On the coldest night of the year, the EFL Championship proved a warm treat for all as Cardiff City battled against a 2-0 lead to claim a point from Reading at the Madejski Stadium. The Bluebirds were languishing in the bottom three this time last year, but, under the stewardship of managerial veteran Neil Warnock (now in his fiftieth year in football) they have risen to second in the table and boast the best defensive record in the league. But this might be the worst time to face Jaap Stam’s Royals, with last season’s playoff finalists enjoying back-to-back wins in the league recently to bring them to a high of 16th in the league and just one defeat in their last eight.
Spurred on by the recent uplift in form, Jaap Stam opted for an unchanged starting eleven, with attacking midfielder John Swift still yet to return from injury, while last season’s top goalscorer Yann Kermorgant his fifth consecutive game after spending the first three months of the season in the treatment room.
Meanwhile, there was a double change for The Bluebirds after beating Norwich City 3-1 last weekend, with Craig Bryson’s injury seeing full back Callum Paterson move into the starting eleven, and Danny Ward making way for Omar Bogle, a summer signing from Wigan Athletic. There was a return to Berkshire for former Royal Sean Morrison, now captain of Cardiff City, who made over forty appearances for Reading during a three-year period, with fellow ex-Reading players Greg Halford and Matt Connolly on the bench.
The match began with both teams wary of one another’s threat, Cardiff City closing down quickly to ensure Reading couldn’t carry out their usual passing game, while The Royals relied on sudden acceleration on the wings for their attacks. The Bluebirds’ main outlet during the first half would be Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, who managed to break into the final third several times, but found the obstacle of Vito Mannone in goal impassable with a few half chances.
The first goal came on the quarter hour mark, with Reading going ahead from a corner kick. Despite owning one of the best headers of the ball in Yann Kermorgant, it was actually The Bluebirds who put the ball into the back of the net for The Royals. While the swooped ball in looked like an easy catch/punch for Neil Etheridge in goal, Callum Paterson elected to get his head to the ball, and the action only served to lob the ball out of reach of the goalkeeper and end up in the far bottom corner of the net.
The goal not only put The Royals into the lead, but also served to heighten the atmosphere within the four walls of the ‘Mad Stad’ and give belief to the side who have recently found better form in the league. There was a spring in the step of the eleven Royals on the field, who began attacking Cardiff more with the high-pressing of the away team not seeming to nullify the passing philosophy Stam has ingrained into this current Reading team.
It was another corner which provided the second goal, although not quite as directly as the first. This time, Kelly’s delivery was headed away from goal by the Cardiff defence, but only as far as the edge of the area, where Mo Barrow gladly accepted the opportunity. The winger fired the powerful shot from the edge of the area, and Etheridge was perhaps unlucky in the goalmouth as the ball was deflected and diverted toward the opposite direction of his dive. So Cardiff City, after having conceded just once in the previous four matches, were 2-0 down at half time.
Patience seemed to be wearing thin for Cardiff as they tried to regain the lead. Striker Omar Bogle’s discipline has been an issue ever since his move from Wigan Athletic in August, having been sent off already in November. He picked up a yellow just past the half hour mark for a poor challenge on Liam Kelly, signalling the general frustration that was running through the side. They weren’t helped by an early substitution in the first period, with influential captain Morrison having to make way after thirty four minutes of play due to a groin injury.
Almost certainly egged on by fifteen minutes of being locked in a dark room with Neil Warnock, Cardiff City started the second period brighter than the first, and their best chance at coming back into the match came within ten minutes of the restart, as Mendez-Laing floated the ball in to top goalscorer Junior Hoilett, whose downward header bounced just over the bar, but was the first ball to beat Mannone in goal of the evening.
The frustration of the Welsh side crept onto the bench, with gaffer Warnock (far from a popular figure in these parts) receiving a telling off from referee Steve Martin. The warning was not heeded, however, and the Cardiff coach saw red just inside the final quarter hour of the game, with Warnock heading for the stands to the exuberant cheers of the Reading faithful.
There were further signs of a Cardiff resurgence twenty five minutes from time, as a header in the box from Sol Bamba went into the hands of Mannone in goal, but the ball squirmed free from the Italian’s hands, offering a gift of an open goal to Bogle. The striker, like the goalkeeper, let the opportunity slip through his fingers, with The Royals managing to clear their lines.
They finally made their efforts count, however, with continued pressure finally breaking down the Reading defence. A flurry of chances in the penalty area left the back line out of shape, and left back Joe Bennett’s clean and powerful strike from the right side of the goal was too much for even Vito Mannone to keep out of the net.
Reading made their first substitution following the goal, with Liam Kelly replaced by Jon Dadi Bodvarsson. This was followed shortly after by Adrian Popa appearing in place of Sone Aluko, but it seemed too little too late for Reading as the pressure on the home team grew exponentially as the seconds ticked closer and closer to the end.
Cardiff City equalised as the game moved into stoppage time, with a barrage of chances against The Royals ending with Tomlin firing against the crossbar, with the ball dropping straight down. There was no doubt it had crossed the line, and Steve Martin wasted no time in declaring the change in scoreline, with four minutes left to play.
Paul McShane had one final chance to win the game for the Royals with the very last touch of the game, but saw his back-post header crash back off the post. A frustrating night for Stam and Reading ending in stalemate - a bittersweet result that might have been accepted pre-match, but the circumstances perhaps making it feel more like two points dropped, than one gained.