Luckless Blues fell to a narrow defeat to promotion-chasing Reading at St. Andrew’s this afternoon with a Jobi McAnuff brace doing the damage.
Paul Caddis converted from the spot to cancel out McAnuff’s opener to send the teams in level at the break. And Lee Clark’s charges deserved to get something from the game after an encouraging second-half display that saw them go close on numerous occasions, including a close-range Federico Macheda header that crashed back off the bar. But the hosts were hit by a late sucker punch as McAnuff doubled his personal tally to decide the contest in the visitors’ favour.
Clark made three changes to the side that lost at Sheffield Wednesday with recalls for Caddis, Macheda and the fit-again Callum Reilly, the latter initially operating in an unorthodox left-back role.
Chances were at a premium during the opening quarter of the contest with the game played out predominantly in the middle third, although Royals winger Royston Drenthe tried his luck from distance on three occasions but failed to hit the target each time.
The home side were certainly up for the fight, hassling and harrying their opponents at every opportunity and getting battered and bloodied for their troubles – both Will Packwood and Reilly needing early running repairs. Sadly one player who wasn’t able to shrug off an injury was Emyr Huws, the midfielder replaced by Tyler Blackett midway through the first-half after suffering a recurrence of the hip problem that forced his premature departure at Hillsborough last weekend.
Macheda was the first player to produce an on-target shot as his 25-yard drive was beaten away by Alex McCarthy. At the other end Chris Gunter curled an effort narrowly wide when the ball broke to him on the edge of the area.
The deadlock was broken five minutes before the interval when Nigel Adkins’ side gained the initiative. Drenthe evaded the challenge of Reilly, who by this point had advanced into midfield with Blackett dropping into left-back, and chipped the ball into the area. The ball was only partially cleared and McAnuff crashed the ball past Randolph in emphatic style from ten yards.
Fortunately Blues were only behind for three minutes. Reilly tumbled over in the area following a challenge from Gunter, the referee hesitating before pointing to the spot. Caddis assumed penalty-kick responsibilities and although McCarthy went the right way, he was unable to stop the defender’s shot from nestling into the bottom right corner.
Clark had to make a second substitution at the break with Novak, who had looked to be struggling with an injury towards the end of the first-half, replaced by Jordon Ibe.
Caddis was a continual threat for Blues down the right flank and he set up the first scoring chance of the second period, lobbing the ball into the area for Macheda whose header was turned around the post by McCarthy.
Ibe saw plenty of the ball down the left wing and was causing the Royals defence some problems. One clever pass teed up Macheda and the Italian’s driven cross crashed off the head of a visiting player – the ball could have ended up anywhere but flew past the post to win Blues a corner. From Andy Shinnie’s resultant kick came a great chance for the hosts to take the lead. Packwood nodded the ball back across goal and Macheda rose highest but crashed his header against the bar from only a couple of yards out.
Although Blues were looking the more likely to score the game’s third goal, Reading were still dangerous on the break and from one such opportunity Gunter found himself clear inside the area but instead of shooting, he elected to pass and the chance was gone. The visitors went within a whisker of regaining the lead with Jordan Obita’s measured volley that flew inches wide of Randolph’s left-hand post.
Blues had a very narrow escape with nine minutes left on the clock. After McAnuff’s shot was saved and a Gunter effort blocked, the ball came out to Pavel Pogrebnyak who somehow managed to fire the ball over the bar from only six yards out with the goal gaping.
A minute later and Blues’ luck ran out as Reading went back in front. Gunter scampered down the right and his low cross was turned in at the far post by McAnuff.
Substitute Nikola Zigic came close to rescuing a point when he met Chris Burke’s cross but the Serbian’s goal-bound header was turned around the post by McCarthy. And then Burke himself had a shooting chance inside the area but his side-footer hit the grounded Kaspars Gorkss and ballooned up over the bar. Zigic did find the net in injury-time from Burke’s corner but the assistant was already flagging to indicate that the ball had gone out of play from the flag kick.
It was a hard defeat for Blues to stomach after a performance that warranted at least a point. The result moved Blues down one place to 20th, five points above the drop zone. Clark must rally his troops now for a vital trip on Tuesday night to Millwall, the current occupant of the final relegation spot.