A third successive win might not have been enough to lift Reading out of the relegation zone but it was yet another indication that the team are finally moving in the right direction.
The performance against Plymouth was by no means vintage but the dramatic late winner bodes well for a fight to move up the table that will continue right until the last game of the season. There may have been a spot of fortune for the Royals with the decision to award a penalty due to the exaggerated fall offered by Hal Robson-Kanu, but it was no more than the side deserved. Shane Long was once again unrecognisable from the limp version of himself that has turned up for most of the season, whilst Zurab Khizanishvili settled in extremely well on his full debut at the heart of the defence. With cooler finishing, Simon Church really should have put the home side ahead before half-time, but Long was on hand to bookend the second period with two calmly taken goals.
Platitudes about strikers and confidence have been bandied about since time immemorial, but Long is as good a poster boy for such theories as you will find right now. From an overweight, frustrated bench-warmer, he has turned in to a sharp, prolific forward who is in the form of his life. His winning goal at Anfield in January has sent his confidence rocketing and the evidence was there against the Pilgrims. There is no doubting that Long would have blown the opportunity that resulted in the first goal had it come his way six weeks ago. Back then, his first touch would have been too heavy, he would not have kept his composure under the challenge of the covering defender and he definitely would not have finished so calmly into the far corner. His composure was present again at the death as he stroked home the penalty that sent the Madejski Stadium into rapture. Of course, Long is still just a solid Championship striker and not a world beater and showed his fallibility with a couple of other misses, but it is still a dramatic improvement by the Irishman and one that should be enough to guide Reading to safety.
Defensively, the Royals are starting to look more assured and it was encouraging to see the seamless transition of Khizanishvili into the side. Up until Plymouth scored their equaliser, Reading’s defence had rarely looked like being breached. For the final 20 minutes, things were less impressive as the Georgian started to overdo things and the team as a whole started to flag, but still the Pilgrims scarcely offered a threat and it looked more likely that the Royals would play themselves into trouble rather than be troubled unduly by the opposition. If the defensive display of the first 70 minutes can be repeated regularly then things will be more solid than has been the case for most of the season. The impressive Matt Mills was hardly missed as he served his one match ban and it would be hard for Brian McDermott to choose between Mills and Khizanishvili in the next game. Fortunately for McDermott, the decision is taken away from him by Khizanishvili’s ineligibility for the FA Cup tie with West Brom, and so Mills will return alongside skipper Ivar Ingimarsson.
The league table suddenly looks a lot more encouraging for Reading. One win could take the Royals as high as 16th, although goal difference could hamper things as only the two clubs at the bottom have a worse tally than Reading. The majority of clubs are in action on Saturday when the Royals meet the Baggies in the Cup, so some of the ground that has been made up could be ceded, but only temporarily. Reading are one of the form teams in what is an increasingly tight division. A good run of results can elevate a team rapidly and McDermott will hope his charges can keep up the current streak of wins when they resume league action next week against Crystal Palace. Even the play-offs suddenly look a possibility. It is still highly unlikely and talk of promotion would be unproductive in the camp but the table is so condensed that just 11 points separated the top six and the bottom three.
West Brom will offer a stern test on Saturday and will be buoyed by their promotion to top of the table after the midweek league fixtures. Progression to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup will be a lovely bonus but will remain a sidenote to the essential business at hand. The Baggies are still to visit the Mad Stad in the league and there is no question as to which game carries the greater importance for Reading. A prolonged run in the Cup will be good for morale, but the fight for Championship survival is all that really matters.
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