This was another of those crucial milestones of the season. After the morale-boosting and slightly surprising victory over Fulham, the Royals were presented with opponents they were expected — and needed to — beat if they are to be taken seriously as a promotion-chasing team.
In some ways it had similarities with the QPR match. Lowly opponents, likely to play a packed defence, and the opportunity for Jaap Stam's men to steal a march on their non-playing rivals. The differences were that the match didn't take place on a cold Thursday night in front of the Sky TV cameras and, this time, there was a bigger crowd and better atmosphere. Crucially, Reading were up for it. Oh, yes, they were certainly up for it.
There was plenty of intrigue before the kick-off with Stam's selection. After going with no striker against Fulham he appeared to have no left- back in the team (just two on the bench in addition to three strikers). Fans played a game of 'Guess the line-up' , with many plumping for Roy Beerens in the role of left wing-back. How wrong they were. This time the formation had Chris Gunter switching to left wing-back with Garath McCleary deployed in a similar role on the right hand side and Beerens joining the fit-again Yann Kermorgant up front.
On a difficult surface, the formation worked (with a few variations along the way), giving Reading the vehicle to show off their slick passing skills, dominate large periods of the match and come away with a victory they just about deserved against an awkward, disciplined, typical Neil Warnock Cardiff team. It was a pleasure to behold and a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.
Reading settled quickly into their smooth passing style, which seemed to have more purpose than some going-nowhere passages of play we've seen in the past. One delightful move ended with Sol Bamba upending Beerens as he broke towards goal to earn the game's first booking.
Cardiff were penned back for long periods but their up-and-at-'em style caused Reading a few problems — particularly in the air — and the visitors came close to a first goal when the home defence struggled to clear a high ball and Joe Ralls volleyed against a post.
A shocking over-the-top foul by Jazz Richards on the ebullient Liam Kelly went unpunished, while the fans got frustrated as Reading overplayed around the opposition penalty area (often featuring John Swift) and I wrote in my notebook 'too much faffing around in the final third'. The first reshuffle came when Joey van den Berg, who had been playing well, suffered another injury to give Tyler Blackett his latest chance to prove himself.
After Danny Williams made a complete hash of a gilt-edge McCleary-created chance, Reading got the goal they deserved thanks to another piece of magic from the Jamaica international. A fluent left to right move created the space for Williams to fire a low 25-yard shot which Allan McGregor could only parry and McCleary, first to the loose ball, cheekily back-heeled across goal for Swift to supply the finishing touch. 1-0 to Reading.
Having worked so hard to get in front Reading were soon level again as Liam Moore, somewhat unfortunately, conceded his third penalty at the Mad Stad this season when Sean Morrison came late on his blind side to nick the ball and catch the Reading defender's flailing boot. Ali Al Habsi was close — but not close enough — to saving his second spot-kick of the week as Ralls sent Cardiff in at half-time on level terms. 1-1 at half time.
Following, no doubt, a verbal lashing from Colin during the interval, the Bluebirds upped the tempo and came more in the game. Reading looked less composed and gave the ball away too often. Swift, whose carelessness in attack had led to some dangerous Cardiff breakaways, was replaced by George Evans, who helped to shore things up, and Stam's men found a way to win.
Kermorgant was the match-winner, striking a beaut of a free-kick into the net from 20 yards after he had been fouled by Bamba. The Frenchman could have wrapped things up good and proper but overran the ball after rounding the goalkeeper from McCleary's through pass. Al Habsi made a couple of smart saves, including one from Kermorgant's sliced clearance, and substitute Kareem Harris was dangerously close with cross shot that flew past the far post.
But, led by the warrior Paul McShance, the Royals put their tin hats on and held out for the victory in a style that reminded me of the Bristol City home win (good play followed by valiant defence at the end).
One interesting aspect was how Reading, for a possession-obsessed team, completely scrap that style when they are under pressure in the closing stages. Instead of keeping the ball and limiting the opposition attacks they simply lump it to safety, pull Kermorgant back into defence and put up backs-to-the-wall defiance. The bobbly pitch could be a factor min and the change of style seems to work, but they don't yet have confidence in their passing and ball-retention skills to back themselves when it really matters. Perhaps that will come in time.
A great week for the Royals. Two hard-earned home wins, back up to third in the table and a bigger crowd which suggests the locals might be starting to believe in what Stam is creating. They should do. The Dutchman and his players deserve every credit. They weren't perfect by any means and if Cardiff had nicked a draw you could argue that they deserved it (Colin certainly would). But Reading found a way to win and that's what good teams do. They played with spirit and determination and, at times, their football was a joy to watch.
Another tough week beckons and the injuries to JVDB and Tiago Ilori leaves them worryingly thin in defence. You wonder, with Stam reluctant to freshen up and rotate the team, how much this win took out of them and whether they'll have the energy to go again at St Andrews on Tuesday. But along with plenty of others, I'm starting to believe that anything is possible.
And I know for certain that this is a good time to be a Reading fan.