’Tis the season for a fireworks display, and Femi Azeez got in on the action with a New Year’s Day rocket that sparked Reading’s survival bid. He’d already smashed home the opener against Wigan Athletic on Christmas Eve Eve and then scored a late equaliser at Peterborough United on Boxing Day, but this was the pick of the bunch: a long-range screamer into the bottom corner that saw off Exeter City 3-2 and lifted Reading out of the relegation places.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Azeez was the subject of derision: all too often fluffing his lines, all too often looking like a rabbit in the headlights. But he’s really come into his own in the last few weeks and Reading are reaping the rewards.
It’s just as well he did, because Reading were otherwise badly lacking in quality today. A gruelling, intense festive period had seemingly taken its toll on a group that could barely afford to rotate; key players Lewis Wing, Harvey Knibbs, Michael Craig and indeed Azeez himself have barely missed any football recently.
Reading looked tired and flat. Effort wasn’t in short supply today, but the energy levels to back that up were. Much of this game against Exeter consisted of the Royals unable to assert themselves either in or out of possession: not enough in the tank to disrupt the visitors higher up through pressing, as well as a dearth of ideas going forward.
There were better spells from Reading in both halves, but those were the exception. The Royals saved a crucial good spell for the closing stages though, again having the resolve - the New Year’s resolution if you will - to get the result over the line.
Reading had 19 minutes (13 of normal time, six added) in which they needed to hold onto that 3-2 lead. But although there were some nervier moments (when is Reading protecting a one-goal advantage late on not nervy?), the game management was there when it counted. The last time Reading conceded a late goal - against Barnsley in early December - is the last time Reading lost a game.
This team is on the right track.
The afternoon started with Ruben Selles making three changes to the team that drew at Cheltenham Town. Tom Holmes, Amadou Mbengue and Paul Mukairu came out in straight swaps for Tyler Bindon, Clinton Mola and Caylan Vickers respectively.
Reading (4-1-4-1): Button; Mola, Bindon, Abbey, Dorsett; Craig; Azeez, Wing, Knibbs, Vickers; Smith
Reading started pretty slowly, but were up and running in the ninth minute. Mola, allowed license to get forward from right-back, found Sam Smith, who played in Harvey Knibbs in behind, and he slotted past the onrushing ‘keeper for 1-0. That’s his sixth in the league this season, five of which have come since late November; Knibbs is a man who knows where the net is.
Azeez came close to making it 2-0, cutting inside and firing past the post after being found by Wing, but Exeter had the second goal of the afternoon. Surprise surprise… it came from a corner. This time the ball was cleared out to the edge of the area, where Reading academy graduate (Exeter love those) Zak Jules had far too much space from which to slam into the top corner.
Exeter responded better to that goal than Reading did, looking much the more assertive side. They could and indeed should have made it 2-1 when a free-kick from the left was deflected into the path of Alex Hartridge, who had only David Button to beat from close range, but the finish was wide.
The Royals hadn’t had much of a foothold on the contest but slowly grew into it, acquiring more and more possession and territory as the half progressed. Quality in the final third was another matter however, until the second minute added onto the first half. Vickers, until then barely able to affect the game from his spot on the left wing, won the ball back high (a rare example of that in the first half), and fed Knibbs, whose inswinging cross was nodded home by... Hartridge.
The second half was a fairly dull contest for quite a while, with Reading again struggling to assert themselves on proceedings. A low cross from Jeriel Dorsett to Azeez, who blazed over the bar, was the closest we came to making it 3-1.
Exeter were all too happy to capitalise on slack Reading defending to make it 2-2 however in the 68th minute. Mola was done by Jules on the left before the ball was put into the box, then allowed to bounce around the area, with the lively Dion Rankine slotting it home from close range. On the balance of the game to that point, it was a deserved equaliser, but also a critical reminder of how much more decisive Reading need to be in clearing their lines and stopping crosses.
Reading gradually grew in confidence later on though, helped by the introduction of Charlie Savage and Amadou Mbengue for Michael Craig and Mola. Mukairu had replaced Vickers earlier at 2-1.
And that was capped by the purest, sweetest of strikes to make it 3-2. Dorsett drove upfield from left-back, linking up with Mukairu before cutting infield and finding Azeez, who rifled the ball into the net from the edge of the D. Beautiful.
What a way to win a game of football, what a way to climb out of the bottom four, what a way to start the new year!