The midweek visit of Newcastle for the twice-rearranged fixture offered Reading the chance to pit their wits against a team who will be playing Premier League football next season.
The Royals have performed admirably in their four FA Cup games against top flight opposition this season but those games came without the pressure to gain a result that accompanies league matches. As underdogs against Liverpool twice, Burnley and Aston Villa, Brian McDermott’s team put in exceptional performances to punch well above their weight, but against the Magpies, Reading had to consider themselves on equal billing to their already-promoted opponents. With an outside chance of fulfilling their reignited play-off ambitions, the hosts needed to take the initiative from the whistle and for the large part they did. Chris Hughton’s Toon Army were on the back foot for considerable periods, but they were still able to demonstrate the qualities that have seen them earn a return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Some last ditch defending and a willingness to go the extra mile to get a block on the ball kept Steve Harper relatively quiet in the visiting goal considering how much time Reading enjoyed in opposition territory. The defensive line was well organised, with the linesman finding plenty of opportunities to raise his flag as Jimmy Kebe and Shane Long were continually caught offside in the right-wing and inside-right channels.
It was at the other end that Newcastle demonstrated the biggest difference between them and the Royals. Reading have been an irresistible attacking force at times recently but have arguably not racked up the tally of goals they could have done with a genuinely top class finisher. The Magpies are still fortunate to possess players from their top flight squad, in particular Kevin Nolan who recently was voted the best player in the Championship by FourFourTwo magazine. Rarely did Nolan and co find themselves in Adam Federici’s penalty area but when they did, they crucially took their few opportunities with clinical relish. The home side were not helped by being bereft of natural centre-backs, with Brynjar Gunnarsson called in to action in place of Zurab Khizanishvili who had joined the absentee list with a knee injury. It was a big ask for Alex Pearce to play just his second full game back in the side alongside yet another new partner. Gunnarsson was extremely impressive at times, belying his ageing years to put in a sterling shift as a makeshift defender, but it was to be expected that Newcastle would breach the backline. When the opportunity came, Nolan found the back of the net, something that could not be said for Reading.
With their preferred centre-backs fit, the Royals would be only one or two players away from having a side that could give Newcastle a run for their money over a whole season. Whilst the defence currently relies on loan players at full-back, there is always the possibility of permanent deals in the summer. The midfield is well stocked numerically, and features both tenacity in the likes of Jem Karacan and Jay Tabb and creative flair in Brian Howard and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson had a quiet game for long periods against the Magpies but showed his genuine class the more the game wore on, with some stirring runs through the centre of the park almost paying dividends. In attack, Shane Long and Simon Church both possess physical qualities that will unsettle defences at this level, but neither has proven themselves as a natural goalscorer. Long has not scored for a month, failing to carry on the stunning form he had temporarily found earlier in the year, whilst Church has struck just once in that period. Both are still young players who will improve, but Reading could do with an out-and-out goalscorer in their ranks. Noel Hunt has been out injured all season, robbing the Royals of a player who had an excellent record in the SPL with Dundee United, but it is hard to tell how well he could have done this season. In his debut year at Madejski Stadium last season, he started brightly, racking up double figures quickly, but then suffered from the malaise that infected the whole squad after Christmas.
If Reading can add the final pieces to the jigsaw then there is a promotion challenge in store next season. The defeat to Newcastle owed more to the Champions-elect’s ruthless streak and less to any real chasm between the two sides in terms of quality. The Royals have outplayed nearly every team they have played of late, and with a bit more firepower to get the telling goals, it could be McDermott’s team celebrating the title in a year’s time.