Reading made hard work of that, didn’t they? When Peterborough United pulled it back to 2-1 pretty much out of nowhere, it looked like the Royals were in for the same self-inflicted fate as Saturday: throwing away a hard-earned two-goal lead. But not this time. Not today, old friend.
Before I get into the finer points of the match, my overriding emotion is one of relief. Reading didn’t need a win on Saturday but they sure did tonight; failing to do so could well have been fatal for the Veljko Paunovic era. And while three points over a Posh side that’s started the seasons in similarly poor form doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods just yet, it’s a huge boost for a team that badly needed one.
While the more accurate retelling of this match is one of Reading labouring somewhat to three points over poor opposition, the late rocket from Tom Dele-Bashiru allows for a rosier narrative. A 3-1 win, with a trio of great goals, looks a lot more cheerful than what otherwise may have ended as a scrappy 2-1, and we’ll all wake up on Wednesday morning with an extra spring in our step because of it.
The evening started with just the one alteration, and it was an enforced one. Luke Southwood replaced the whiteboard-punching injured Rafael in goal, starting off what’s likely to be a lengthy run in the first team. Reading otherwise were unchanged in terms of personnel, but pushed Tom Dele-Bashiru into a higher role in midfield to create a 4-1-4-1 and swapped Liam Moore and Michael Morrison’s sides at centre half.
Southwood; Yiadom, Moore, Morrison, Rahman; Laurent; Halilovic, Dele-Bashiru, Swift, Ejaria; Puscas
The first half was one of those spells that highly trained, expert football analysts refer to as “really bloody boring”. Reading were competent enough to not look like conceding, but incompetent enough to not look much like scoring. The first-half performance bore the hallmarks of a team that had individual quality aplenty, but hadn’t had time to mould that talent into a coherent unit.
Reading had plenty of the ball but didn’t really know what to do with it - not quick enough in possession and too often prone to sloppy passes and decisions. Short passing options to progress play through the thirds on the deck generally weren’t there, and our better openings came from going more direct: a switch of play to the other side here, a ball in behind there.
Besides unfamiliarity with the system, there are points to be made on individual players. For one, Morrison isn’t a ball-playing centre half, and the ability he’s developed in that regard for Reading has come on the right, so he naturally looked clunky in his distribution. Accordingly, Baba Rahman seemed to get the ball less often and less quickly, meaning a smaller impact going forwards. In midfield, Reading had two sharp playmakers capable of picking passes over short or long range: Halilovic and Swift. But both spent too much time in deep positions and too little time in advanced ones, denying Reading the benefits of their talent.
The Royals did create chances through Dele-Bashiru and Halilovic, plus Puscas almost getting in on goal but lacking the touch to get the ball under control, but there was nothing of real quality. Down the other end, Luke Southwood had to be called into action on a couple of occasions to stop long-range efforts, while Liam Moore (injured) was replaced shortly before the break by Tom Holmes.
Reading needed a half-time kick like the one they got at the weekend against QPR, but the second half looked for a while as if it wouldn't be drastically different to the first.
That was until John Swift intervened. 64 minutes in, his preference for a free kick just outside the box instead of an advantage being given by the ref paid off when he duly lashed the ball over the wall and into the top corner. It was a beautiful hit, but exactly the kind of quality we've come to expect from Swifty. He's got such moments of pure genius in his locker, and can roll out those party tricks when Reading need them most.
The goal galvanized Reading, and soon it was 2-0. George Puscas - putting in another strong shift but tonight lacking service - spotted the opportunity to get in behind, lurked, sprung into action to dart into the channel, and pulled the ball back for Dele-Bashiru to control and convert. This time a satisfyingly well-worked goal from open play. Say what you like about what goes on in the other third, but Reading have those moves in their locker.
So… about that other third. Just seven minutes after Reading went 2-0 up, Nathan Thompson beat Ovie Ejaria at the back post too easily to nod a header past Luke Southwood.
Another game, another goal conceded from an indirect free kick: Reading are now up to six for the season and we're only seven league matches in. It was Posh's only real route back into the game, and it was depressingly predictable how they managed to capitalise on it. It was also disheartening to see how Reading's heads dropped when the goal went in; Saturday must have been weighing heavily on the players.
At that point we all feared the worst. There was certainly time for some hair-raising moments in the closing stages; hearts stopped as Clarke-Harris found too much space to head harmlessly wide, and when Southwood struggled to gather a cross - although he immediately won a free kick.
But individual quality shines through, and boy do we have it in Tom Dele-Bashiru. The Watford loanee had already shown his composure to open his Reading account, and late on he demonstrated a rocket-like shot to lash home from outside the area. Cherry on top, and heart rates back to a manageable level.
When the full-time whistle went, you could sense the weight coming off the shoulders of everyone in the stadium. Disaster averted, job done.
I wrote after the QPR game that Saturday’s result would be judged differently depending on what happened on Tuesday. While the disappointment of that late collapse hasn’t gone, it’s been tempered by an immediate reaction. Four points from these two matches is what we would have targeted last week, and while concerns remain over the defending, netting six times ourselves took some doing.
The importance of defending will be ramped up on Saturday with the trip to Fulham, the favourites for promotion. Reading’s backline has a lot of improvement to be done in a short amount of time if we’re to come out of that contest with a result.