There are times when potential champions are tested to the full. Southampton, the Championship leaders, were put to that test last night and survived, just, after the most thorough of goings-over.
A goal behind and down to 10 men after the second-half dismissal of Dean Hammond, their captain, Southampton secured a late draw through Steve de Ridder in the 80th minute. Perhaps they didn't deserve it, perhaps they did, but at least it showed that they have the stomach for the grimmest of fights. It is a quality that should serve them well in the trying months ahead. Having been five points clear at kick-off, their lead is now down to three, from Middlesbrough. Crystal Palace, in third, are a further point adrift and the rest of the pack will close in too.
Another quality that should strengthen Saints' armoury is honesty. Nigel Adkins, their manager, could have pretended that all was well over the 90 minutes but he chose to expose the brutal truth.
"We didn't pass the ball, we lacked a bit of energy, our concentration was not right," he said. "Credit to Reading, they played very well. But we did show great desire and character, especially after we went behind and a man down. We've got a point from nothing and we've got to be pleased with that. Every game is tough in the Championship and, sometimes, it's all about grinding it out."
Southampton's rapid rise has been built on 15 successive home wins. On the road, though, they are vulnerable and they have not won in five away fixtures. That might have explained their muted opening, with Reading calling the tune. Kelvin Davis was by far the busier of the goalkeepers and he made a series of fine saves. Simon Church tried a speculative 25-yarder, which Davis tipped wide, and Mikele Leigertwood tried from even further, again Davis hurling himself through the air to keep out the effort.
It was much the same pattern in the second half, with Reading pushing forward. Jem Karacan saw a shot deflected wide and the same fate befell Alex Pearce's header from a Jobi McAnuff corner. McAnuff had a goalbound attempt deflected over as the pressure mounted.
Southampton could barely get out of their half but in the 54th minute they nearly went ahead. Following a brief spell of attacking, Daniel Fox crossed from the right and Aaron Martin found himself alone at the far post. He had only Adam Federici to beat but he headedstraight at the Australian keeper.
It was only a temporary aberration, with normal service resumed soon after. After Hammond had fouled Leigertwood to give away a free-kick on the edge of the Southampton area and collect a booking, Reading went in front. McAnuff slammed the free-kick against a post but Leigertwood was quick to follow up and he drove the ball home from an acute angle, via the far upright, for his first goal since February.
Southampton's plight became worse six minutes later, when Hammond brought down McAnuff and was shown a second yellow, then red, but the 10 men rallied superbly to force an equaliser. Reading went to sleep at a throw-in and De Ridder cut in from the right wing and thundered a shot past Federici that went in off the crossbar.
"I thought we were going to win and I never thought that they would score," said Brian McDermott, the Reading manager. "We were unfortunate, we're disappointed, the throw-in just cost us. That's the details of football sometimes, that can make all the difference. But we're working hard, we're getting there."
Southampton are getting there, in great leaps and bounds, and in the Carling Cup too. They play Palace at Selhurst Park in the fourth round on Tuesday night. Yet another test to be faced and passed.
Reading (4-4-2): Federici; Cummings, Pearce, Gorkss, Mills; McAnuff (Harte, 88), Karacan, Leigertwood, Robson-Kanu (Kebe, 81); Le Fondre, Church (Manset, 81).
Southampton (4-4-2): Davis; Richardson, Fonte (Martin, 46), Hooiveld, Fox; Do Prado (Schneiderlin, 86), Hammond, Cork, Chaplow; Lambert, Connolly (De Ridder, 59).
Referee Jon Moss.
Man of the match Davis.
Match rating 7/10.