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Reading FC 0-0 Newcastle United: Encouraging

The Inspector gives some more in depth reflections on our 0-0 draw with the league leaders.

Reading v Newcastle United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Overall Reading can feel pleased with their night's work. Not ecstatic but certainly encouraged.

Remember they went into the match on the back of two defeats against their promotion rivals, followed by an unconvincing victory over strugglers Wolves and were facing not only the league leaders (assembled at a king's ransom by Championship standards) but also the best away team in the division. The probability of a thumping Toon victory was underlined by the overwhelming forecasts of defeat submitted to the Prediction League of this website.

To add to the anticipation of gloom was the prospect of Reading rivals taking advantage, to cast further doubt on their play-off credentials. Yet things didn't work out that way at all. Reading went to-to-toe with the respective champions, gained a creditable draw from a much-improved performance and the rest of the results largely went their way (Brighton and Huddersfield victories, aside).

By 10 pm on Tuesday night I for one felt that Reading were in a stronger , healthier position than they had been at the start of the evening.

Things are looking up.

First-half

Once again Jaap Stam surprised us by reshuffling the pack to bring in Lewis Grabban, Jordon Mutch, Liam Kelly and the fit-again Garath McCleary, leaving out, among others, John Swift (who seemed to be coming back to form) and Danny Williams (who it seems is never dropped).

The new-look line-up functioned pretty effectively, although Grabban looked somewhat out-of-position on the right of the front three instead of the in the centre, where it was thought he might play alongside Kermorgant, in their old twin-striker partnership.

The Bournemouth loanee provided the major talking point of the first half, contriving to miss a glorious chance inside the first minute. After McCleary had crossed from the left and a flick on had presented Grabban with his opening, we were left with a 'And Smith must score' moment. All he had to do was hit the target from bang in front of goal to give Reading the lead. Instead he headed wide.

At the time you thought that Reading would never get a better chance all night. And so it proved. With 89 minutes remaining a goal would not have settled matters, but we would have had a different match and who knows how it would have turned out. Yet goals are so precious that no side - least of all Reading - can afford to pass up opportunities like this. For Grabban, brought in to score goals and so far totally deficient in that respect, it was a significant moment as he missed a chance to win over the fans and prove himself a valued asset to the team.

For the rest of the half Newcastle looked the more likely scorers as Al-Habsi produced smart saves to deny Gouffran, Shelvey and Ritchie before Reading had their moment of luck as Ritchie's deflected shot rebounded from a post and McShance made a crucial tackle to stop the follow-up being turned in.

Second-half

Liam Kelly, who had looked lost in the first-half, was replaced by the more physical presence of Williams, while Stam was forced into another change by an injury to Liam Moore, resulting in Tyler Blackett moving to the centre of defence and Obita coming in at left wing back. The changes didn't reduce Reading's effectiveness and if anything, they grew stronger.

As the contest progressed Reading became more dominant side, keeping possession well and pushing the visitors back. Although Al-Habsi had to produce another decent save to keep out Murphy's header, it was Stam's men who were the more likely winners in the closing stages. McCleary, always the team's biggest threat, had twice come close with deflected long range efforts before so nearly providing the perfect conclusion. From Williams's clever back heel the Jamaican international cut-in from the left and beat Karl Darlow from a tight angle only to see his shot hit the bar and bounce to safety.

It would have rounded off a special night. Yet, perhaps, that was asking too much. Even so, there were still plenty of positives to be gained.

Closing thoughts

For a goal-less stalemate this was an excellent game of football (well, I enjoyed it, anyway). Both managers claimed they could have won (well, they would wouldn't they) and a draw was probably a fair result. Reading looked a solid, well-organised, efficient, developing team. They looked as if they had a plan and knew how to implement most of it (apart from scoring). Reading looked like they knew what they were doing and could give anyone a game, including the best team in the division.

If you're going to nit-pick they suffered from a familiar failing of not converting their wealth of possession into chances and goals. The absence of a lively goalscorer was apparent and has not been filled by Grabban, while Kermorgant continues to offer other qualities but no promise of 20 goals a season. At least, Mutch and Grabban (in patches) showed flashes of quality which added something and this was the match where the loan signings suggested they have something to offer in the closing weeks, after previously looking like poor acquisitions.

Other reasons to be cheerful included the size of the crowd, the resulting improved atmosphere and the state of the pitch. Nearly 20,000 Royals fans turned up (plus 3,700 Geordies), made enough noise to make it sound like a lively occasion and will surely have been satisfied enough to come back for more. Rafa Benitez had the usual away manager's gripe about the surface but he should have seen it a few weeks ago. It's getting better. Regular fans will recall that in recent season the Mad Stad pitch has been a disgrace in January and February but then heals around springtime. This is happening again and will be welcomed by fans and players alike, especially as it should help Reading's style.

So, a point won or two lost?

I thought it was a good point, hard earned and well won. Reading still need to improve, still need to get back to winning regularly and there's work to be done on making them a more potent outfit.

They need a win at Preston Saturday, or this will mean little (rather like the promising performance at Huddersfield only led to a capitulation against Brighton). But this was encouraging and something to build on for the rest of the season.

Now they have to go out and do it.

Reading: Al-Habsi; Gunter, McShane, Moore (Obita 50), Blackett; Mutch, van den Berg, Kelly (Williams 46); Grabban, Kermorgant, McCleary.