Football is a funny old game. It seems that the more money you pump into it, the starker its mediocrity becomes, and few teams showed that better than Aston Villa did when falling to a 2-1 defeat to tried-and-tested Reading on Tuesday night.
Jaap Stam made the ambitious call of dropping his only fit striker from the draw with Fulham on the weekend, shifting Pelle Clement into the middle of a front three made up entirely of wingers. Mo Barrow started in an effort to ride the crest of his wave, whereas Joey van den Berg came in to try and redeem himself from Saturday’s total mishap.
Speaking of Saturday, it became clear that Reading play exactly the same against eleven men as they do against ten, knocking the ball around with ease against Steve Bruce’s under fire Villa, probing gently early on.
The visitors had the first chance as a couple of fortunate deflections sent Andre Green through on goal, only to sidefoot the ball straight at Vito Mannone. Villa wouldn’t threaten again anytime soon as the Royals reasserted their control.
First it was John Swift curling wide from 25 yards before Adrian Popa had the opposition goalkeeper Sam Johnstone sprawling to make a very fine diving save to deny effectively the same shot. The Romanian had an even better chance following Barrow’s break and lay-off moments later, firing into a crowd from close range as the score remained goalless at the break.
It can be argued that the away side had a strong finish to the first half but it was forgotten when Reading stormed into the lead on 49 minutes. Too physical for the Villa midfield all night, the hosts nicked the ball through Swift and laid on a surging Popa run. Attempting a powerful low cross, the winger had his effort bounce off Glenn Whelan, then the far post, and just over the line before being palmed clear. Technology saved us the argument.
Typically, that would have been enough for the Royals of late but a corner won in the 55th minute allowed a fresh chance to score. Aston Villa took up their marking positions but unfortunately for Steve Bruce they were occupying the wrong postcode as the ball was whipped out to Swift, who turned it to Liam Moore, who turned it to Barrow, who finished with aplomb from barely a yard out. If it sounds like they had a lot of time, it’s because they did - and Stam’s instant congratulations to a member of his backroom staff in the dugout would suggest this was a training ground routine gone perfectly.
Garath McCleary and Roy Beerens were introduced for their first minutes of the new campaign and Reading continued to threaten, the former lobbed through one-on-one but producing the sort of touch that befitted his seasonal virginity.
That should have been that, as the Olés rained down and the hosts passed Villa into submission, but Conor Hourihane - his team’s best player by far - rifled in a late opening to fiddle with the South Stand’s Pandora’s Box, which thankfully remained tightly shut as the Royals claimed a first three points of the 2017/18 Championship season.
Reading aren’t a different team in 2017/18, they’re the same one as they were last year. They play the same, they pass it around the same, they struggle to see out even the easiest of games the same.
But, that means they can win and they will win plenty of games this season. With the injuries and transfers eventually taking care of themselves, there is certainly enough to go on and remain optimistic after a wobbly opening week.
Sure, Villa were awful for large stretches, and they shouldn’t have been allowed a sniff. It’s particularly satisfying getting one over such an overinvested group of has-beens and also-rans as their large away following scuttled out early. At least by then I could get a phone signal, presumably being taken up by John Terry’s agent on the phone to Saudi Arabia. Luckily for him, we know a guy.
That’s football, however. You have to take the rough with the smooth, especially when that late consolation means earning this writer his first correct prediction of the TTE Podcast League for the season.
Some things are just too important to forget.