All eyes were on the Mad Stad this evening as Pauno and his men looked to bounce straight back from their first league loss of the season with a positive result against visiting Preston North End. The best home team in the division vs the best away team - a recipe for a thriller.
We were dealt a huge blow before a ball had even been kicked though, as Meite and Ejaria both missed out again through injury - and salt was rubbed into those wounds with skipper Liam Moore also not making the squad after taking a hefty knock against the Sky Blues.
On the contrary there was some very rare good news on the injury front too as both Andy Yiadom and Sam Baldock made their way back into the match day 18, giving Pauno some new options.
Rafael, Esteves, Morrison, McIntyre, Richards, Laurent, Rinomhota, Olise, Semedo, Aluko, Joao
The players started the first half like a team who had just come off the back of a loss. Slow and sloppy in possession, lacking any real kind of press and looking strangely vulnerable at the back - the latter funnily coinciding with the absence of captain Moore, who’s been a rock this season.
Preston looked the more likely to score during the opening periods, but did so without managing a shot on target - a theme that continued throughout the half as McIntyre began to find his feet alongside the ever-reliable Morrison.
As the game went on though, we managed to start finding the likes of Olise and Aluko in the little pockets of space where they can be so effective - particularly the wizard who is Michael Olise.
It was no coincidence that as soon as this happened, Reading began to create some chances. Firstly, in-form man Joao forced a very good save from the Preston ‘keeper with a header before Aluko channelled his inner prime Diego Maradona to tip toe his way through the defence, only to fire his half volley straight at Rudd in goal.
A scrappy first 45 ended goalless, but the signs were looking promising going in to the second half, it’s the hope that kills you, isn’t it?
It was a throwback to the Paul Clement era as we got off to the worst possible start straight after half time. McIntyre lost the flight of the ball before losing his footing and wiping out Riis in the box, Fortunately, though, it was King Rafa to the rescue as he saved Johnson’s horrific penalty attempt.
What came next left inches away from throwing my laptop at the wall. Just minutes after Preston squandering a huge chance to go 1-0 up, Lucas Joao found himself one on one with Declan Rudd and, honestly, in that moment I would’ve but an embarrassingly large sum of money on the Portuguese frontman slotting home.
He didn't. Like his chance in the first half on Friday night, Joao dilly-dallied for too long, allowing the Preston defender to produce his finest Bobby Moore impression with a wonderful last-ditch sliding challenge.
Again, minutes later, Joao found himself with the room of Berkshire in the Preston penalty area with a free header - surely, this time, he wasn't going to waste such a glorious opening and put us 1-0 up? He didn’t. Again.
In football, and in the Championship in particular, you will near enough always pay for not scoring your chances. We’ve just been so good at taking them so far this season, we haven't had to pay yet. Tonight was a lot different.
Sinclair squeezed the ball underneath Rafael to put the visitors 1-0 up (he wasn't offside, Esteves lazily kept him on at right back). Then, in an instant, Alex Neil’s outfit were two up. McIntyre topped off a shaky night for him on a personal note as he completely lost the flight of the ball, again, allowing Riis to power through and do exactly what Joao should’ve done when it was 0-0.
We never got going after that. And, after a couple of questionable substitutions from Pauno - why take Olise and Aluko off when we need to create a chance? - just to top it all off, Preston added a third in injury time. Brilliant.
A really, really deflating performance and result. I said in the run up to this that we’d learn more about this team tonight than we have in the entire season so far. Now, I’m praying that I was wrong in saying that.
I think we have to keep level heads though. Joao scores either of those two chances at 0-0 and you’d back us to go on and win the game. We were without Moore, Ejaria, Swift and Meite - four players who you would expect would walk into our strongest starting eleven. And we’re still top of the league by three points, and now get the chance to set the tone for this weekend with the early kick-off on Saturday.
One thing is for sure: Pauno has to find a way of getting us back into games when we go behind. We've now conceded the first goal in a game twice, and lost both of those games. Promotion contenders don’t do that.
Onwards and upwards, but certainly problems to solve.