Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Royals rumbled as crowning glory comes ever closer

Reading 1 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Promotion may have already been won, but we continued our push for the Championship's top prize with victory over Reading. As with Blackpool on Saturday, we came up against in-form opposition - having clambered out of the hole Brendan Rodgers left them languishing in, the Royals had lost just twice in 15 outings - so the fact that we strolled to another routine win with few alarms and without ever being at full throttle just goes to underline our superiority in this division. (Note to our detractors: that can't be decried as arrogance now - it's just a statement of fact.)

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that the game came hot on the heels of the 4-1 savaging of the Seasiders, Chris Hughton opted to ring the changes. Peter Lovenkrands and Bigger Lad dropped to the bench, with Big Lad and Alan Smith taking their place. Tamas Kadar, meanwhile, missed out through injury, Hughton choosing to replace him with Ryan Taylor (indirectly, as it was Danny Simpson who switched to the left) rather than risk Jose Enrique from the start.

It was the home side who began with the greater intent, busily setting about us with some neat, effervescent passing and approach play that - a Shane Long effort aside - came to nothing as soon it reached the edge of our penalty box. Cue a characteristically ruthless sucker-punch from us. Kevin Nolan, who was playing in a more advanced role in the reshuffled line-up and had been charging about like a man possessed, turned neatly and fired in a shot that Royals 'keeper Adam Federici will probably be disappointed not to have kept out.

With control established, we started to liven up, though the second goal we were threatening didn't materialise until three minutes before the break. Nolan again it was, tucking in Wayne Routledge's cross to overtake Bigger Lad in the scoring charts. As mentioned last week, the glut of goals from midfield have been vital this season, just as their lack last term helped condemn us to relegation - if we're to survive in the top flight this time, it's essential Nolan and those around him can keep it up.

While Taylor and Simpson had at times looked a little jittery at the back, Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini had been assured and composed, nodding away anything flung into the box - so it was disappointing to learn that the latter had succumbed to a hamstring strain, replaced at the break by Enrique.

Not that it really seemed to matter, the 4000 travelling fans deprived of the sight of Nolan completing his hat-trick early in the second half by the width of a post and a subsequent hack off the goal-line.

Royals manager Brian McDermott - who, lest we forget, needed the win if he was to achieve the improbable feat of rocketing his side from the relegation zone into the play-offs - signalled his intent by throwing on a pair of strikers, Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu, for two midfielders. Even then, though, it looked as though any end product to their attacks would need to be supplied by us - and so it proved, Enrique's goal-line clearance whacking off Simpson's back and looping over Steve Harper. Just the sort of tragicomic goal we were conceding last season - fate preparing us for our return to the Premier League, perhaps...

Another striker came on, Grzegorz Rasiak, as Long was withdrawn, and we came under increasing pressure from a rejuvenated Royals. But the introduction of fresh blood from our bench in the shape of Bigger Lad and ASBO helped us hold out through an Old Trafford-esque seven minutes of stoppage time - albeit though this was merited, added on to account for a nasty-looking injury to Bryn Gunnarsson that left our hosts down to ten men.

In truth, we could actually have extended our advantage at the death, Spidermag missing the target after a quick break from a corner for which Federici had ventured forwards. Aside from that Champions League winner against Juventus and crashing his car into a Metro train, Andy Griffin's time on Tyneside is probably most memorable for his repeated shackling of David Ginola in games against Spurs - but faced by a similarly tricky customer in the shape of the dynamic Argentinian, and with his advancing years counting against him, our old boy came off second best, as most full-backs have.

It's that time of year when there's a sudden obsession with convoluted maths, probabilities and possibilities, but fortunately our situation is now very clear. Our nine-point advantage over the Baggies with three games to go and far superior goal difference effectively means we're champions - but it'll be a mathematical certainty if the Smogs are able to avoid defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday, and even if they're not, all we need is one point from our remaining three fixtures. As Sir Bobby famously once advised: "If we start counting our chickens before they hatch, they won't lay any eggs in the basket". But I think that even he'd make an exception in this case.

Opposition fan's view: The Two Unfortunates

Other reports: BBC


Blogger Lanterne Rouge said...

An enjoyable game. Having attended the match, I would certainly take issue with the "strolled" comment - it's more realistic to say that Newcastle picked Reading off professionally - after half and hour of complete domination from Reading, Federici made an inexplicable error and it was 1-0. Magpies looked very strong and doubled the lead after a good run from Routledge and then Nolan missed an absolute sitter early in the second half to make it three. Then, the blue and white tide resumed and it was one way traffic in Reading's favour for the last half hour - but an injury to Gunnarsson meant Royals were down to 10 men for the last 10-15 minutes. For Magpies, Coloccini and Williamson looked good and Simpson did well as a makeshift centre back after half time. Nolan was also immense.

9:23 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Well, you put us under pressure without actually posing too much of a goal threat (just three shots on target all game - though admittedly we mustered two and both went in...). It's been much the same for most of the season. The swashbuckling home wins have largely come post-Christmas, whereas more typical has been this sort of win - playing decently but very much within ourselves, allowing our opponents a healthy share of possession but holding them at arm's length and rarely looking genuinely troubled while then picking our moments to dish out lessons in how to take your chances. It wasn't a vintage performance but - for all the Royals' neat approach play - it didn't really have to be.

The pattern's repeated itself too many times this season for it to be coincidence. But lest I should sound smug and complacent, I think we're all well aware that displays like last night's won't be rewarded with anything more than miserable defeat in the top flight. There's no escaping the fact that we've benefited from the relative profligacy of Championship strikeforces (a Premier League side with the same periods of pressure and momentum as Reading would have made it count) just as we've exploited the relative weakness of their defences.

So, where do Reading go from here? I'd suggest a proven Championship goalscorer who could deliver some end product - but then that much is obvious. Finding a solution is rather trickier than identifying the problem...

7:24 pm  

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