After three away games on the trot, yesterday finally saw the return of football to the Madejski in an exciting fashion. Following two disappointing results against Fulham and Millwall, which saw the Royals drop to 18th position in the league, fans were hoping to see a more clinical Reading now back on home soil. Despite consistently poor decisions from both the referee and linesmen, two first-half goals from Pavel Pogrebnyak and Nathaniel Chalobah (marking his home debut by finding the back of the net) were enough to see Reading through to their first home win since December.
An initial spell of pressure from Sheffield Wednesday, which saw Reading struggle to even get on the ball, created an atmosphere in the ground as frosty as the weather. It was Reading, however, that broke the deadlock on the halfway mark with Pogrebnyak heading in an inch perfect cross from Stephen Kelly. 1-0 up, Reading increasingly began to dominate the game, marking their supremacy with a second goal through Chalobah’s stunning half-volley from a Garath McCleary cross. Reading, once again, had Adam Federici to thank as his heroics helped to keep Reading in front on several occasions. The most important came just before half-time when Federici dived to tip Lewis Baker’s shot around the post, marking his 30th birthday in style. The Royals had the chance to further increase their lead after the break when a penalty was awarded for Pogrebnyak being hacked down in the box. This chance was however wasted with Hal Robson-Kanu practically passing the ball to goalkeeper Kieren Westwood; something that would not have helped his cause with the Reading fans. Reading were thankfully not made to regret this missed opportunity, making it to the end with not only the win but also a clean sheet.
Despite an outstanding overall team performance, a special mention must be given to Pogrebnyak. With Steve Clarke’s faith in the striker during the January transfer window being questioned by fans in recent weeks, it has begun to pay off with his contribution both against Fulham and especially against Sheffield Wednesday. Pogrebnyak was not only creating chances, but also holding up play, harassing opponents and making great runs into the box. One move that involved Pogrebnyak flicking the ball back to a teammate particularly highlighted the new-found confidence of the striker. Hopefully this is the beginning of a consistent run for the striker in a team that needs goals.
Defensively the team must also be commended. Federici must be used to getting the plaudits by now and is arguably the most consistent member of the squad. His saves kept Reading ahead at crucial times which may have shifted the momentum to Sheffield Wednesday. On this occasion, however, the defensive unit as a whole looked strong throughout and were to thank for a multitude of opportunities not threatening Federici’s goal. Stephen Kelly in particular, coming in to replace the injured Chris Gunter, impressed not only defensively but also offensively providing the assist to Pogrebnyak’s goal. With Gunter potentially out for weeks, Kelly will be looking to cement his place in the team and if he continues to perform in this manner, I would much prefer him in the side. Michael Hector also continues to impress, seemingly increasing in confidence and seemingly unfazed by any potential danger that came his way.
The midfield pairing of Daniel Williams and Nathaniel Chalobah was another impressive aspect of the match, with the pair seemingly building up a relationship in the centre fairly rapidly. Both players demonstrated their strength in holding up the ball, tackling and getting forward; something that helped the overall team performance massively. One slightly concerning aspect was the match fitness of Garath McCleary. McCleary is one of the most creative Reading players and subsequently someone Reading come to rely on a lot. McCleary’s absence from the starting line-up against Millwall was a decision that was met with much bemusement and on some occasions anger from fans who were unsure as to why he had been left on the bench. Yesterday saw him return to the line-up and put in a shift for the team, even scoring a goal which looked wrongly ruled out for offside. Before being taken off on 78′, McCleary was looking exhausted and many of his crosses, which are more often than not spot on, failed to even make it into the box. Considering he has only recently returned from injury, Clarke may have to weigh up the consequences of either playing him too much or giving him a rest and not playing him.
The performance overall, however, gave the manager, team and fans much to be pleased about and to build upon on in future games. Pogrebnyak has started scoring goals again, the team is defensively solid and an air of confidence surrounds the Madejski. With Deadline Day approaching on Monday, however, you must feel that Clarke will still be looking to add to the squad despite increasingly positive results, with a striker surely on the top of his list to help Reading push their way back up the table.