A very disappointing afternoon for the Royals in Staffordshire! Pauno’s men got back twice and were on the front foot during the last half an hour, but a lack of concentration and missing alternatives from the bench meant Reading’s season start ended with a defeat.
Finally the day had come - the first match of the new campaign, in front of spectators, the away end filled with Royals supporters. The ideal surrounding to kick off the season of our 150th anniversary.
But what could we expect from our Reading team? No one really knew that exactly. Due to EFL regulations, no signings could be made all pre-season.
A look at our bench at Stoke’s bet365 Stadium easily indicated how badly we needed some additional, new faces. Manager Veljko Paunovic only named five players on the bench – Luke Southwood, Tom Holmes, Dejan Tetek, Mamadi Camara and George Puscas! With Ove Ejaria and Yakou Meite out injured, team selection seemed pretty simple for the Serbian gaffer.
Due to this limitations Pauno started with the familiar 4-2-3-1-system. Andy Yiadom, Michael Morrison, captain Liam Moore and Tom McIntyre in defence. Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent in central midfield behind 20 years old Femi Azeez on the right, 19 years old Ethan Bristow on the left (both with their first league start) and John Swift as the classic number 10 playmaker. Up front was last year's top scorer Lucas Joao.
If there was a positive from this depth-lacking squad, it was that everyone should know each other quite well, on and off the field. A good, strong team spirit might be Reading’s key to getting off well…
With the away end in full voice (how good was it to hear again the likes of “Reading til die”?) the Royals kicked off in the new, beautiful yellow Simod Cup-style away shirts. Big emotions and a rocket atmosphere!
During the first 10 minutes Stoke tried to put the visitors under early pressure. A first shot by Brown after two minutes went straight at Rafael. Reading on the other hand tried to slow down the tempo by passing the ball around without creating any real danger. That changed after 13 minutes when Rino tried to flick the ball onto Joao. A block by a Stoke defender fell right at him again, but the number 8’s strike was blocked by Potters keeper Josef Bursik.
Pauno’s injury worries then seemed to grow again as Lucas Joao indicated shoulder problems after a soft tackle by Fox. Puscas started to warm up, but the big Portuguese put his pain aside and kept playing. Still, he seemed inhibited for the rest of the game.
After 21 minutes Stoke’s Tommy Smith should have done better (but thankfully didn’t) with a clear header from short distance. On the other hand Swifty sent in a brilliant cross that nearly found Joao in the middle. The closest Reading had come so far.
A pretty normal start then went absolutely crazy. And it was another set piece from the Potters that opened the score. A 50-50 battle between Moore and Brown saw the Reading captain being punished for handling with a free-kick to the home side - a decision Veljko Paunovic criticised heavily. The perfectly timed in-swinging ball from Smith found Powell at the back post who slotted it easily in.
But the Royals’ answer didn’t take long. Only seconds later Joao’s back pass was intercepted by a Stoke defender and bundled into the box. John Swift reacted quickest, rounded the goalkeeper and stabbed it in from the tightest of angles for Reading’s first of the season – 1-1.
Unfortunately it didn't last long. After a long ball McIntyre and Moore didn’t attack Brown closely enough and gave him too much space inside the area. His deflected strike went right between Rafael’s legs. Even though there was this slight deflection it looked like the Brazilian should have done better.
The rest of the half was then quieter again. Pauno’s men tried to take over control but lacked the ability to create something, while Stoke seemed overall the more dangerous side. Still, everything to play for after the break…
The second 45 minutes started with a more aggressive Reading side that looked for the equaliser. Morrison had a half chance when his header after a Yiadom corner didn’t reach Joao. Shortly before the hour mark it was time for the first substitution. But neither Veljko Paunovic nor Michael O’Neill brought on a new man. It was one of the linesmen who had to come off injured. The fourth official took over the flag.
The Royals kept battling forward and deserved the equaliser after 61 minutes. Swift’s corner from the right found Captain Fantastic Liam Moore in the middle. His thunderbolt header left Bursik no chance. 2-2! Again to mention the amazing noise by the Reading supporters who absolutely went mad and pushed Pauno’s men further on!
The visitors were now on the front foot. Stoke only had one shot on target after Reading’s equaliser. With 15 minutes still to go Pauno brought on Puscas and Tetek for Joao and Swift. The number 10 had a terrific game. Joao was quite invisible, maybe because of his shoulder problems. Let’s hope it is nothing too serious.
84 minutes were played when Reading’s youngsters showed their class. Bristow played a nice ball to Azeez who nearly tipped it in with his right.
But what happens if you don’t keep concentration high all the time became clear soon after. Tom McIntyre left Smith too much space on the wing. The pinpoint cross of the Potters' right back was stepped over by Vrančić and slotted home by Surridge from short range. Reading behind for the third time…
Defender Tom Holmes then came on for Femi Azeez… to partner Puscas up front! Another indication of how limited Veljko Paunovic’s options are these days.
Seven minutes of stoppage time were added. The Royals tried hard but couldn’t find any clear opportunities. Shortly afterwards referee Donohue blew the final whistle. Pauno’s men had to return to Berkshire empty handed. Still, the supporters in the away end gave their team (rightfully) a warm round of applause.
Surely, the overall performance was not brilliant. But could you blame the team? Not too much. The effort was there. And honestly you can’t expect too much from a squad with only 15 senior first-team players and two of them – both offensive key players (Meite, Ejaria) – out injured.
The upcoming weeks will be decisive for the rest of the season. Not so much on, but mainly off the pitch. Reading need to know if/when they can bring in new players. Otherwise ambitions have to be decreased massively.
A final mention should go to Liam Moore. The Reading captain led (again) by example, showed a passionate performance and scored a brilliant header. All that after a summer without much time to rest. The whole month of July he was involved in Jamaica’s Gold Cup competition (four matches, three times playing over the full 90 minutes, the last one only 12 days ago). Full respect to him!