The truly bittersweet football games are the ones that give you so much to be proud about with your team, but leave you feeling like you’ve punched in the stomach. Reading’s highly anticipated clash against now league leaders Brentford may have ended in defeat - coming in particularly gut-wrenching fashion late on - but the performance should give us plenty to be appreciative of.
This was no normal 3-1 loss - certainly nothing like the reverse fixture, which ended with the exact same scoreline. End to end, full of energy and quality and completely unpredictable, Reading vs Brentford was a hugely entertaining clash for the neutrals between two of the Championship’s best sides.
In recent years, Reading would have gone at this match in very different fashion. Park the bus, keep it tight at the back and look for something on the counter. But, like against Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago, Reading backed themselves to press aggressively, play a lot of the game high up the pitch and look to impose themselves on a team that are probably now favourites for the title.
That tactical approach from Pauno, and the way in which the whole team bought into it and gave their all for it, makes me so proud. Although Brentford ultimately had the attacking quality to win that match, and a level of strength in depth off the bench we lacked in the absence of John Swift and Yakou Meite, Reading could well have emerged victorious - and you wouldn’t have felt it was an unfair result.
If there was any doubt whatsoever about Reading’s promotion credentials, this game blew them out of the water. This side - even when missing two of its best attacking players in Meite and Swift, gave as good as it got against an excellent side. All in all, it’s a huge indication of just how much this club has changed for the better side Pauno took over - a world away from last season’s home game against Brentford when Reading were brushed aside, losing 3-0 having barely laid a glove on the Bees.
Reading made two changes to the side that drew 0-0 at Stoke City - the polar opposite of the Brentford game in terms of entertainment. Alfa Semedo and Andy Yiadom came in for Swift and Tom Holmes respectively; Pauno presumably preferred an option at right back who’s more comfortable on the ball and better going forwards, despite Holmes’ solid display on Saturday.
For the first 25 minutes or so, the Royals were the better side, preventing the visitors from getting into much of a flow going forwards while looking dangerous in transitions. Those moves didn’t however result in clear-cut chances; Reading lacked that cutting edge in the final third required to open a solid Brentford.
Instead, the key opportunity came from the penalty spot. A quite frankly outrageous crossfield ball from Michael Morrison found Ovie Ejaria on the left wing and he came infield to feed Josh Laurent, who was taken out inside the area. As we saw against Bournemouth, and on other occasions against Brentford, Laurent revelled in the opportunity to push forwards into space in the final third.
Joao made no mistake... although it almost looked as if he would. Perhaps with memories of previous efforts in mind, he put a pretty weak penalty into the bottom left corner; David Raya guessed correctly by diving to his right, but couldn’t get enough on it. 1-0 Reading.
Parity would be restored 12 minutes later. Brentford’s quick free kick caught Reading off guard and Josh DaSilva was able to weave his way into the area from the right past Laurent, who needed some more help from Omar Richards. It was harsh on Reading, who had been the better side up until that point but were undone by a moment of pure quality.
The best of the other first-half chances would go to the Royals. In addition to Richards almost giving Joao a tap-in with a low cross at 1-0, Joao’s header from a delicious Yiadom cross was tipped over by Raya, and he almost pulled the trigger when set free by Richards down the left, while Laurent’s charge through the middle led only to him blasting straight at the goalie.
Brentford had grown into the game as the half went on though, and continued to look dangerous after the break. This was no assertion of dominance though: the second 45 minutes was an end-to-end, basketball-like period in which both sides threatened, although neither could quite open the other one up. The closest Reading came was a deflect Olise effort after the youngster had found space to cut in from on the right, while the visitors broke into the Royals’ box a couple of times, only to be denied by Morrison or Richards.
As the match progressed, you could tell that Reading needed a sub. Not to change the structure of the team, but to top up the side’s energy when fatigue was setting in. The only viable attacking swap Pauno could make though was to bring on Sone Aluko, who’s been a much-improved option this season, but he made little impact in comparison to Semedo, who put in probably his best display in the 10 role this season, imposing himself on the game well and generally knitting the play together more effectively than he usually does.
Ultimately, Reading’s resilience wasn’t enough. In an uncharacteristically slack moment defensively, Richards was beaten in the air by Ivan Toney who nodded down for DaSilva to complete his brace on 86, before Toney made it 3-1 two minutes later by tapping in after Rafael had poorly parried a long-range shot.
Those goals put a sour note on what had been an excellent performance in trying circumstances, but it underlined what Reading were up against: a well-oiled side that’s been building towards promotion for years. They’ve got the quality to, in a few minutes, kill off a contest that been in the balance.
We’ve said before on this site - admittedly after very different games - that it looks likely Reading will have enough for the play-offs but not automatic promotion. This match is another piece of evidence in that column, but it should also be taken as a taste of what’s to come. Even if Reading don’t go up this season, we’ve got a great base to build on for 2021/22.
The future’s bright.