Reading finished 2023 in similar fashion to the start of the Barclays Championship with another 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace, at the SCL Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Both goals were scored within 10 minutes in the first half. A good finish from Lauren Wade, five minutes before the end of the first half, cancelled out Crystal Palace’s headed opener from Elise Hughes on the half-hour mark.
With no Rachel Dugdale or Deanna Cooper in the squad, Liam Gilbert selected Madison Perry and Charlie Wellings, both with their first starts of the season at the SCL Stadium. Easther Mayi Kith slotted in at right-back with Sanne Troelsgaard filling in at centre-back, alongside Brooke Hendrix, with captain Lily Woodham completing the back four.
Team 4-2-3-1: Orman (GK), Primmer, Wade, Hendrix, Mayi Kith, Estcourt, Houssein (Elwood, 87), Perry (Gregory, 66), Woodham (Captain),Troelsgaard, Wellings
Unused subs: Annets (GK), Smith, Longhurst, Jarvis, Hunt, Kennedy, Wilson,
Yellow cards: Primmer, 87
It was the visitors who applied the opening pressure, earning two corners within the first five minutes, with the Reading defence managing to clear the danger - including an early scare when goalkeeper Emily Orman was unable to hold onto a cross fired back into the penalty area.
High pressing from Crystal Palace’s front line meant the Reading defence had to defend well throughout the first half - enduring a total of six corners in the opening 45 minutes - with some strong defending and the combination of a bit of panic, confusion and last-ditch scrambled clearances.
It was a set piece, after a foul by Charlie Estcourt, which undid the Reading defence and opened the scoring for the visitors. An excellent left-foot delivery from Felicity Gibbons allowed Hughes to rise and use the pace of the cross to redirect the header past Orman and into the Reading goal. 0-1.
In between this Reading did, at times, look like they were starting to settle and offered some promise with counter-attacks. Perry was unfortunate not to execute her pass to release Wellings and, just a minute later, it was Perry again that saw her pass flash across the Crystal Palace penalty area, unable to find a Reading player, after some good work down the Royals’ right-hand side.
Tia Primmer and Wade had shots on target but both were comfortably gathered by Demi Lambourne in the Crystal Palace goal.
The Reading equaliser was teamwork at its best with quick and fluid pass and movement before a well executed finish. Hendrix left the ball, after a big shout from Orman in goal, who quickly released it for a Royals attack, finding Primmer, in turn to release Wade who, with still a lot to do, kept her cool to slot the ball past the outrushing Palace goalkeeper. 1-1.
There was still time for one more let-off before half-time when Hughes came close, hitting the Reading crossbar, after a looping effort and yet from another corner.
Half time 1-1.
Reading came out for the second half unchanged. The Crystal Palace manager, Laura Kaminski, made the only half-time substitution with Annabel Blanchard coming on for Chloe Arthur.
The second half saw waves of pressure from both teams, with Reading certainly more dominant than they were in the first half, but with both sides unable to create any clear-cut chances.
Palace’s Araya Dennis broke through the Reading defence but her cut-back luckily avoided anyone as it flashed across the Reading six-yard box and eventually was cleared to safety by Mayi Kith.
From a Reading free-kick, midfielder Halle Houssein created space to unleash a shot, but it was straight into the midriff of Lambourne in goal.
The first Reading substitution introduced Freya Gregory in place of Perry, with Wade swapping back over to the right wing.
With three goals in the last two matches, Wellings was unlucky not to continue her run of goalscoring form on 67 minutes. After some good play from Woodham and Estcourt, Wellings received the ball near the penalty spot, swivelled and shot, with her effort saved by Lambourne diving to her right.
As the clock ticked down there wasn’t much between the two teams and, as the sides tired, any goalbound shots were often from longer distances, high and over the crossbar.
With three minutes left to play, Gilbert made one last change, with Amelia Elwood entering the field of play in place of Houssein.
There were two final corners in time added on, one for each team. Gregory’s delivery was just too high for Hendrix to be able to get over, with her header looping over the crossbar, and Crystal Palace’s corner was literally the last kick of the match - luckily coming to nothing.
That’s now four matches undefeated (in all competitions) and a result which leaves the Royals four points ahead of Lewes and five from Watford - both occupying the relegation places. Looking upwards, it leaves Reading in a position to chase down both London Lionesses and Sheffield United (the two teams above them).
Reading’s next advertised match is the Championship league fixture against Birmingham FC on Sunday January 21 (1pm kick-off), back at the SCL Stadium.
However, before then, look out for further news for the FA Cup fourth-round match against Wolverhampton Wanderers FC (after their victory over Hull), planned for the weekend before: Sunday January 14.
Finally, may I take this opportunity to wish all Reading fans a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and a healthy, successful and financially stable (!!) 2024. See you then!