Brian McDermott's new 'friends' match Chelsea in all but the luck stakes
Thursday 23 August 2012
Reading will not worry about nights like this. On their first big-stage test of their top-flight return, they played calmly but proudly, with enough self-confidence but not quite enough luck. Brian McDermott, whose side led the European champions for 40 of the middle minutes, said that his team did not deserve to lose. He was still confident of a win late on. Without late errors, from their goalkeeper and a linesman, he might have got one.
It was a performance just as good as Southampton's at Manchester City on Sunday, and followed a similar pattern. Despite going behind, Reading imposed their way back into the game and led before quality and fortune told against them.
To have wrested the game back was particularly impressive given how it started. Reading have a Russian billionaire of their own but, for now at least, they inhabit a different football universe from Chelsea. The Championship and the Champions League are different competitions and different titles. Anton Zingarevich has not bought players like Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, who spent the first 20 minutes playing a fluid game of piggy-in-the-middle with 10 yellow shirts in between.
When Chris Gunter performed his own Ivan Ramis pastiche after 17 minutes, misdirecting a tackle on Hazard by a matter of feet, Reading briefly appeared just as naïve and flustered as Wigan Athletic had on Sunday.
But Reading are a team in their manager's image, and they are more likely to merge with Oxford United than panic on the pitch. Brian McDermott has a lighter, more humane touch than anyone else in football. He "loves" his players and sees them as "friends". They take that unity and trust onto the pitch with them, and never look frayed or flustered.
So it was yesterday, as Reading played their way into the game. They did so inspired by three of their new summer additions. There could be no better sign of McDermott's gifts as an educator than the fact that Pavel Pogrebnyak, Danny Guthrie, and Garath McCleary, new to the hoops, played as he wanted.
Pogrebynak was the imposing physical leader, revelling in competition with John Terry and Gary Cahill. Guthrie, directing Reading's best work, enjoyed the responsibility he rarely wore at Newcastle. And Garath McCleary, the 25-year-old with a non-league background, was brisk and fearless in his wing-play.
The three combined brilliantly to draw Reading level. McCleary and Guthrie exchanged passes, and the winger whipped a perfect cross to Pogrebynak, who darted in front of Cahill and headed past Cech. Just three minutes later Guthrie put them ahead, curling a free-kick in via Petr Cech's generous legs.
It was as much as this team, newly-assembled but well-drilled deserved. They continued to push and with more time they might have scored another, Ian Harte's curling free-kick was just wide of first Alex Pearce and then the post.
A third goal before the break would have been a fantasy, but it was also a necessity. Chelsea pinned Reading back and while Guthrie has the fitness of Premier League experience Jem Karacan and Mikele Leigertwood do not. They could not hassle as they did in the first half, and were relying on Pearce and Kaspers Gorkss to keep them afloat.
Had Adam Federici's hands been stronger, and Andy Halliday's eyes been sharper, Reading might have held on. But they were starting to leak chances and, ultimately, did not have the luck to sustain their strong start.
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