all afternoon, while his touch on the ground was often nervy and unproductive. As a focal point of the attack he was almost non-existent.

You could see, in this performance, why Stam has been reluctant to give him an extended run in the team. Should he stay in now?

Probably because the academy product clearly has potential. But he needs to raise his game. At the moment he's not the answer and only emphasises why Reading need to find a top class striker in the January window to be a more complete team.

So, overall, did they pass the acid test ? Well, they won the game and that was the primary aim.

But, as to the long term future, this was merely the first of those stepping stones towards proving they can match and beat the best.

It wasn't a bad start, but it will get tougher. We still don't know how good the team is or can be. But there's enough there to give us serious hope.