Royals step up to the plate to retain Play-Off spot with victory over Derby County


Reading remain in the Play-Offs after a crucial 3-1 victory at home to Derby County. It was a test that the home side simply had to stand up to, and they did.

A collision of heads between Yakou Meite and Jack Byrne midway through the first-half forced the officials into adding on an extra two minutes come the 45th minute.

If anything, Reading would be heading into the break the more relieved of the two sides given that Derby had come closest to scoring in a goalless first-half, hitting the post and then forcing two fantastic saves from goalkeeper Rafael Cabral through Colin Kazim-Richards and Tom Lawrence around the 20th minute.

The home side had failed to have a shot until added time of the first-half, but that unwanted statistic was discarded in some style when 19-year-old Michael Olise rifled a sublime strike into the top right-hand corner of David Marshall’s net.

All goals are important, of course, but Olise’s opener was crucial for Reading. Whether the players knew that both Bournemouth and Barnsley were leading at the time of the goal (therefore temporarily pushing Reading out of the Play-Offs) is unlikely, but in hindsight, the goal had relieved the Royals of much pressure.

Both fans and pundits alike have questioned Reading’s mental resilience against teams that they’re expected to beat, and also those that play a more intense, ‘in your face’ style.

Derby made it clear from the off that they hadn’t turned up in Berkshire to make up the numbers, and left their mark on a number of the hosts’ players fairly quickly. After all, Derby are not home and dry in terms of the threat of relegation – the Rams are still very much in the mire.

George Puscas’s skilfully hooked tap-in doubled the Royals’ lead just before the hour mark, putting his name on the scoresheet for only the fourth time this season, but Derby weren’t about to go down without a fight.

It took a moment of brilliance from winger Lawrence (who’d already forced a few fantastic saves from Rafael earlier in the proceedings) to keep Derby in with a chance in Berkshire; his curling effort flew into the top left-hand corner of Reading’s goal.

At this point, Royals’ fans may have been wondering whether they were about to witness a season-defining collapse from their side. Reading have been notorious for losing very winnable games to scrappy late goals this season, but Lucas Joao – who’d been dropped to the bench after a catastrophic miss against Barnsley on Good Friday – alleviated any lingering doubt when he broke his four-game goalless streak to put the hosts 3-1 up.

Reading’s victory was scrappy, but nobody associated with the Royals will mind. Not only did the home side not shy away in a ‘must win’ game, they very much stepped up to the plate.

Preston, Stoke City, Coventry, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Wycombe, Nottingham Forest and QPR have all taken points from Reading this season despite all being below the Royals at the time of the game. Post-New Year, the Royals have been playing more like a side scared of losing a spot in the top six, rather than a clear Play-Off challenger looking to heap pressure on the top two.

Too many times this season, the phrase ‘A serious Play-Off team doesn’t lose/draw that’ has been attached to Reading on social media. Given the abundant quality in Vejlko Paunovic’s team, the Royals would be challenging for the top two had they not, for no real apparent reason, simply sat down in very winnable games.

It seemed as if the Berkshire side didn’t have the drive or resilience to really play in first gear. Rather, they seemed to approach many of these games as underdogs. Against Derby, whilst the performance wasn’t memorable, Reading were clinical, driven, and most importantly, got the job done.

This was typified by all three of their goals. Michael Olise produced something out of the top drawer – an ode to the startling, raw talent he has that few Championship players can boast of – whilst Lucas Joao and George Puscas both proved Paunovic wrong and right.

Joao’s and Puscas’ goals were particularly metaphorical. The former has been off the boil in the last few weeks, leading to his effective dropping against Derby, and Puscas (due to injury more than anything) has failed to really be involved over the season so far. Both needed to make a statement, and they did it the way that any good striker should – by scoring goals.

As Veljko Paunovic alluded to post-match, today’s attacking performance gives him a very welcome selection dilemma.

“It makes it richer and more resourceful, so it helps. I’m very happy for him. He did a great job and I wish Meite scored because he contributed a lot with his constant taking-on of their defence and pace”. – via GetReading. 

Much like the rest of the Reading side, neither forward could afford to ‘lose’ on a personal level. For the team as a whole, a drop of points on Monday afternoon would have seen Reading, firstly, drop out of the Play-Offs, but also facing a serious confidence crisis. Whilst Derby may have scraped a 1-0 win against a more wasteful opposition, Reading didn’t prove to be that side.

Wayne Rooney alluded to this after the game, whilst Paunovic commended his side’s composure.

‘We gave away sloppy goals at bad times,”

“Though I felt that the performance was quite good. That’s one of the positives that we can take out of the result. But we just can’t afford to give away those type of goals. We have to make sure that we stay more solid…At times, I felt that we dealt with that quite well today. But then we gave away those goals and that was it. If we can continue with that sort of performance and become more solid, then we’ll be winning more games”. – Rooney via PA

“It was a big result against a hard team. It wasn’t easy at all but it was a very good performance. We showed a lot of maturity and fierceness from the team, which shows that we all understand what an opportunity we have ahead of us”. – Paunovic via PA

A few days ago, Reading fans were deeming their team’s Play-Off chances dead. What a difference three points makes, eh?

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