After 20 games of the season, Reading sit in 21st position, level on points with 22nd placed Bolton Wanderers. It’s clear by now to everyone that this team is not showing the quality needed to pull themselves comfortably clear of the relegation zone. But if today’s draw with Stoke is anything to go by, at least they will fight to the end.
Of course, it would help if the Royals had fought from the start. A raft of changes apparently necessitated by injuries can’t have helped a typically sluggish first few minutes where - once again - Reading looked as if they were taking part in a training exercise. Five minutes in, Joe Allen was afforded the time to bring the ball down in acres of space inside the six-yard box and picked out Benik Afobe, who somehow headed wide. Five minutes later, Anssi Jaakkola made a point-blank save from Afobe, with Sam Clucas blazing the rebound over.
As the first half wore on, that lack of sharpness certainly didn’t disappear. 35 minutes in, and Leandro Bacuna’s poor pass eventually saw James McClean released on goal, firing wide via a deflection - Bacuna earning a yellow card for his efforts to stop a counter. And the most frustrating of the lot, a short corner routine ending in shambles, John Swift starting a Stoke counter with an awful pass which McClean again couldn’t finish.
Of course, Reading had to make sure they took advantage of the few opportunities they got, and they did - with a little bit of luck too. Just before half-time, Andy Rinomhota charged past Erik Pieters and attempted to deliver a cross into the box from the right by-line - his centre took a massive deflection which guided it straight into the path of Marc McNulty at the back post. Simple header, 1-0. His first goal for the club, and some form of redemption for that midweek penalty miss.
The Royals got to half-time with the lead intact, but as is typical of this team under Paul Clement, it didn’t last long after the break. Two minutes, in fact, as Afobe atoned for his earlier misses by running onto a perfectly weighted through-ball and firing past Jaakkola for parity. And that was the catalyst for a capitulation, as the Potters piled on the pressure in search of the go-ahead goal. A Pieters piledriver was tipped over by the Reading ‘keeper. Allen fired just wide. And Afobe couldn’t believe his luck when Tiago Ilori passed the ball straight to him - luckily, Tyler Blackett was there to deflect his shot over the bar.
But the thing about luck is that it deserts you eventually. Andy Yiadom and Ilori collided when chasing the same ball forward - from that innocuous mistake, Stoke would finally, deservedly go ahead. McClean kept it in play on the left by-line and delivered a cross to Tom Ince near the penalty spot. The delivery was slightly behind him, so his finish was spectacular - a perfect hooked volley which crashed in off the bar.
That put the impetus on Reading to come out and attack, and for the first time all match it was suddenly sustained pressure on Jack Butland’s goal, albeit with little for the former England stopper to actually do. Yakou Meite’s introduction from the bench was what changed the game in the Royals’ favour - finally a physical presence up front after McNulty, Danny Loader and Garath McCleary had struggled to feed off scraps all game.
The Ivorian had already forced the Stoke ‘keeper into a close range save when, with 80 seconds to go, he held the ball up in the box and picked out Mo Barrow arriving. A perfect side-footed finish into the bottom left corner of Butland’s goal. Late parity, and luckily, no time for the score to change again.
This was a match where Reading were outclassed and out-thought but somehow never outgunned. In a sense, it was just like those first few games at the Madejski Stadium under Paul Clement where we somehow eeked out 1-0 wins despite looking far inferior. Obviously it’s not helping that half the team seems to change every week (partly down to an absurd injury list), but tactically this squad just seems unable to dominate consistently, or even sustain long periods of pressure and chances. Not only within a game, but also over a series of matches.
With that in mind, riding our luck might be the only way to survival at this point. Three games to the halfway point of the season, and we are only staying up by goal difference at this stage. All you can hope is that Reading continue to fight right to the end, and keep doing their best work at the finish. .