Well, I’m gutted. Reading’s season now looks pretty much done after a lacklustre draw against Cardiff City. It could well have been a lacklustre defeat when Kieffer Moore converted a late penalty, but Yakou Meite’s even later equaliser sealed a creditable - but ultimately probably inconsequential - point.
Simply put, Reading had a big occasion in front of them tonight and didn’t step up to it. The performance was drab in the first half and, although there were big improvements in the second, they weren’t enough to seriously trouble a dogged Cardiff team. The visitors were all too happy to focus on frustrating Reading, and the home side didn’t have the answers.
Coming up with the answers on a night like requires a mentality that this Reading team doesn’t seem to have. Well-drilled, hard-working teams are an absolute b*stard to break down - doing so requires intensity and bravery in possession to turn the screw in the final third, and patience and resilience when that vital goal isn’t coming.
Reading didn’t have those qualities. Now, this certainly isn’t to say the Royals didn’t try during the game (I referred to a lack of desire in this tweet - that probably wasn’t the right word) - after all, continuing to push when 1-0 down meant we snatched a point. But it is to say that Reading didn’t have that edge to grind out wins when they look so elusive.
The edge I’m referring to comes from mentality, not quality. This is the most talented side Reading have had in years, but it’s also still a young team which doesn’t have experience of a promotion battle. That lack of experience - the intangible sense of knowing what needed to be done to get over the line - was absent tonight.
It was telling in both halves, but for different reasons. The first 45 minutes were desperately poor for a Reading side that knew it needed to win the game. Bar a brief spell in which the Royals managed five shots in quick succession - four of them blocked, the last one at the back post saved - the hosts often struggled to get hold of the ball, let alone get into the final third.
Cardiff’s work rate and organisation meant passing lanes to progress the ball forward often just weren’t there and the ball kept coming back into Reading’s third. The Bluebirds had, like other teams before them, done their homework on how to negate the Royals. Countering that required positivity in possession, but it felt far too much as if Reading’s players were looking around for someone else to take the initiative rather than doing so themselves.
It was another case of Reading beginning a game slowly when a quick start was required. See the poor first half in the last home game, when Reading snuck a 1-0 lead just before the break against Derby County, as a similar example.
The second half was better. Reading dominated possession after the break, looking more proactive, sharp and quick in possession. But it led to little in the way of clear-cut chances. Meite had the best of them when Josh Laurent found him in the box, but he skied his effort. Otherwise the Royals were too happy to let fly from range - Laurent, Ovie Ejaria and Meite all doing so.
Again, breaking down a side that sits deep like that isn’t easy. But the best teams - the ones that get into the top six, stay there and compete in the play-offs - rise to the challenge and get the job done.
It felt typically deflating when Kieffer Moore gave Cardiff the lead from the spot. Reading hadn’t scored themselves, so of course Sod’s Law decreed that the Bluebirds would twist the knife by doing so themselves. The decision to award the spot kick looked soft, but either way it felt like we’d been tempting fate by being unable to score until that point.
With barely any time left, Meite did what Meite does best: scoring goals when you need him to. It’s a basic point but one that we’re all too familiar with by now - if the ball can fall to anyone in the box, it better be him. That’s now his 10th goal in just 21 appearances for Reading this season; what might have been if he’d stayed fit for longer.
To be honest - and I know full well how bad this sounds - that goal didn’t make me feel all that much. Reading needed three points, not just one, so even a dramatic late equaliser seemed inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. It was a bitterly ironic twist that, having pushed for so long to get a goal, Reading could only manage it after Cardiff had done so.
A point moves the Royals that bit closer to the top six, and we could well finished the weekend just four points off Bournemouth if Norwich City beat the Cherries tomorrow. But with Reading also facing a match against the league leaders, you have to think that the blown opportunity to get maximum points against a Cardiff side with little to play for will prove to be fatal for our promotion hopes.
Stranger things have happened, and you can’t rule out Reading cutting the points gap so the contest is taken to the last day. But that possibility began to look remote after the Watford defeat and even more so now. Reading’s season is very probably over.