Royals send Christmas message

Birmingham City 1 Reading 3
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The Independent Football

Reading, outstanding when winning at Molineux in September, made another strong statement of intent in the West Midlands with a victory that ensures they, not Birmingham City, enter Christmas as closest challengers to the Championship leaders, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Steve Coppell's team are in the top two for the first time since taking the drop with yesterday's opponents in May, and looked very much worthy of their position. Republic of Ireland internationals were the architects of Reading's fifth successive victory and eighth in 10 games, Noel Hunt and Kevin Doyle scoring either side of Kevin Phillips' stunning 11th goal of the season and Doyle setting upKalifa Cissé for the clincher.

Hardly could the second half of their League programme have started more encouragingly. To win and play well was pleasing enough; to also expose the inadequacies of their arch-rivals with their own vib-rancy and inventiveness was a bonus.

"I said we'd have to play well here to get a result and we did play well," Coppell said. "The players are aware, though, that it's only part of a demanding Christmas programme. It doesn't make it a good Christmas."

Reading, Hunt in particular, overcame some adversity. Franck Queudrue appeared to emerge the worse from an early collision with the forward, who was himself nevertheless sufficiently dazed as to be whipped off soon after curling a delicious 25-yard free-kick over the wall and in off Maik Taylor's hand after 13 minutes. "It was a hell of a blow of heads and like Emergency Ward 10 on the sidelines, so I took a decision to send Shane Long on," Coppell said.

Yet Reading continued to cope much the better, David Murphy fortuitouslydeflecting James Henry's drivencross away from Stephen Hunt, then Doyle acrobatically volleying Liam Rosenior's cross straight at Taylor.

So rarely did Birmingham threaten before half-time that Cameron Jerome's first start in nine matches was an irrelevance. An equaliser came out of the blue on the hour, though, when Lee Carsley caught Cissé dithering in possession near the halfway line and sent Phillips away on an unchallenged run that ended with a magnificent finish, speared low and right-footed beyond Adam Federici.

Birmingham pushed hard, albeit briefly, once Doyle had escaped Radhi Jaidi and flicked in the header from Stephen Hunt's free-kick that kept him top of the League's scoring list.

Although Jaidi subsequently hit Jerome with a free close-range headerfrom Seb Larsson's corner and Phillips was denied by a diving tip-over, the extra gear Reading possessed was located as Doyle centred superbly for Cissé to overpower Stuart Parnaby and head in. "The Birmingham goal was my fault, so it was a relief to score," Cissé said.

Alex McLeish was predictably shorter on Christmas cheer as he contemplated a second successive defeat. "We had chances but they were more clinical than us," he admitted.