“We wanted to make the gap bigger between ourselves and the bottom three and we managed to do that.”- Reading Manager Steve Clarke
Going into the game at the Madejski on Tuesday night, Reading had failed to score at home in four of the last five games. With “Sweet Caroline” ringing out from the stands and a changed starting lineup, things were all about to change against Brighton. After a tough run of games, Reading sealed a home victory against the Seagulls winning 2-1, courtesy of a Jamie Mackie brace. The result has taken the Royals up to sixteenth position, and thirteen points off the relegation places. After some concerning matches, the result against Brighton will do the squad wonders going into the next Championship match away to Watford at the weekend and the big FA Cup match on Monday at home to Bradford.
Steve Clarke made several expected changes going into the game. The back four was relatively new, with Michael Hector being the only one to keep his place in the starting lineup. Jake Cooper made his first start under Steve Clarke, replacing Alex Pearce who sat out having broken his nose against Bradford. Chris Gunter returned to side, taking over captaincy from Pearce, and Nathaniel Chalobah was this time given the task of playing at left-back in place of Jordan Obita. Hope Akpan, Garath McCleary and Nick Blackman were all also given starts by Clarke who chose to leave the likes of Pavel Pogrebnyak, Simon Cox and Yakubu on the bench. It was also nice to see youngster Niall Keown on the bench, who made his Reading senior debut late on in the match.
Reading impressed from the off, with chances falling to Cooper and Hal Robson-Kanu early on. Brighton also threatened from an Emmanuel Ledesma free kick, with Greg Halford tamely heading towards the Reading goal. Reading were to open the scoring in the twenty-fourth minute, following a poor clearance from Brighton goalkeeper David Stockdale. Akpan was gifted the ball and then released Mackie who ran towards goal and smashed it past the keeper. Going into half-time, the Reading boys looked comfortable and the more likely of the two sides to score next. This was not the case, however, as a tame push from Cooper saw Ledesma fall over somewhat dramatically to gift Brighton a penalty which was calmly put away by Chris O’Grady. The sides were not level for long as three minutes later, Mackie cut in from the right hand side and sent a low curling shot past Stockdale over to the left. Reading could have had another goal had it not been for Stockdale’s heroics, keeping successive efforts from substitute Pavel Pogrebnyak, Blackman and Akpan all out of the Brighton net. Two goals were enough, however, to see the Royals through to victory.
Several players impressed, none more so than Mackie. Playing upfront, Mackie chased down every ball that was played among the Brighton back four even if that meant sprinting back and forth across the pitch. His work rate cannot be faulted, and it is this that earned him his most recent Player of the Month award for February from the Reading fans. Mackie has also now scored all of Reading’s last four goals, showing that he is now getting the rewards for his tenacity and consistent determination. When Mackie is in the team you can see the positive impact he has on his fellow players and the atmosphere in the stadium, no more so than in Tuesday’s victory. With his loan spell due to end at the end of the season, he is one player who fans will want to see signed up on a permanent basis, especially based on his recent performances.
Though Mackie will get the plaudits for his brace, most of the Reading players had an impressive game. Despite conceding the penalty, Cooper was strong in defence, being the first to pretty much every ball that came his way. With his height advantage, he was also a useful target to have in set pieces. Hector was very much the same, and is becoming Mr. Reliable at the back for Reading defensively as his confidence continues to grow. In particular, his cross field pass from right to left was also exquisite, especially for a centre-back. He did, however, miss an opportunity to score right in front of goal, so it was not a perfect performance. Despite only playing there for one game so far, Chalobah is also giving Obita a run for his money in the left-back position. Providing much needed support defensively and an attacking threat going forward, Chalobah seemed comfortable and confident covering that role, especially in comparison to his prior appearance at centre-back. One option that Clarke may choose to consider, is the combination of Chalobah and Obita on the left wing, freeing up Robson-Kanu to play up top. The midfield pairing of Akpan and Danny Williams was again impressive, providing much needed strength in the centre. Despite not finding the net on this occasion, it was nice to also see Nick Blackman back in the side. Blackman provided Reading with something that they do not have up front when the likes of Pogrebnyak play, which was someone who is not afraid to run at the defence and try to break into the box. It was a welcome sight to see.
With Watford coming up on Saturday, Reading will be facing a stronger opposition and a tougher test than they did against Brighton. Being only two days before the Bradford game, Clarke will have the difficult task of deciding who to rest for the cup game while also trying to get a result in the Championship. It is imaginable that he may choose to rest a few more of the key players including the likes of Mackie and Williams, who you would imagine will be crucial in Reading’s attempt to reach the Semi-Final at Wembley against Arsenal. One thing that is for sure, is that everyone will be a whole lot more confident on the back of Tuesday’s victory with Reading back amongst the goals again.