Under floodlights at the Madejski Stadium, Reading eased to a comfortable 3-0 win over Barnsley. The much-needed victory pushes the Royals up to 16th in the Championship table, now nine points clear of the once-looming drop-zone. Jaap Stam’s side are unbeaten in three games, registering back-to-back clean sheets for the first time this season.
There was a subdued atmosphere at kick-off, with a dwindling home support scattered around the ground and an unease that a Barnsley win could trigger an early exit for many. But, spirits were soon lifted as Reading looked easily the classier outfit in the early exchanges. Neat passing triangles and a succession of intricate one-twos created opportunities for Aluko and Barrow, but an end-product was lacking. Bacuna, whose stock is rising at a justifiably alarming rate, looked to break forward at every opportunity and nearly fashioned an opening on more than one occasion.
Reading looked positive in possession – bright, sparky and determined to prove a point. In the twentieth minute, their pressure paid dividends. Liam Kelly’s corner swirled towards the near post, where Welsh international Dave Edwards stood to head goal-wards. Barnsley’s keeper sprung to his right and appeared to have denied Edwards his second Royals goal, but after a moment’s delay and confusion aplenty, the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line and the goal was awarded. 1-0.
Nine minutes later, the home side doubled their advantage. Joey van den Berg is known more for his physicality, last-ditch defending and stubborn ill-discipline, than for his wand of a left foot – but from some 30 yards out, it was the Dutchman that scored Reading’s second. Given far too much space by the Barnsley midfield, Joey drove towards goal with conviction. Once in shooting range and with little other option, the midfielder rifled a shot towards goal which swirled beyond the keeper’s grasps and into the top corner.
The home crowd rose to their feet in jubilation and forgot, for a moment at least, that they couldn’t feel their fingers in the bitter cold. 2-0. Goalkeeper Adam Davies will be disappointed when he watches the footage – the ball may have swerved, but he should almost certainly have done better.
Riled by their timid start, Barnsley forced several openings in response. Zeki Fryers and George Moncur both saw low crosses diverted away from goal by the Reading back-line, but their best chance fell to 20-year-old attacking midfielder Harvey Barnes. His tame effort from the edge of the box rolled harmlessly into Mannone’s control. Reading stuttered towards the break, failing to match their initial efforts, misplacing too many passes and misjudging crosses in dangerous areas. They held on to their advantage though and, overall, could be fairly pleased with their first-half showing – good, but not great.
Paul Heckingbottom in the away dugout made a triple substitution at the interval in a bid to freshen up the Tykes’ attack. Initially it appeared to work. Tom Bradshaw’s pace and movement provided a new challenge for Moore and McShane, and Harvey Barnes continued to cause problems when cutting in from the left-hand side. They were passing with renewed vigour, perhaps symptomatic of a scathing half-time team talk. Reading were sitting deeper, inviting pressure and hoping to utilise the pace of Barrow and Aluko on the counter-attack.
Unfortunately, the Royals were struggling to build momentum. Kelly, tasked with the role of playmaker for the night, couldn’t find his range and too many passes went astray. The slow build-up that has become commonplace under Stam also, at times, hampered their chances of catching the opposition off-guard. Consequently, the game petered out somewhat.
When the home-side did venture forward, they were not clinical enough. Barrow, whose pace and trickery flummoxed Andy Yiadom, crossed low to Aluko on the edge of the box, but the ex-Fulham winger skewed wide. Later, Liam Moore found himself in space in the attacking third, but saw his shot cannon off the inside of the post. Reading were almost made to pay for their wastefulness five minutes from time. The impressive Harvey Barnes was slotted in by an audacious back-heel six yards from goal and poked the ball past Vito Mannone. Much to the youngster’s dismay the ball ricocheted off the post and trickled across goal. Liam Moore lunged at the ball and scooped clear – a let-off for the Royals.
Two minutes from time, Reading sealed the victory. A short corner on the left-hand side set substitute Adrian Popa free on the edge of the box. The Romanian international curled a delightful effort towards the top corner, Adam Davies tipped the ball onto the woodwork, but another sub, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, was in prime position to head home the rebound. Both Popa and Bodvarsson have arguably been underused by Stam this season and will be delighted to have influenced the game. 3-0 to Reading, and the final whistle followed soon after.
Ahead of a trip to a revitalised Sunderland side at the weekend, Reading must take positives from Tuesday night’s performance. Three goals, a clean sheet and another giant step towards safety marks a significant improvement on some of the abject displays of recent months, but it doesn’t paper over all of the cracks. With respect to Barnsley, who have performed admirably this season given their summer exodus, they were very poor on this occasion. Reading arguably should have won more emphatically, and had they been less sloppy and laboured in the second half, they may well have done so.
Kermorgant still doesn’t look match-fit to me and there are still plenty of ‘square pegs in round holes’, most notably at left back and attacking midfield. As they have done time and again this season, Reading have earned a crucial result when the manager’s job has been under most scrutiny – but with another bottom-half of the table clash on Saturday, the pressure won’t ease just yet.