No wonder the Manchester City manager Stuart Pearce was more concerned over his failure to sign a new striker in the January transfer window than the argument that surrounded his appointment as England's Under-21 coach.
City's lack of goals has been the biggest undermining influence on a season they hoped might lead to a place in Europe. Here was a performance that only emphasised their shortcomings and which was ultimately punished by a player able to give them a lesson in finishing as Leroy Lita secured a third win a row for Steve Coppell's Reading with two late goals.
Lita, as it happens, is part of the Under-21 squad that Pearce (right) will prepare to face Spain at Derby on Tuesday. He could hardly have made a better case for his inclusion, twice hitting the home side with classic counter-punch goals. But for a debatable decision influenced by an unsighted linesman, he would have had a hat-trick.
"It will be nice to work with a striker with some confidence," Pearce observed ruefully, having watched his own front men, Darius Vassell and Georgios Samaras, make it perfectly clear that neither is in a state of mind remotely approaching that.
Vassell spurned two inviting opportunities in the second half while Samaras's body language said everything about his current form, although Joey Barton, who ought to have been feeling the glow of self-assurance after being elevated to the full England squad, missed an equally good chance before half-time.
"If we had taken one of those chances we might have gone on to win the game," Pearce said. "I always felt that whoever scored first would win." Pearce again denied that his involvement with England - initially resisted by the City board - will impinge on his club responsibilities. "My job with the Under-21s starts tomorrow and ends after the game on Sunday," he said.
City lost goalkeeper Nicky Weaver to a first-half injury after a mix-up with Richard Dunne resulted in a collision with Lita but it was not an incident that influenced the result.
What might have done is the chance that fell to Barton two minutes before half-time when a rare shot by Samaras was pushed away by Marcus Hahnemann to the feet of the City midfielder, who seemed certain to score but allowed the Reading goalkeeper to make a second block.
A goal for City then would have been tough on Coppell's side, particularly after Lita had had the ball in City's net three minutes earlier. Steve Hunt was judged to have been out of play when he headed Glen Little's cross into the path of Lita, although it is unclear how the linesman spotted it with both posts in his eyeline.
City had another chance two minutes after the restart when Vassell scooped the ball wide from Hatem Trabelsi's dangerous low cross. It was a miss made costly in the 79th minute when, with City pressing for a breakthrough, Reading broke clear, Steve Sidwell's pass catching the home defence desperately back-peddling and Lita taking advantage with just the kind of finish City had been unable to produce.
A minute from time the combination repeated the trick, Sidwell's pass again finding City's back four out of position, Lita finishing as cleanly as before.
"We're still wearing L-plates in this division," Coppell commented, typically playing down his side's so-far remarkable season. "Outside of the top four I'd say we all are," Pearce responded, perhaps mindful of what may yet lie ahead for his own team. "This League does not respect anyone. If you are not at it every week it will kick you out."Reuse content