It seems like we’ve had our fair share of ‘must-win’ games this season, particularly in recent weeks, but this one was the biggest of the lot without a shadow of a doubt. The result on Good Friday left us in a very precarious position: that position being that anything less than a win against Derby County today would be a disaster. Thankfully, we avoided that disaster.
Obviously, the biggest decision that Pauno faced before the game - and possibly the biggest he’s had all season so far - was whether he’d continue with Lucas Joao up top or drop our top goalscorer to the bench. Pauno went with the latter of those options, and whether you agreed with it or not at the time (I for one certainly didn’t), it was a decision that ultimately bore fruits for us - but more of that later.
We’ll start with the first-half performance then, and it was a performance that - quite frankly - bored me for the vast majority. For all of our safe, controlled possession, we struggled to break down a team that was content on sitting back in an organised defensive structure (who’d have guessed that?). Not only did we look a little out of ideas going forward, there were a few hairy moments at the back too.
In a whirlwind 30 seconds or so, Colin Kazim-Richards hit the post with a header which rebounded into the path of Tom Lawrence, who forced Rafa into a good low save, before the former picked up the ball again in the box, only to denied by a comfortable yet important stop by Rafa once more. A passage of play that did absolutely no good for my heart rate - cheers, lads.
As the half began to peter out, we looked flat, the visitors looked content to continue doing what they’d done for the last 45 minutes and, having just messaged Sim saying “this is like a pre-season friendly”, I was literally half way out of the lounge to put the kettle on ready for my half-time coffee, and Michael Olise did something utterly disgusting.
In big games you need your big players to pop up with big moments. And in a game that, if not won, would’ve left our play off dreams in as perilous a position as they have been all season, Michael Olise planting one in the definition of ‘top bins’ on the stroke of half time is certainly just that.
He is, in my opinion, the best product of our academy - ever. Yes, I know Gylfi came through the ranks but i can assure you right now that Olise will play at the highest level of the game, and will go on to have a better career than Gylfi has had. I promise you that right now.
This goal is the latest point of evidence I can use for that argument. It was a stunning strike, one that doesn’t belong in the Championship, produced by a player that won’t be in the Championship for much longer - regardless of how we finish the season as a club.
It was also the perfect example of the age-old cliche that things change very quickly in football. Fans would not have been happy at half time if it had stayed at 0-0; I know for one I wouldn’t. However, that strike from Olise settled the nerves of the fans just as much as, or possibly even more than, it wowed them.
Into the second half, and although the nerves had been settled by Olise’s goal, they were by no means calm. As the first half proved perfectly like I just said, football can change very quickly - and we’ve been comfortable in a 1-0 lead before and it's been snatched away from us. So no, they weren't calm.
We seemed to start the second half with a bit more urgency, and we possibly should have a penalty when Ovie Ejaria was felled by Andre Wisdom within seconds of the restart, and Yakou Meite looked well and truly in the mood, conjuring up a few of his famous rampaging runs down the right-hand side.
It was from such a run that the Ivorian cut inside from the right, culminating in the second goal, after which I’m pretty sure I heard the entirety of Berkshire breathe out the biggest of sighs of relief. It was a proper poacher’s goal from George Puscas - the first event of the game that will make Pauno sleep easier tonight.
With a two-goal cushion, you wouldn't have blamed the Royals for taking their foot off the gas a little bit, with a the small matter of a trip to Vicarage Road coming up on Friday evening. However, Meite continued the hunt for his goal, firstly forcing Marshall into a good save before being denied a penalty by Jon Moss. For all of Tim Dellor’s shock on BBC Berkshire commentary, it probably wasn't a penalty - and would’ve been soft at best.
That penalty decision directly led to Tom Lawrence absolute hoofing one into the top corner from all of 35 yards. Great. The heart rate was now well and truly on the up once again. We never, ever do it the easy way do we? One normal day of Reading FC - that’s all I ask for. Will never happen.
A certain Lucas Joao then entered the fray. God knows what kind of weekend he’s had. If that miss has been replaying over and over in my head for the last 72 hours, then it’s definitely been doing the same in his. Just to rub salt into the wounds, he gets the news that he’s been dropped - the kind of news that could’ve meant him going into his shell even further, if that was possible.
However, with his first touch, Joao gave himself the confidence boost that no words of encouragement from fans, manager or teammates ever could. He put us 3-1 up, restoring our two-goal cushion in a vitally important game. Oh Lucas, I love you so much.
What I perhaps loved even more was the fact that every player to a man, including Rafael, ran up to celebrate with the Portuguese striker. Absolutely beautiful stuff. I'm not crying, you are.
Big props to Pauno, too. It was a huge decision for him to make, one that a lot of fans wouldn’t have agreed with at the time (myself being one) but can't not agree with it now. Puscas and Joao both scoring is the perfect scenario, but gives Pauno another selection headache before the next cup final on Friday night against Watford.
Onwards and upwards. Keep the faith. URZ.