Sunday, 22 April 2012

Reading 2-2 Crystal Palace: Persistent Palace deny the League Champions

Having confirmed their promotion to the Premiership with a midweek victory over Nottingham Forest, high flying Reading returned to the Madjeski Stadium expecting similar scenes against an out of form Crystal Palace side. It would, however, prove to be a frustrating afternoon for The Royals, as it appeared that The Eagles had not received the script, and put in a determined performance to earn a share of the points in Berkshire.   

Six years on from their last promotion to the Premiership, Reading were once again looking to be promoted as Champions, and supporters of the Royals arrived at the Madjeski hoping to watch their last Championship home fixture for many years. Palace on the other hand, have gone in the opposite direction to The Royals, with a dip in form in the New Year seeing The Eagles slip away from the top half of the table. Despite not seeing their side win away from home in 2012, the 1600 travelling supporters were hopeful of crashing the Reading promotion party. 

With an understandably vociferous atmosphere inside the stadium, the game began at an equally frantic pace, as the home side looked to pick up where they had left off on Tuesday evening. Predictions prior to the game had suggested that Reading would waltz their way to a comfortable victory, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when Palace took an early lead. After some neat build up play in the midfield - and the Palace fans cheering every completed pass - the ball made its way out wide to Dean Moxey, whose low cross was met by the stretched leg of Wilfried Zaha, who duly ended his fifteen game goal drought. As a stunned silence descended over the home crowd, a similarly astonished cry of joy emerged from the away contingent now sensing an upset. 

Not deterred from going behind, Reading were immediately back on the front foot in search of an equaliser. Set piece specialist Ian Harte issued a warning of things to come, as Julian Speroni did well not to fumble the left back's free kick into the path of the onrushing Noel Hunt. With Reading supporters chanting, "We're going to score in a minute", the players appeased the home faithful with an equaliser just six minutes after going behind. Ian Harte's corner was initially cleared off the line by Paul McShane, but Owen Garvan's sliced clearance fell to Kaspars Gorkss, who climbed above several Palace defenders to force his header into the roof of the net. 

Having already had Nathaniel Clyne withdraw with a knee injury in the warm up, Palace were then forced to use two of their substitutions inside the first half an hour, as both goalkeeper Julian Speroni and center back Paul McShane were added to the away sides growing injury list. A youthful Palace team now had to dig deep as the Royals, buoyed by the growing involvement of their supporters, began to take a foothold in the game. Despite all their territory, however, Reading were struggling to breakdown a resolute Palace defense and failed to test substitute goalkeeper Lewis Price. 

It was in fact the away side who almost retook the lead just before the interval. Some uncharacteristic defending by Alex Pearce saw the ball chipped into the path of Glenn Murray, whose audacious flying volley was expertly tipped onto the crossbar by Adam Federici, denying the striker his first goal of 2012.

With the half seemingly heading towards an inevitable end, the turning point came just before the half time whistle. With Jason Roberts forcing his way in front of Palace defender Jonathan Parr, the Reading striker appeared to catch the Norwegian with his right arm. Referee Andy D'Urso interpreted the foul as being intentional, and had no second thoughts about reaching for his back pocket to show the striker a red card. With Roberts causing Palace all sorts of problems, the travelling supporters were happy to wave goodbye to a player who has been central to Reading's promotion push since joining from Blackburn in Januray. 

The half time whistle was met with boos from the Reading supporters, clearly unhappy with the decision to dismiss their target man on a day when events were meant to go smoothly. Palace manager Dougie Freedman sympathised with Roberts after the game, but if the shoe was on the other foot, one would assume that Royals supporters would have called for a similar decision.  

With Palace now sensing an excellent opportunity, they started the second half on the front foot. Making the most of the extra space now available to them, the midfield pairing of Stuart O'Keefe and Owen Garvan were intent on shifting the ball to the wide areas. Inside the first minute, Wilfried Zaha, who was impressive throughout, skipped inside several Reading defenders before his low shot was kept out by Federici. Darren Ambrose was next to try his luck from distance, only for his effort to be well held by the Australian goalkeeper. 

At half time Reading manager Brian McDermott decided to introduce top goal scorer Adam Le Fondre, who had played a massive part in Reading's recent run of form with four crucial goals in three games. The striker almost made an instant impact when he found himself through on goal, only for his courageous chip to agonisingly land on the roof of the net. The summer signing from Rotherham, however, was not to be denied and put the home side in front for the first time in the fifty-second minute. After Palace reacted slowly to a quick free kick Noel Hunt was given plenty of time to pick out Le Fondre, who rose highest to head home his twelfth goal of the season. 

Now brimming with confidence, one would be forgiven for thinking that Reading were the side with a man advantage. With Jobi Mcanuff starting to cause his former club problems, the home contingent began to sense the win they had all been craving. Le Fondre again went close with a free header, before Palace defender Matthew Parsons made two excellent blocks to deny Hunt and Mcanuff from extending the home teams lead.  

With a Palace equaliser now looking less likely, Dougie Freedman brought on young Mexican striker Antonio Pedroza to make only his third appearance for The Eagles. The away side instantly looked more threatening, as the young trio of Zaha, Pedroza and De Silva started to link up with Glenn Murray. With just fifteen minutes remaining, the Reading party was once more put on hold, when Owen Garvan's corner was not dealt with by the Royals defense. The ball fell to Glenn Murray who capped off a battling performance with a well executed turn and volley to give him his first goal since December, while it was the first time The Royals had conceded twice at home since November.

Now sensing the chance to win their first game in eight attempts, Palace looked the side more likely to go on and secure a winner. Despite their possession, however, The Eagles were unable to breakdown a resilient Reading side who held on for a well earned point. 

With the full time whistle came cheers of approval from both sets of supporters, and Southampton's defeat to Middlesbrough sees Reading promoted to the Premiership as Champions. Having suffered playoff heartbreak at the end of last season, Brian McDermott has astutely gone about his business at the Madjeski Stadium, building a team on a solid defensive foundation coupled with flair players capable of grinding out results. Indeed, Dougie Freedman has spoken of his admiration for McDermott's side, and will be encouraged by his teams ability to compete with the Champions, while the attacking intent and maturity shown by the younger players can fill the Palace faithful with plenty of optimism for next season, as Freedman will aim to replicate performances such as this one on a more regular basis.

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