A deserved win for the Royals who showed character and came from behind to take all three points back to Berkshire. Lucas Joao was (once again) the hero. His goals number 15 and 16 gave Pauno’s men the perfect start to 2021 as Reading moved up to fourth in the table (with others having games in hand though).
The first great news arrived already with the team line-up: Omar Richards, John Swift and Lucas Joao all returned into the starting eleven. Tom Holmes went back to his right-back position, while Tom McIntyre moved into the centre of defence. Swift played in a more offensive role behind lone striker Joao. Sone Aluko took the right-wing spot from Michael Olise. With Olise, Tomas Esteves, Alfa Semedo and Sam Baldock - as well as the recovered George Puscas - all on the bench, manager Veljko Paunovic had plenty of substitution options for the first time in months.
Many reasons to be optimistic and positive at kick-off. How quickly these emotions can change... only six minutes were played when Richards left Mbenza too much space on the home side’s right wing. The cross from Huddersfield’s number 18 found Fraizer Campbell in the middle who reacted quicker than Holmes and nodded the ball home. 1-0 to the Terriers with the first shot on target. The same story like two weeks before at Brentford, but hope was still there that the final result might be different…
Pauno’s men tried to bounce back immediately. In the 12th minute, Swift found Aluko on the right who dribbled his way past Edmonds-Green but had his shot saved easily by Huddersfield keeper Schofield. Five minutes later the Royals appealed for a penalty. Swift chipped the ball to Ejaria who went down in the box after a soft touch. Not enough for referee Simpson.
Reading were in control now and had most of the possession. Against a well-organised Terriers defence, they had difficulties though to find space and create clear chances. It took until the 31st minute when Josh Laurent made a powerful run up-field. He went to ground after a tackle just outside the box but managed to pass the ball to Aluko. Unfortunately, Reading’s number 24 didn’t get the best of touches and sent his shot past the left post.
For the last quarter, it was the same picture. The Royals moved the ball around well without finding a cutting edge in the final third. At the other end, Rafael didn’t really have much to do (other than taking the ball out of his goal after the sixth minute). Right before the half-time whistle, the visitors had probably the biggest chance of the first 45 minutes. Swifty’s free kick on the left found Holmes close to the second post, but his header went too central on goal so keeper Schofield could parry it away.
No changes at the beginning of the second half as Reading started brightly with the same spirit they showed already before. After 49 minutes Joao was fouled just outside the area - an ideal position for Swift. His right-footed shot went close, but over the bar. However, only two minutes later and it could have been 2-0. The Terriers played a quick counter attack down their left wing. O’Brien drove into the box; his low-paced cross went through the area and past striker Campbell.
It was end-to-end action now. Both teams played with high intensity, and right when it seemed the game had entered the crucial stage, it was time for the Lucas Joao Show! In the 52nd minute, part one: McIntyre fed him with a long ball from the back, the big Portuguese defended it brilliantly against Toffolo and slotted it in from a tight angle. Definitely a goal not many Championship strikers would have scored. 1-1 and more than half an hour to go. Pauno brought on fresh legs: Olise for Swift. The Royals were pushing for the winner. It shouldn’t last long...
Seconds after the home side had a penalty shout turned down, it was time for Joao’s part two. After a good build-up from Ejaria and Olise, Reading’s leading goalscorer made a good first touch, found space with a great movement and fired the ball in with a precise strike. A fantastic finish! With both goals, the Portuguese showed once again in an impressive way how indispensable he is for this side. A good overall team performance combined with the individual class of Joao resulted in a deserved lead for the visitors, who now needed to stay sharp and attentive in defence to get the win over the line. And so, they did.
It took until the 80th minute for Huddersfield’s second chance of the half when Rafael made a great save after a right-footed strike from Mbenza. Still, the home side was threatening now, while Reading defended deep. Seconds later, man of the match Joao made way for Alfa Semedo. A double substitution followed five minutes afterwards when Baldock replaced Ejaria and Esteves came on for Aluko.
The Terriers kept pressing for the equaliser, and they nearly found it through their biggest threat: Isaac Mbenza. The young Belgian was slipped through the back line by Juninho Bacuna, the younger brother of former Royal Leandro. His one-on-one finish went just wide of the near post. Nerve-racking minutes for the Royals.
But Pauno’s men survived the final moments without further danger. Esteves could have even scored his first goal in English football with a nice left-footed shot. Nevertheless, after four minutes of extra time, the referee blew the final whistle. A very convincing and important win for the Royals.
What a difference it makes when Joao is on the field. What a difference it makes when you have a strong bench. An overall positive afternoon at the John Smith’s Stadium: players returning from injury, a win away from home after being behind, 40 points from 23 matches, three points behind second. 2021 could have definitely started worse.