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Reading 2-2 Watford: An Unexpected Comeback

Reading were well off the pace for the first hour, but goals from Tom Ince and Jeff Hendrick secured a big point at home to Watford.

Reading v Watford - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

The Royals have had two home league games in 2023 so far and they’ve both ended in exactly the same scoreline, but they feel awfully different. The 2-2 with Queens Park Rangers was a throwback to the Reading of last season, letting a two-goal lead slip in painfully predictable fashion, but today’s 2-2 with Watford was the opposite: a pleasingly unpredictable positive result.

When Ryan Porteous doubled the Hornets’ lead in the second half, which had been kicked off by Ismaila Sarr before the break, it looked like that was that for Reading. Porteous’ goal came a matter of minutes after the restart, but a pretty dire first 45 from the Royals had given us little cause to think a comeback was on the cards. At that point, I’d have been pleasantly surprised to see Reading manage two shots, let alone two shots on target, let alone two goals.

And yet, this side does have a knack of surprising you when you least expect it. First Tom Ince pulled one back from the spot, then Jeff Hendrick slammed home the equaliser in the 80th minute - surely Ireland’s biggest sporting achievement of the day. Reading could well have won it outright - Yakou Meite blazed a golden chance over at 2-2 - but also looked like they’d been put to bed with a third goal at 2-1 - only for the linesman’s flag to belatedly be raised.

I’ll get into my frustrations with how the match unfolded further down in the report, but the key takeaway from this afternoon should be that Reading have finally picked up a positive league result. After a decent spell in December of two home wins, a loss at Birmingham City and a draw at Norwich City, January brought two defeats (including a particularly bad one at Stoke City) and a dire collapse against QPR, so it’s nice to come away from a league game in good spirits.

The greater significance of this result will only become clear in the weeks ahead. It could well be that Reading build on this comeback and put together some form, but poor results in the rest of February will make this 2-2 look like a case of cracks being papered over.

Reading v Watford - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

Like most other Reading fans (probably), I wasn’t expecting to see Cesare Casadei be thrown straight into the starting XI today. So, of course, that’s exactly what Paul Ince did. The Chelsea loanee made his full debut as a #10 in a 3-4-3 shape that we’ve seen a few times now in the last couple of months. Andy Carroll’s suspension meant Shane Long started up top, with Amadou Mbengue slotting into defence and Baba Rahman excluded entirely due to the maximum limit of loanees (five) being reached in the matchday squad.

Lumley; Mbengue, Holmes, McIntyre; Yiadom, Hendrick, Loum, Hoilett; Ince, Long, Casadei

Bringing Mbengue into the XI was the right call, and if the gaffer was tempted to play McIntyre at left-wing-back (which never works), I’m glad he resisted the temptation. Hoilett isn’t an ideal choice in that role due to being right-footed, but he’s otherwise a more natural fit than centre-back McIntyre.

Before the game I’d assumed that XI would be deployed in a 3-5-2, with Ince partnering Long. Considering that pairing, as well as the decent amount of energy in midfield and at wing-back, Reading had the personnel to play more proactively and aggressively out of possession than they usually do.

Well, proactivity and aggression were in short supply in the first half, as were most other qualities. Reading barely laid a glove on the visitors in the opening 45, struggling to string passes together, let alone construct anything more elaborate offensively than that. The Royals had to make do with a few long shots, of which only one (from Ince) was dangerous, winning a corner.

Watford did an effective job of controlling the contest before the break, dominating possession. But although Reading restricted the Hornets for the most part, they came unstuck half an hour in when Sarr tapped the ball home from close range after the visitors had gotten in behind too easily down Reading’s left.

Reading needed a lift at the break, but it was Watford who got one instead. Right after Joe Lumley had done well to keep the score 1-0 by denying a one-on-one, Porteous - afforded acres of space in the box - nodded in the resulting corner.

For much of the next 20 minutes, if anyone was going to score next, it looked like Watford. Reading didn’t react well to the second goal - or react at all really, essentially picking up where the first-half performance had left off. Long looked too isolated up top and there was little impact from the midfield; I’d have gone 3-5-2 at that point by bringing on another out-and-out centre forward, but Paul Ince opted for the same formation change by swapping Casadei for Tyrese Fornah to beef up the midfield.

Well, what do I know? All it took was one big moment the game to change. Andy Yiadom played a cute ball down the right for Long to run onto, he was bundled over in the area, Ince stepped up and halved the deficit. It was one of the few moments of incisive attacking play Reading had managed all afternoon.

Reading v Watford - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

From that point on it was almost completely a different contest to the one that had played out previously. Reading were noticeably more positive, proactive and full of belief than they’d been at 0-0, 1-0 or 2-0, and the roar from the stands made it clear as day that the home fans felt a point was attainable. Femi Azeez’ arrival certainly helped too: the youngster replaced Junior Hoilett at left-wing-back shortly after the penalty and added no shortage of pace and purpose down that flank.

That all looked in vain in the 78th minute when Watford had the ball in the net for 3-1... or not. The officials belatedly chalked the goal off after some complaining from Joe Lumley, who successfully made the case that the ball had been turned in by a player in an offside position. Phew.

Not content with that, Reading went up the other end and made it 2-2. Ince swung in a corner from the left to the back post where Hendrick, who’d been afforded the freedom of Berkshire, crashed a first-time volley past Bachmann. He should have been joined on the scoresheet by late substitute Meite, but Yaks lacked composure and blasted his finish off target.

When the full-time whistle went I was left with an odd mixture of emotions. On the one hand, relief. Reading had not only fought back from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 - a fine accomplishment for a club with a long-term lack of comeback results - but also held on to see out the point.

On the other, frustration. It took the Royals an awfully long time to get going today; the first 66 minutes were pretty much a write-off as an attacking spectacle, with the penalty belatedly sparking Reading into life. The Royals were hardly electric for the rest of the game but still showed distinctly more purpose and intensity going forwards. We could well have nicked it late on, given that the visitors weren’t all that impressive on the day. Perhaps an earlier attacking change (Meite was only introduced in the 86th minute) would have helped.