If the January blues were a football club, they would be Reading FC. After a sensational Christmas period, the Royals have struggled to find their way so far in 2020. Since the 2-1 victory at Fulham on New Year’s Day, the team have won just once in eight games - against Blackpool in a cup replay - recording four 1-1 draws in that time.
The latest of those came away to Cardiff on Friday night, six days after the two teams had ended all square at the Madejski Stadium in the FA Cup, and four days before they’ll do it all again in the replay. The goalscorers were the same as last weekend too - Yakou Meite for Reading and Callum Paterson for Cardiff.
Meite even scored in the same minute - the eighth - finishing off a slick Royals move that their fast start to the game deserved. Ovie Ejaria played an excellent through ball to Sam Baldock, who held it up well before playing it in to John Swift arriving on the left of the box. The midfielder made it nearly all the way to the byline before cutting back a cross for Meite, who nodded home from close range.
The game was not ten minutes old, but that was about as creative as Reading got all evening. Cardiff’s equal lack of any attacking coherence contributed to the rest of the first half largely becoming a damp squib, not helped by the drizzling rain and swirling rain in South Wales.
On familiar turf, Chris Gunter was given plenty of space on the right flank and put a couple of dangerous crosses into the box. However Alex Smithies collected one and Meite completely fluffed a half volley in trying to meet the other. Meanwhile Cardiff’s biggest threat was centre-back Sean Morrison, who had more touches in Reading’s box in the first half than any other Bluebirds player. He was the target for many a corner, long throw or cross, but the Royals dealt with him fairly comfortably.
Indicative of the hosts’ struggles, Neil Harris made two substitutions at half-time - Danny Ward and Leandro Bacuna replacing Junior Hoilett and Gavin Whyte. Both players gave Cardiff much more of a focus, with Bacuna controlling the midfield exactly a year after his deadline day departure from Reading, and Ward providing more of a focal point upfront. Reading meanwhile began the second half sluggishly, struggling to create anything of significant note.
Cardiff’s main course of action for most of the game was to launch balls into the box in the hope something might come of it, and this tactic finally paid off in the 70th minute. Will Vaulks sent a long throw into a crowded penalty area, which Michael Morrison could only head against his own post before Callum Paterson smashed home the rebound. Questions could perhaps be asked of the Reading defence for not reacting quicker.
The hosts were nearly in front just four minutes later, once again as a result of an aerial ball. A corner went over everyone’s head in the box but was played out to Vaulks 25 yards out, and his shot ricocheted into the path of Ward who forced an excellent save from Rafael - the Brazilian diving low to his right to keep it level.
The game became an end-to-end contest in the final ten minutes as both sides realised that their opponents were potentially there for the taking. Reading introduced Charlie Adam and he was at the heart of most things the Royals produced, very nearly scoring with cross-cum-shot that just went over the bar. Cardiff meanwhile continued to be a threat from corners, while Tom McIntyre made a key block on a Bacuna shot as the Bluebirds broke away.
Overall though, a draw was a fair reflection of a game devoid of any real quality for much of it. The two sides have many similarities, most of all in their lack of attacking presence and quality. Both teams may have been keen to bring in a striker on deadline day but will have to make do with the limited options currently at their disposal.
For Cardiff, that should mean giving Danny Ward more game time or utilising the versatile Callum Paterson. For Reading, it may see a more permanent return to the 3-5-2 that Mark Bowen lined up with on Friday having largely stuck with a four at back in his time in charge so far.
The Welshman stated after the game that the switch in formation was to give the strikers - in this case Sam Baldock and Yakou Meite - more ammunition and more bodies around them. But the pair lacked service for much of the game, with Baldock touching the ball just 16 times before being substituted in the 83rd minute. His replacement George Puscas touched it three times. Did it make the team more defensively solid? Perhaps, but again, they were coming up against a Cardiff side who didn’t offer much going forward either.
A point at the Cardiff City Stadium is not a bad one considering the Bluebirds have the third best home record in the league, but it was a game that if Reading did have any faint play-off hopes, they should have won. It would not surprise me if the two teams ended on level points somewhere between 10th and 15th come the end of the season.
The attention now turns to Tuesday night in the FA Cup, a competition both sides should really be taking seriously as their league campaigns begin to pale into insignificance. A home tie against Sheffield United awaits the winner in round five, so you would hope for a slightly more entertaining game and a more assertive performance from both sides. I’m not holding my breath though.