Two goals in the first quarter decided the match. Senegalese striker Ismael Sarr scored twice within seconds to put the home side on the front foot. The last 15 minutes of the first half gave hope the Royals might be able to fight back; the second half though was a disappointment against an opponent of high quality who just did enough to win the game.
Pauno’s men awaited a big evening. The Royals had to travel to Vicarage Road to face Watford, a team that had won 13 of their last 17 games and were second in the league. 90 minutes for Reading to show why they deserve to stay in the playoffs and to send also a signal to their rivals ahead of Saturday’s matches.
Manager Veljko Paunovic made one change to his starting eleven. The more defensive Lewis Gibson came in at left back for Omar Richards who still suffered from a slight injury during the week. That meant as well Reading’s leading goal scorer Lucas Joao stayed on the bench while George Puscas began again upfront.
The game started quietly with no goal opportunities for either team. Watford’s Joao Pedro made a first attempt after five minutes. His low right-footed shot went wide past Reading keeper Rafael. The Royals themselves moved the ball around well without creating any danger: a typical beginning to a match where both teams didn’t want to get behind too early.
A plan that would only work for one of the sides though… Within two minutes Ismael Sarr showed his class and put the Hornets ahead with two goals! In the 12th minute Gibson and Laurent left the Senegalese too much space on the right wing. The number 23 cut inside on his left foot and curled the ball into the top corner. No chance for Rafael.
Only seconds later Gibson was put under early pressure and gave the ball away too easily in a dangerous position. And then there was again Sarr who picked up the ball on the right and sent in a thunder-strike from the corner of the box. 2-0!
Understandably, Pauno’s men needed some minutes to get over this shocking result. Their first shot on target came after 26 minutes. Josh Laurent’s long-range effort went straight at keeper Bachmann. A minute later the midfield dynamo tried it again from the right side of the area. This time his finish went wide.
Reading fought their way back into this match and should have scored right after the half-hour mark. Michael Olise made a great run down midfield and played a perfectly timed pass to Yakou Meite on the right of the box. The Frenchman cut it back to George Puscas in the middle who was quickest to react. His ball crashed against the post. A very unlucky moment for the Royals.
Reading were now on the front foot and should have really scored before half time. In the 40th minute another good opportunity for Laurent. His attempt from a tight left angle was cleared by Bachmann. Five minutes later Meite was free on the right wing. His shot from inside the box hit the side netting.
And still it wasn’t enough. Right before the break Andy Yiadom’s half cross, half shot was blocked as well by Bachmann. The Royals didn’t play bad at all, they just didn’t take their opportunities. Watford on the other hand scored from their only two shots on target. Ismael Sarr’s quality strikes made the difference.
But there were still 45 minutes to go. Reading tried to pressure the home side right from the beginning without finding space for any clear goal opportunities. Time was ticking away. When it seemed that some new creativity might be helpful, Veljko Paunovic brought on Lucas Joao and Omar Richards for George Puscas and Lewis Gibson.
The Royals needed to get one back soon but found it hard to create something while Watford were always dangerous on their counter attacks. After an hour Michael Olise had a free-kick saved comfortably by Bachmann.
With every minute passing, desire and resistance were sinking. The game drifted away. Both introductions - Richards and Joao - didn’t really have an impact. Especially the big Portuguese was pretty invisible. In the 78th minute the Norwegian Zickernagel had the chance to kill the game but blasted the ball over. Three minutes later Sanchez went close with a long-range shot past the post. Then Sarr had too much space inside the box after a corner. His shot went just wide.
Even though Watford didn’t score a third the game was already over by now. You could feel that the players didn’t believe in a turnaround anymore. Even though Pauno tried to go all-in by bringing on Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock for Ovie Ejaria and Andy Rinomhota.
Seconds later it was Aluko who had the only good chance of the second half, but Bachmann managed to save his left-footed shot from short range. After six minutes of added time, referee Linnington blew (thankfully) the final whistle.
What was declared as a big evening for the Royals ended in a big disappointment. Two individual actions from Ismael Sarr were enough to beat Pauno’s men. Against teams of Watford’s quality two things are key: avoid easy goals and take your own opportunities. Unfortunately, the Royals failed both, even though they didn’t play that bad.