A seven-game unbeaten run turned into a two-game losing streak for Reading on Saturday as Millwall became the second team in a week to come from behind and win at Madejski Stadium.
Coming off the back of a perfectly decent if ultimately fruitless performance versus leaders Brentford, the subsequent mid-table opposition was at least a chance to show that, if Reading played like that again, they would be properly rewarded.
That is not how the afternoon played out as the hosts started slowly and saw a header clip the crossbar from an early free-kick, with set plays Millwall’s main avenue of joy. The Lions were not quite as annoying as they may have liked to be. Rather than a ‘no one likes us’ team, Gary Rowett’s side were your perfectly functional Championship side that you play six weeks out of eight at this level.
Millwall were helped along by referee Andy Woolmer who reacted to their rough challenges with the mantra of keeping the play going and decided to try and put a lid on such antics whenever Reading got involved.
All of which would not have been so bad had Reading been able to deliver some proper threat in the final third. Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise were sharp but Lucas Joao has looked worryingly slow this week and Andy Rinomhota, promoted to the No10 role, possesses a mean burst but is still more bruiser than baller.
Dropping Alfa Semedo a bit deeper, at last, certainly benefited the team and could arguably be attributed to the loanee’s stunning opener - picking off a poor pass from the goalkeeper, barrelling into two hesitant Millwall players, and hitting the empty net from 40 yards.
That Reading have relied somewhat on the spectacular and the set-play this season highlights how Paunovic is still dealing with the same problems as his predecessors. Namely, an attack that flatters to deceive. One that does the hard bit well and the easy bit badly.
Perhaps this is also the sort of game you escape the Championship to avoid. A solid if pretty boring opposition, a useless ref, a non-existent atmosphere (for obvious reasons), and the impending sense of doom your team’s inadequacies deliver you.
Going into the final 15 minutes, Paunovic hadn’t touched his bench and weirdly decided to take off Tom Holmes for Andy Yiadom. The replacement cannot really be blamed for what happened next but that the Serb had no brighter ideas, with Holmes playing perfectly well, highlighted his inability to change the direction of games.
And it was incessentantly, annoyingly and disturbingly heading towards the inevitable equaliser, which came when a dodgy shot bounced through the defence and Mat Smith stabbed home.
The best teams may have shrugged it off and win it but Reading, still sans attacking subs, could not and once again a cross, popping up off a block, found Mason Bennett at the near-post to head home. Both goals came after distressingly lucky bounces of the ball but the defence froze at these changes of fate with Josh Laurent in particular, amid his worst game in a Reading shirt, twice found two yards off his marker.
It is still fantastic that the Royals are fifth, with an eight-point buffer to seventh, but days like today can’t help but leave a fear that this team will limp to the finish line and leave us with yet another play-off heartbreak.