In spite of Reading's ascendancy into the high reaches of the Premiership, their manager Steve Coppell, who has never knowingly said anything optimistic, still refuses to contemplate anything beyond next weekend's FA Cup tie against Manchester United.
Yesterday he reflected on another victory, saying: "All we do is prepare, play and recover. We never sit down and look further ahead." Asked, yet again, "Are you thinking of Europe?" he said: "No. This is a special time for Reading and we're proud to be at a club on the rise."
He had come to yesterday's tough match after one of those weeks he hates. People were continually talking about next season. Any reference to European qualification brought a sigh. "The only way we'll get to Europe is on holiday. There's a third of the season to go."
Like his urbane Villa counterpart, Martin O'Neill, he would never slip into "take each game as it comes" clichés, but that describes exactly what he does. There is a remarkable similarity of style and intention in Coppell's and O'Neill's sides, which is a reflection of their work ethics.
Villa knew yesterday that they dared not allow Reading to take an early hold, but did so after 16 minutes. They clearly had problems on either flank of defence. Because of injuries Gareth Barry filled in as a left-back but was immediately uncomfortable against the superb Glen Little, while on the left Reading's Stephen Hunt was similarly dangerous. Meanwhile, in the middle of the attack for Reading there was of course, Leroy Lita, mid-week saviour of the England Under-21 team, with an equalising goal against Spain.
Although Villa did see Ashley Young miss an early opportunity, Reading responded with a goal that emphasised Villa's defensive frailty. Hunt's low corner ought to have been cleared, but Steve Sidwell was allowed to move through the penalty area and head in with the help of a deflection by Phil Bardsley.
It was imperative that Villa kept Reading well outside their own penalty area. When that was achieved they looked a better side. However, Thomas Sorensen still had to block a fierce header from Lita before Villa's new £1 million signing from Celtic, Shaun Maloney, curled a shot that would have dipped under the bar if it had not been for Marcus Hahnemann's touch over. The goalkeeper also blocked a goal-bound drive from John Carew.
There was no lack of action and sweat. In an extraordinary sequence 10 minutes into the second half, Young hit a shot that was deflected on to a Reading post off Carew and the rebounding ball was driven by Gabriel Agbonlahor into the face of Hahnemann. In the face of adversity, Villa were improving all the time.
Carew became an ever bigger threat, yet as the clock ticked down Villa began to wonder what it would take to break through. They pushed Maloney up, moved Carew to the right and added Patrik Berger to the left of them. But all that commitment simply left space. In added time, Sidwell again took advantage to tap in Reading's second after an efficient breakaway and quick one-two with Dave Kitson.
As O'Neill said: "There is a fantastic willingness about Reading." As for Villa, he said: "We're getting a bit of momentum. The trouble is, we're still looking over our shoulders."Reuse content