Games like this are why Reading will probably make the play-offs but not have enough to get into the top two. Granted, a 0-0 draw at Preston North End makes for a decent enough point and clean sheet to add to the recent defensively solid unbeaten run, but Reading need to find a way to go that step further in matches like this if automatic promotion is to be realistic.
In the end, three points were agonisingly close: Lucas Joao’s late penalty would have sealed victory to cap off a dull game, much in the same way Michael Olise’s wonder strike did at Loftus Road in December. And although Joao really should have buried his spot kick, reducing the result to that one moment would be an oversimplification. Reading simply weren’t good enough going forwards and didn’t look enough like scoring.
Throughout the game there was a distinct lack of offensive fluency. Reading had bright moments on the ball, but they were more isolated sparks than they were signs of true momentum. Devoid of Olise, who sat the game out on the bench after injury against Coventry City, the front four didn’t click.
Reading also had distinct trouble setting the pace of the game. To be fair, Preston did a good job of disrupting the Royals’ flow throughout the match, but I felt we could have used the kind of deep central midfielder who can put his foot on the ball, dictate play and up the tempo. That’s not the strength of either Andy Rinomhota or Josh Laurent, and although Swift can do it, we shouldn’t be relying on him.
Similarly there’s a lack of quality alternative options out wide. Taking Aluko off was the natural change, given his lack of impact on the game and the higher quality of Swift and Ejaria, but bringing defensive midfielder Alfa Semedo on as a like-for-like swap wasn’t going to give Reading that extra bit of impetus to win the match. Yakou Meite was conspicuous by his absence.
The first 10 minutes or so were all Preston in terms of possession; the hosts kept the ball well and stifled any attempts from Reading to grow into the game. They didn’t threaten though - the play was largely in front of the Royals’ defensive shape, although Preston did have a good long-range shot from Scott Sinclair saved early on.
Reading took their time to get into the game, but around the 17-minute mark or so, they started to gain a foothold. Swift managed to get on the ball more and more, and was increasingly influential in both open play - a nice crossfield in the build-up to an Aluko half chance - and from set pieces.
As on Tuesday, Swift had a few pops from long-range free kicks; the first was parried low by the ‘keeper, and the second hit the side netting. Reading’s third free kick of the afternoon, this time in a much more dangerous position (central and close to the area) should have been left to Swift, but Aluko blazed over.
Reading weren’t able to get into a proper flow though, and Preston threatened a few times before the half was out. A Potts potshot flew over the bar after a corner dropped to him outside the area, and a fine reaction save from Rafael at close range kept the game goalless after the ball had bounced around Reading’s box.
The Royals did seem to get into a bit of momentum early on in the second half, putting together a few opportunities shortly before the hour mark. A long kick from Rafael was held up by Joao who fed Ejaria to force a save at the near post, and Tom McIntyre flicked a shot over from the resulting corner. The set-piece taker, Aluko, soon let fly from range with his right foot, but it was tipped over.
After that, the second half just seemed to drag. Neither side looked particularly like it knew how to build momentum and get at the other - the hallmark of a classic 0-0 draw. Joao was though brought down in the area late on, although ref Geoff Eltringham seemed to take his time before pointing to the spot.
It was a desperately poor penalty from Joao, but one that fitted his afternoon. As consistent as he’s been this season with scoring goals, he does occasionally have those games when he looks frustrated with a lack of involvement and chances, which seems to get to him.
This match certainly wasn’t a disaster, especially when you consider Reading played better (going forwards at least) in the reverse fixture but came away with a 3-0 defeat, but it was a seriously frustrating afternoon.
It’s also the kind of result that you interpret differently depending on what happens in the next game. If Reading go on and beat Bournemouth on Friday, particularly with a clean sheet, you hail the unbeaten run and rock-solid defence. If Reading lose to the Cherries, blowing two points in a very winnable match at Deepdale looks a lot worse.