Normal service was resumed on Wednesday evening for Reading fans, as the Royals suffered a late 1-0 defeat to Birmingham City at the Madejski. Spirits were high going into the game following the Reading performance against Arsenal at the weekend, together with the news that the Royals would be safe for another season courtesy of a Millwall defeat.
Despite a consistent spell of possession, and several opportunities to have an effort on goal wasted, a late Clayton Donaldson header gifted Birmingham the victory. Reading have now failed to score in eight of their last twelve games at the Madejski, so it is no wonder that attendances seem to be dropping week on week.
With little riding on the game for either side, it was an opportunity for Steve Clarke to give some of the younger members of the squad a chance to make an impression. Pavel Pogrebnyak, Hal Robson-Kanu and Danny Williams were all sidelined through injury, while Alex Pearce was also absent from the squad. Jake Cooper was handed a start in central defence, while Nick Blackman, Jem Karacan and Nathan Ake all returned to the starting lineup. Youngsters Jack Stacey and Andrija Novakovich were given a place on the bench, and both were to feature late on. Reading striker Simon Cox, was once again absent from the squad despite making an appearance at Wembley from the bench.
The game started slowly, but as Reading got into the game they started to play the ball about with confidence. Clarke had called upon his players prior to the game to use the performance against Arsenal as a catalyst to end the season well. The Royals looked as if they had taken the manager’s words to heart as they stroked the ball around. Nathaniel Chalobah, Ake and Karacan in the centre seemed to be having most time on the ball, waiting for a chance to open up ahead of them.
Reading had the best of the early chances, with Blackman’s close shot being saved by Darren Randolph. Garath McCleary’s drive was also stopped by the Birmingham goalkeeper, while Jamie Mackie was only able to drag his effort wide. Chalobah’s effort was arguably the closest of the attempts, with Randolph having to dive low to save his curling shot. Despite Reading dominating large portions of the first half, the two sides went in at 0-0. Reading’s need to find a prolific striker was becoming increasingly obvious.
The second half continued in the same manner, with Reading keeping hold of the ball. Birmingham were increasingly happy to sit back, with ten players behind the ball more often than not, and limit Reading’s chances in front of goal. Reading players were increasingly taking extra touches in and around the box rather than have an attempt at goal, something that frustrated the home support.
“There was a lack of intensity in the match and it felt like and end-of-season game. We weren’t as attacking as we’d have liked and we had to weather a bit of pressure from Reading. But they didn’t have too many chances.”– Birmingham City Manager Gary Rowett
Clarke’s first changes came in the form of Kwesi Appiah and Jack Stacey, who replaced cup heroes Mackie and McCleary. Stacey in particular made an impact, relishing his opportunity to make an impression. Chalobah, one of the few players who wasn’t afraid to have an effort on goal, had another attempt saved by Randolph before Stacey’s curling effort was pushed away.
With Birmingham’s attacking options being somewhat limited, manager Gary Rowett opted to introduce Demarai Gray, the owner of the match ball after his hat-trick in Birmingham’s 6-1 victory against Reading. Gray almost instigated the breakthrough for Birmingham when his low shot on the break was saved by Federici. Despite Reading dominating the game, Birmingham came the closest of the two sides to actually finding the net with one single counter attack. The sign was there for Reading, and the inevitable late spell of drama that fans have come to dread reared its ugly head once again.
Four minutes from the whistle, Donaldson found some space in the box for the first time in the game and his header looped past Federici into the Reading net. It was the sixteenth goal of the season for the Birmingham striker, showing exactly what Reading are missing. Donaldson should have added a second only minutes later when he found himself one-on-one with Federici, but the Reading goalkeeper prevented them from going further behind.
“It was a frustrating game tonight and we’ve had a few of them lately. A good performance again but no points again. I’ve said that a few times. It’s a familiar tale for us.”– Reading FC Manager Steve Clarke
With Reading chasing the game late on, their top goalscorer on the pitch was the young defender Jake Cooper who had only scored twice this season. With Reading struggling to find goals all season, fans will be expecting significant changes prior to next season.
With one attack, Birmingham were able to take their first away victory in ten matches. Reading have now failed to win in seven Championship games, and Clarke seems to have his work cut out for him over the summer deciding who deserves to keep their place in the side.
Central defenders Michael Hector and Jake Cooper were two of the most impressive players for Reading, with the two youngsters preventing the Birmingham strikers from making any significant advances on Federici’s goal for the majority of the evening. These two are quickly becoming two of Reading’s best options at the back, and are continuing to show what they are capable of. In a season where the offensive capabilities have been questioned extensively, it is nice to see the defenders performing well.
Chelsea youngster, and man of the match, Nathan Ake also had a great game for the Royals, showing that he was not afraid to go in for a tackle. Ake has now returned to the Premier League side, following his month long loan, and Reading fans will be sad to see him go. If Clarke can bring him back to the Berkshire club next season, he will certainly be welcomed back with open arms. The talent that the youngster has demonstrated for Reading over five games, however, may mean that he will be playing in a higher division next year.
Reading now take on Brentford in their last home game of the season on Saturday. With Brentford fighting for a place in the play-offs, it will be another tough test for the Royals. Clarke will be set to name a strong lineup and will be hoping to give the home fans something to cheer about in what has been a frustrating season.