Royals recovery rumbles on

Posted by Jon Keen

Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesThis time the heroics fell to Jimmy Kebe who headed home to give Reading a late 2-1 win over Sunderland.

The absolute low point of a very disappointing first half of the season came with Reading's spineless and gutless surrender to Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in early December. Their performance today was a million miles away from that that as they picked up a fairly comfortable three points, and showed that they are now a fundamentally different team in terms of both spirit and personnel. As a result, Reading are slowly but surely hauling themselves out of the relegation mire.

- Match report: Reading 2-1 Sunderland

Today Brian McDermott shuffled his pack slightly, sticking to a 4-5-1 but changing the midfield starters with Jobi McAnuff switching to the centre of midfield, new Crawley arrival Hope Akpan making his first start and Garath McCleary playing wide on the left. It seemed to work a treat as Reading started well and had by far the best of things in the first half hour. In an almost mirror-image of the match in December, this time it was Reading who scored early and the Sunderland supporters who were voicing their frustration at how poorly their team was playing.

It's not like Reading to score early over recent matches -- you don't get the label of "comeback kings" when you do so -- but today they scored after just six minutes and it was a cracker, too. After some neat interplay with McCleary out wide on the left, McAnuff played a low cross into the box, a couple of yards behind Jimmy Kebe. But Kebe was virtually unchallenged as he picked up the ball, turned and fired it just inside the left post. If Reading had conceded that goal, I'd be livid at just how static the defenders were and how much time and space they allowed Kebe. But that shouldn't take anything away from his exquisite left-footed finish.

From that point, Reading seemed in complete control and for the next 20 minutes they were hardly troubled by Sunderland who looked to me the worst team to visit the Mad Stad this season. With the exception of forcing a sharp double-save from Adam Federici after 20 minutes, the Black Cats hardly had a chance on goal as Reading controlled the midfield with McAnuff pulling the strings and Mikele Leigertwood mopping up any loose balls. McCleary was also impressive, attacking with confidence, while Akpan surprised many by his accomplished and combative play.

But after 28 minutes, Sunderland were gifted a way back into the game. Pavel Pogrebnyak was judged to have unfairly dived into a rash tackle on John O'Shea just inside the corner of the Royals penalty area. The assistant referee's flag across his chest denoted a penalty, even though referee Lee Mason seemed to have no problems with the legality of the tackle. This was the first of a number of seemingly irrational decisions by the refereeing team, and was a particularly frustrating one -- with no apparent danger and the ball running away from the box Pogrebnyak had no need to make that tackle.

Craig Gardner dispatched the penalty with aplomb and suddenly Sunderland were back in the game, playing with more confidence and making the game far more even. It just shows what a boost a dodgy decision can give a team. But despite this boost, the score remained level at halftime.

Reading resumed their dominance after halftime, applying considerable pressure on the Sunderland goal and winning numerous free kicks just outside the box. The Royals always looked the most likely team to score, but couldn't make the vital breakthrough. So McDermott reverted to his normal Plan B and switched to a 4-4-2 after 65 minutes, bringing on "super-sub" Adam Le Fondre up front.

Although this change has worked a treat over recent matches, gaining seven points from West Brom, Newcastle and Chelsea in the last three Premier League matches, today, I think McDermott got it wrong. From a position where they looked in control, the loss of the extra man in midfield allowed Sunderland more of the ball and time and space to do something with it. In the remaining 35 minutes the match was far more open with Sunderland having some decent chances to score, notably from new signing Danny Graham who Reading themselves tried to sign during the transfer window.

Perhaps the weight of expectation was weighing too heavily on Le Fondre's shoulders, or perhaps the saturation media coverage of his recent goals means the element of surprise has been lost, but Le Fondre didn't look like scoring today and the match could have easily gone either way. But it went Reading's way, and it was Kebe again who scored, jumping at the far post to head home an Ian Harte free kick after 85 minutes. It was just rewards for Kebe who had an outstanding game, even though, as Reading's most potent attacking threat all game, he was scandalously starved of the ball in the second half.

Another late goal, another three points and the Royals recovery rumbles on. No longer out of the danger zone on goal difference alone, the new, improved, second-half of the season Reading look unrecognisable from the first half of the season version. They're playing with confidence and verve, and now seem to understand what they need to do to win games at this level. Their recent form is among the best in the league, and by my reckoning, five wins from the 13 matches remaining should see them safe. A few weeks ago five wins all season would have seemed a tall order, but after four wins and a draw from the last six matches it's no longer such a big ask.

ESPN Conversations