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Reading 2-1 Stoke City: Inner Strength

A Lucas Joao brace saw off the Potters to put Reading second in the table.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Sometimes, partway through a game, you can tell how the story's going to end.

When Ben Wilmot struck late on in the first half, equalising for Stoke City after Reading had been holding onto Lucas João's opener for so long, it was one of those moments. I had that nagging feeling that this would be one of those frustrating days when, after we'd been in front, the visitors would step it up after the break and nick the points.

The Royals had played pretty well until 1-1, but looked tired and passive after recent exertions on the road. Shane Long even missed a golden chance - the kind of bluster that, as decreed by Sod's Law, is always punished. The game being broadcast live on Sky Sports - so often a curse for this club - only added to the anxiety.

Sometimes however, Reading have different ideas.

The second-half performance certainly wasn't perfect (Stoke had their chances, not least a golden one from a low cross that should have been converted for 1-2), but Reading secured the points and did so deservedly.

While so many Royals sides would have withered in the second half, gutted from the equaliser, this one went into a higher gear. As the match progressed, Reading's threat grew, João completed his brace by winning and converting a penalty, and the visitors faded. This was no smash-and-grab in the second half. Reading rose to the challenge and Stoke did not.

That's encouraging at any time, but certainly so in these circumstances. The Royals won't have had much in the tank going into this game, having had to grind out 1-0 wins over Middlesbrough and Millwall before being given the runaround by Sheffield United who ran riot in midweek.

Reading summoned up an extra supply of energy after the break - both mental and physical - and were rewarded for their efforts. The mental aspect shouldn't be overlooked: Reading have twice this season conceded four on the road before winning the next game. This team knows how to react.

Add in a similar bounce-back last season, when the Royals earned a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth after being thrashed 4-0 at the City Ground, and the pattern is clear: Paul Ince knows how to manage heavy setbacks. If that's not the sign of a good manager, I don't know what is.

Reading v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Just as encouraging is how difficult it is to find players who aren’t candidates for man of the match - a real trend in home games this season. The two who'll rightly get the most praise are Tom Ince (who again ran his socks off against his former employers and was Sky's standout) and goalscorer João.

But look at the rest of the group and it's still a rosy picture. There were no passengers, with everyone pulling in the same direction as part of a cohesive side. Joe Lumley was assured in goal, the back five were well organised and made his life easier, Jeff Hendrick had one of his best games so far (in an unfamiliar deeper role in Mamadou Loum's absence), and Tyrese Fornah once more stood out.

The Nottingham Forest loanee is fast becoming Reading's most underappreciated player. Lining up again on the left of the central midfield trio, he's so important in multiple phases. He both helps out defensively and pushes Reading upfield when pressure needs to be relieved. While he won't get an assist for the winner, it was Fornah who played the ball into Joao before the penalty was won.

This is, all round, a side with the togetherness and desire to grind out wins. That’s had to come in the face of a tough injury list that now includes Mamadou Loum, who’s joined Naby Sarr, Yakou Meite, Ovie Ejaria and others in the treatment room. But when one player is sidelined, the next man steps up and delivers.

While this win put Reading up to the dizzying heights of second, automatic promotion is of course well out of the question. The Royals will surely have rough patches of form this season at some point - the extent of which we can’t predict at the moment - so avoiding relegation is still the only aim. This strong start to the campaign is therefore better seen as an insurance policy against mishaps down the line: the unlikely extra points from the opening weeks of the campaign may well end up being the buffer that keeps us in the division.

That’s a long way off though. In the short term, Reading have three more games to ride out before the first international break - first up a daunting trip to promotion hopefuls Watford. It will however come at the end of an important mini break; no midweek game will allow a small recharge for a side badly in need of one.

After that it’s Sunderland at home before heading to Wigan Athletic. Those two matches are more winnable (on paper), and will hopefully add to Reading’s strong early form before a more substantial fortnight break.