Sunday, September 30, 2012

A helping hand

Reading 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

A 2-2 draw away from home, the point salvaged late and in controversial and decidedly fortuitous circumstances by a Demba Ba brace - sound familiar? For Goodison Park a fortnight ago, read the Madejski yesterday, though on this occasion we were grateful to the officials for failing to spot a crucial handball rather than to award a clear goal to our opponents. We were also less deserving of avoiding defeat.

The Silver Fox's plans were hit by the absence of both Sideshow Bob and Dreamboat, the former having experienced a recurrence of his hamstring strain and the latter suffering from a mouth infection following the removal of his wisdom teeth. Given his past history, perhaps the Frenchman would be advised to steer well clear of dentists in future... That meant that Saylor and Mike Williamson continued their recent partnership in central defence, while Doppelgangers Mr T and Gael Bigirimana formed a decidedly defensive-looking central midfield duo.

As a result we lined up with a 4-4-2 formation, Spidermag and HBA operating on the flanks - a formation which has regularly failed to get the best out of our forwards and which in the first half once again didn't work. Though both Mr T and Bigirimana enjoyed decent enough games in their customary roles, Dreamboat's creativity was sorely missed. HBA was peripheral to the action, trying to take on too many players when he did get the ball, and though we looked to carry some threat on the break we couldn't fashion any chances of note. Spidermag and Papiss Cisse both shot high and wide from distance, while Saylor and Cisse couldn't quite make contact when a free-kick caused consternation in the Royals' six-yard area.

Meanwhile the home side - who had, to our relief, left Danny Guthrie on the bench - had the lion's share of possession and territory without ringing many alarm bells. That said, Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak started to impose himself more on the game - and centre-backs Saylor and Williamson - as the half wore on, forcing Steve Harper into one superb tip-over from a powerful header. Overall, though, the first 45 minutes were instantly forgettable, and I was left feeling envious of the two young lads in front of me playing with their Spiderman toys throughout - at least they were entertained.

Slightly surprisingly, the Silver Fox sent out the same side for the second period, and when the first change came, on 56 minutes, it was enforced. Saylor departed with a knock, James Tavernier's arrival pushing Perchinho into the centre - and two minutes later Mali winger Jimmy Kebe, utterly anonymous in the first half, jabbed in a low shot that wrong-footed both Perchinho and Harper.

To say we were stung into a response would be an understatement. Less than sixty seconds had elapsed when Mr T floated a beautiful through-ball for Ba to lash home spectacularly on the volley in front of the away end. Relief - but not for long. Three minutes later, Royals skipper Jobi McAnuff swung in a left-wing cross and Noel Hunt, whose impressive workrate and closing-down had aggravated us all afternoon, stole in front of Perchinho to glance a header past Harper.

Up went the goal celebration music again (along with the mascot delivering pizza to spectators at half-time, a signal that Reading retain a Football League club mentality) and at last there was some noise and atmosphere. Credit to the home supporters for an impressive ignorance of the concept of irony, asking us why we didn't just go back to our "shithole" while seemingly under the impression that a wasteland of roundabouts and business parks offers vistas to rival Rome and Paris...

Reading looked to have got a grip of the game, their work ethic triumphing over our supposedly superior players' sluggishness. Our hosts remained fragile at the back, though, and as on Wednesday the introduction of Shane Ferguson proved key. Bigirimana's departure meant Spidermag moved into a more central role, with the young Northern Irishman afforded an opportunity to torment Royals right-back Shaun Cummings which he seized with both hands. And a hand was indeed critical in the equaliser, Ferguson's cross knocked home by a flying Ba. Our free-scoring striker led with his head and the ball flashed into the net, so, though an understandably irritated Brian McDermott labelled it "a blatant error", the officials could be forgiven for not spotting that the crucial contact was with his hand. Like his manager, Ba had the good grace to confess - though only in the post-match interview rather than at the time.

That should have been our cue to go on and win the game, having both the momentum and quality to do so, but it was the home side who came closest to securing the three points that their performance (and ours) merited. Veteran substitute Jason Roberts drew a superb save from Harper and also had a shot deflected behind for a corner, while McAnuff spanked a curling shot off the far post, but we clung on for a point.

McDermott declared himself "gutted", and we were certainly unfortunate that Reading, fired up by Wednesday's League Cup win at QPR, served up easily their best Premier League display of the season. It made for an uncomfortable return to an old stamping ground for the Silver Fox, who conceded "Reading gave us a good going over today". The first-half formation was his responsibility, but injuries were partly to blame and he couldn't account for the below-par performances of too many of our players, HBA and particularly Cisse horribly out of sorts. A vast improvement will be needed for Sunday, when we face a Man Utd side wounded by home defeat to Spurs - before which we have a tricky Europa League fixture against Bordeaux to negotiate.

A Reading fan's perspective: The Tilehurst End

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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