Aston Villa do not usually do comebacks. Their powers of recovery in the Premier League this season had been almost non-existent, with only two points salvaged after they had gone behind. Make that five now, the three gleaned against Reading at the Madejski Stadium yesterday as crucial as any they may muster between now and the end of a miserable campaign.
Winning for only the second time in 12 matches, after trailing 1-0, was important enough. Yet to do it against one of their main rivals for the drop will have done wonders for their self-esteem. That the unthinkable – Villa to be relegated – was becoming highly possible just about sums up a season mostly of woe in the West Midlands.
Villa are not out of it yet. Victory did allow them to climb out of the bottom three but it is little more than a smidgeon of breathing space, a brief respite before another dog-fight beckons against fellow stragglers Queens Park Rangers at Villa Park next Saturday.
"This was a massive game and the players knew that," Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, said. "They knew that the pressure was on them, they didn't need to be told. But some of our football was excellent and we didn't look like a team in a corner, that's for sure."
The pre-match omens had not been good, with neither team in great form. It was a recipe for a nerve-ridden encounter and so it proved. Few players showed any confidence on the ball; a few barely seemed to want it. It made for grim viewing but at least contained enough incidents to maintain the interest of the neutral. Brad Guzan, the Villa goalkeeper, made a spectacular early save to keep out an Adam Le Fondre header and Christian Benteke thumped a header against the home crossbar.
Andreas Weimann shot wide and the catalogue of mistakes continued unabated, culminating in Reading going ahead. Jobi McAnuff's cross was miscued by Hope Akpan and the hapless Nathan Baker sliced the ball into his own net.
Reading's joy barely lasted a minute. Weimann cut in from the right and fed Benteke, whose close-range effort took a generous deflection off Stephen Kelly and wrong-footed Stuart Taylor, the Reading keeper. It was Benteke's 16th goal of the season and, thus, Villa became the eighth club to amass 1,000 Premier League goals.
It was not long before 1,001 arrived, shortly before half-time. Again, the Reading defence contributed significantly to its own downfall. Matthew Lowton nodded the ball goalwards, Barry Bannan instinctively jabbed an attempt against a post and Gabby Agbonlahor thundered the rebound into the roof of the net.
Reading could hardly comprehend the scoreline and left the pitch to a chorus of jeers at the break. Their mood did not improve after the interval, when Noel Hunt bundled in Le Fondre's cross at the far post, only to be flagged offside. "It was close, but the benefit of doubt has been given to the defender," Brian McDermott, the Reading manager, said. "Not many decisions are going our way at the moment."
Villa appeared to settle early for the slender victory, retreating further into their own half and inviting Reading on to them. Nick Blackman, a substitute, twice went close, but Villa held on.
With home matches against QPR and Liverpool coming up, they have given themselves hope. Reading face successive away trips to Manchester United and Arsenal.
Whatever hope they had is fading fast.