Reading are inching away from relegation after a second-half comeback to draw 2-2 against fellow strugglers Brighton & Hove Albion. A brace from half-time substitute Emma Harries rescued a draw, meaning the Royals now enjoy a four-point advantage over bottom-placed team Leicester - and currently have a much better goal difference too.
A disastrous first half left the Royals with a mountain to climb in the second - not for the first time this season. It was an important relegation battle against a Brighton team that, although two points behind (but with two matches in hand), must have been confident of securing an FA Cup semi-final place last weekend.
For Reading it meant another second-half that tested their resolve, resilience and strength of character (or ‘bouncebackability’ to quote Steve Coppell) - which they did in bucket loads, forcing the equaliser after just 15 minutes of the restart.
Team: Moloney (GK), Bryson, Mukandi, Evans (Harries, 45), Wellings (Hendrix 90+3), Eikeland, Mayi Kith, Moore, Rowe, Woodham, Troelsgaard (Vanhaevermaet, 81)
Unused subs: Burns (GK), Poulter (GK), Wade, Caldwell, Elwood
The game started brightly for Reading with the first corner of the match (and first of 10 first-half corners for the Royals) seeing Amalie Eikeland’s header sail just over the crossbar. Soon after, an ambitious long-range effort by Sanne Troelsgaard tried to catch the Brighton goalkeeper out.
However, it was Brighton that got the upper hand, opening the scoring after just eight minutes. Veatriki Sarri lifted her shot into the top corner of Grace Moloney’s goal from close range after the ball was laid back to her from an initial Poppy Pattinson cross. 0-1.
It looked even worse, just five minutes later, when the visitors and Veatriki Sarri both doubled their goal tally. The Brighton striker reacted quickest and toe-poked into the Reading net from an almost identical close-range position. 0-2.
Reading did have half-chances, with Sanne Troelsgaard Reading’s best threat going forward. The Danish international earned herself an effort on goal after some good work down the right side, cutting in but seeing her left-foot shot go wide of the near post.
Faye Bryson, charging up the right wing, had a shot from the edge of the Brighton penalty. Her effort was acrobatically tipped over the bar by Lydia Williams in the Brighton goal.
The visitors will probably be kicking themselves for not finishing it off in the first half though after failing to convert some great opportunities. Emma Kullsberg, cutting in from the Brighton right, flashed her shot across and wide of the Reading goal. A bad back-pass by Lily Woodham gave Veatriki Sarri a chance for her hat- trick but Moloney was quickly off her line to smother the attempt, much to the relief of the Royals’ left back.
On the half-hour mark Moloney was called into action again, saving a Katie Robinson shot - after another counter attack - with Brighton rampaging forward and simply ghosting past Jade Moore and Emma Mukandi in the build-up.
Sarri must have known that today she wasn’t going to achieve her treble - after another close-range effort went just wide of the Royals’ front post. This seemed to spur Reading back into action, causing four corners in just two minutes - the best of these seeing a goalmouth scramble eventually cleared to safety.
Maybe the Royals were too fired up today or just nervous - as throughout the first half they were caught on the counter break, time and time again. Kelly Chambers will certainly have been the happy of the two managers to hear the half-time whistle and will have felt fortunate to be just two goals behind at the break.
Whatever Chambers said at half-time seemed to work and she would have no doubt been very pleased with her team’s response - along with her own bold attacking tactical changes (going to four at the back), replacing Gemma Evans with Emma Harries in attack, in what looked like a new 4-1-4-1 second-half formation.
It took just seconds for Emma Harries to pull Reading back into the match, finishing coolly past Lydia Williams, after a long pass from Emma Mukandi that made its way through to the Royals striker. 1-2.
The Royals continued the pressure and from another corner it was Amalie Eikeland who flicked on a near-post header just wide of the Brighton goal. Rachel Rowe delivered a near-perfect free-kick with Sanne Troelsgaard’s header redirecting this straight at the Brighton goalkeeper.
Reading, on the hunt for the equaliser, rode their luck a little (as they had to really) during the second half. Ex-Royal Danielle Carter (a 29th-minute substitute) missed a great opportunity - with a soft finish - and Sarri luckily slipped in the Reading six-yard box, as she must have thought she was finally going to secure the match ball!
The hosts secured the equaliser in the 60th minute after Harries placed the ball past the rooted Brighton goalkeeper with a precise headed finish from an equally precise free-kick from left-back Lily Woodham. 2-2.
Brighton’s interim manager, Amy Merricks, substituted the unlucky Sarri for Libby Bunce on 68 minutes. The visitors created a couple more late chances - from which Reading somehow survived. First Katie Robinson rounded Reading goalkeeper Moloney but saw her shot hit the post. And, with just four minutes remaining, it was substitute Libby Bunce that released a ferocious shot which blazed over the Reading goal - to the relief of players and fans alike.
Although not the result that either team wanted this afternoon, it was an entertaining end-to-end match (I know that’s only for the neutrals!) - but one that sees a point gained for both relegation strugglers over Leicester - who suffered another heavy defeat away to Aston Villa this afternoon.
If we thought this week’s match was tense, next Sunday is away to Leicester at the King Power Stadium, 3pm kick off. See you there!