A perfect hat-trick and an excellent all-round performance - you couldn’t have asked for much more from Lucas Joao on the opening day of the season. It was his three goals that saw off League Two side Colchester United on Saturday afternoon, with Reading overcoming a first-half scare to advance into the next round.
That scare had started in the 37th minute when Jevani Brown deftly turned the ball home at the near post to give United an unlikely lead. From then on though, it was the Lucas Joao show.
First, he ensured a poor first-half performance from Reading had a happy ending. Felipe Araruna swung in a cross from the right wing, and Joao got plenty of power behind the delivery to power it into the net for 1-1.
On the 56th minute he showed a different side of his game, slipping in behind the defence to meet Michael Olise’s through ball before firing past the ‘keeper. That kind of clever movement isn’t what you’d usually associate Joao with; you’re more likely to see him use his strength to get on the end of a delivery and finish - as with his first of the afternoon.
Joao’s third was the pick of the bunch though. Araruna again was the man to put the ball into the box, this time with his lob from the left being flicked onto Joao, who held off a couple of defenders before shimmying into space and slamming home - from his weaker left foot.
It gave Joao went home with the match ball and a perfect hat-trick - one goal from his head, one from his right foot and one from his left. He’s also now on five goals for the calendar year at the Madejski Stadium in competitive and friendly matches - coming from only three appearances.
But the other parts of his game shouldn’t go unnoticed. As we’ve seen him do before, and as we’ve missed so much before, Joao dropped off from his spot in leading the line to link the play effectively. It may be a case of doing a simple job against weak opposition, but doing the simple stuff well is Joao’s bread and butter, and it gives Reading another valuable dimension to their play.
See you later!— Quest (@QuestTV) September 5, 2020
A neat turn and finish from @ReadingFc’s Lucas João to seal his hat-trick #CarabaoCuponQuest - Stream on dplay: https://t.co/aBnV4ufRDI #CarabaoCup #EFL #ReadingFC #Royals pic.twitter.com/ZCEBz7um2l
The story of the rest of Reading’s afternoon was pretty much the cliched ‘game of two halves’. The Royals started slowly, looking lethargic and lacking fluency before the break, and although a lot of that was from the players’ sloppiness, an odd set-up didn’t help. Here’s the XI that started the game:
Southwood; Araruna, Morrison, Moore, Bristow; Laurent; McNulty, Aluko, Olise, Baldock; Joao
Although there was fluency in that team as the game went on, it seemed to start as something akin to a 4-1-4-1. Laurent screened the defence while Olise and Aluko pushed on in support of Joao, leaving Baldock and McNulty out wide. It’s an odd approach given that it left Reading so lightweight in midfield (two playmakers but no clear defensive option) and ineffective out wide (with two centre forwards pushed out onto the wings).
Reading never really got going in the first half, and it wasn’t until Andy Rinomhota’s introduction in place of Marc McNulty that the team clicked. That gave the side better presence in the middle and allowed the more advanced players, particularly Olise, more license to do damage in the final third - as happened with Joao’s second.
Ultimately, the manner of this win won’t have too much in the way of long-term significance. The match felt more like a warm-up for (largely) Reading’s second string, overseen by figures that won’t be in charge again. Eddie Niedzwiecki and John O’Shea led the team from the dugout in Veljko Paunović’s enforced absence (he’s in quarantine for a few more days), and it’s looking likely that Niedzwiecki will depart completely - although that’s not been confirmed at the time of writing.
With regards to the squad, it’s worth noting that Reading’s more established players were given a rest before starting at Derby County in a week’s time; it’s then that we’ll see Rafael, Andy Yiadom, John Swift, Ovie Ejaria and others. That’s without taking into account new signings, of whom there could be quite a few, which means the squad’s make-up may dramatically change in the coming days and weeks.
A number of second-string options were given a chance to impress the new boss against Colchester, but I don’t think any were able to really force their way up the pecking order. That said, Araruna looked tidy at right back and was involved in two of the goals, and I suspect his versatility across midfield and the right side of defence will stand him in good stead this season.
However, two aspects of the game do help Reading going forwards.
There’s been plenty of understandable negativity and cynicism around the club recently - including from me - but Saturday’s result really does help. It’s the first solid bit of good news in a while after a string of developments that haven’t gone down well: Howe leaving, Bowen both being replaced and then departing completely, and an unknown replacement coming in. A comfortable cup win (despite coming against lower-league opposition) is a lovely boost to everyone’s morale and lightens the mood ahead of Paunovic’s first media appearance, which will probably come on Tuesday.
Finally, a word on Reading’s trio of academy debuts, which is always something to be proud of, and these three took Reading’s production-line total to 60. Luke Southwood (22) started in goal after years out on loan, becoming the first academy goalkeeper to appear for the club in a competitive game since Mikkel Andersen in April 2015.
Ethan Bristow (18) had a steady, composed game at left back, looking quiet overall but showing an impressive burst of pace to charge down the flank on one occasion in the second half. Joao was replaced late on by one more academy man, Nahum Melvin-Lambert, a 17-year-old forward. It could well have been a dream debut for him when Olise slipped him in one on one, but his shot was foiled by the ‘keeper.