There were signs of greater passion and a bigger desire to win on Saturday. Maybe the players understood just how important the game was as well. There were a few key men who played very well and pulled the whole team along with them and, whilst we struggled to claim possession and retain it when we had, it was at least clear that we were trying to do the right things.
Antti Niemi seems to have re-found his Mojo, making a number of excellent saves to keep us in the game when things were tight. He did very well to tip a second half freekick wide of his left post and just out of reach of the lunging Micheal Duberry, and followed that up with a superb dive to his right to save another decent shot from distance. Where Antti seems less confident is in dealing with high balls in his box and in failing to get anywhere near the corner that led to it he may have been partially culpable for Reading’s equaliser. Overall though Antti looks back to his best.
Aaron Hughes and Dejan Stefanovic appear to be forming a pretty useful partnership in the centre. Hughes, in particular, really impressed me. He covered a lot of ground across the whole backline and made a number of excellent challenges. Stefanovic is harder to judge but he clearly has a good football brain. The MotD highlights showed him make one very important and well timed and well executed headed clearance late on. When Reading’s equaliser came though, it was probably Hughes who was caught out as Kevin Doyle nipped past him to reach a far post corner with his head.
Our two young full backs did themselves proud after slightly nervy starts. Ashton was full of pace and not frightened to get forward and Omozusi looked better the longer the game went on. It’s pleasing to see young players given a chance and showing they are up to the task. Omosuzi’s undeserved late sending off was the only disappointment in his game.
Despite Reading’s possession they never looked much like scoring from open play, but were definitely a danger from corners, free kicks and long throw’s. Unfortunately, for a spell at least, they had a lot of corners, free kicks and long throw’s to work with. This is where our entire defence seemed to struggle and there were a number of opportunities where we were lucky to get away without conceding.
In midfield the undoubted man of the match was Simon Davies. He pushed forward at every possibility and scored a cracking goal to set us on our way. Ironically, just before he scored I was thinking that his lack of defensive ability might be one of our problems this season but he went on to show me exactly what he brings to the team. The goal was expertly taken flying like a rocket off the outside of his boot to curve around at least two Reading defenders and leaving Hanhemann with no chance as it crashed into the bottom right corner of his net. Steve Davis also did well, like Hughes he worked hard all game and made a number of surging runs down the middle. I still feel he needs to be playing alongside a more forceful partner, though I don’t think that player exists in our current squad. Murphy was fairly anonymous throughout and much as I like Smertin (who was not even on the bench this time) I’m not sure he’s the ideal foil for Davis either. Like Murphy, Bouazza also had a quiet game eventually being replaced by man mountain Shefki Kuqi.
Having confirmed his suspicions that Kamara and Healy can’t play together at Sunderland, Sanchez reverted to playing Dempsey as target man alongside pacey Kamara. Dempsey worked hard as always but Kamara was shocking. He’s got pace and plenty of skill but he doesn’t seem to know how best to use it. Far too often he’d fall over when nudged instead of trying to stay on his feet and out pace the defender. When he did get the ball he’d often end up slowing play down as he decided what to do with the inevitable outcome that he’d be easily dispossessed. He had two great chances to score in the second half that he failed to take. The first came from a right sided cross that it later transpired came off Duberry’s hand. Despite that I still think an alert striker would have been closer. The second came shortly after Reading had scored and Simon Davies mounted a swift counter attack but saw his cross just evade Kamara’s desperate lunge. I watched Kamara in the build up and noticed that he seemed unable to decide whether to attack the box or pull wider, and it was this indecision which ultimately meant he didn’t reach the ball. I think the last three games have raised some serious questions over Kamara’s ability to cut it in the Premier League. I hope I’m wrong about this as seeing a player with that much pace is a joy to behold, but I suspect his speed of thought is not up to that of his legs.
The key moments in the game came after the introduction of Kuqi. Bouazza was the man replaced with Clint Dempsey dropping back into a central midfield role just behind the front two. Kuqi entered the field like a rampaging bull and straight away the crowd were behind him as he chased lost causes and won headers. This is exactly what we’ve been missing. He looks clumsy and un-athletic but on Saturday he was certainly effective. Kamara was given around 10 minutes to benefit from playing with the big man but having failed to do much was replaced on 69 minutes by David Healy. Healy has also struggled to find his feet but you get the feeling however well he plays he’s always going to know where the net is. A couple of early chances fell his way and in at least one instance he choose to shoot instead of pass to the waiting Kuqi. However, it was Healy’s cross, following good work from Davies and Omosuzi down the right flank that led to our second goal. Kuqi leaped like a very large man from Finland and connected with both the ball and the back of Leroy Lita’s head, directing his header down and towards goal. It would probably have been cleared had Dempsey not reacted quickest and fired home from inches out.
We were forced onto the back foot again after that as Reading pushed forward in search of a second equaliser but defended resolutely. We made the most of the space this allowed us by attacking on the counter a number of times. A glorious opportunity was spurned when having been set free by Healy, Davies raced down the right flank but fired his cross just behind Kuqi who was therefore unable to direct his header on target. Eventually we did get a third, following a Fulham clearance. Kuqi won another header in the middle of the park and Simon Davies was there again to out pace the Reading defence and fire a perfect cross field ball to Healy who seemed more than a little relieved to find the back of the net with his first time shot.
So we have at least stopped the rot and gained only our second win of the campaign. Despite my feeling that overall we were poor there does seem to be plenty of individual positives. I hope that the confidence gained from this win might go some way towards us picking up a few more in the difficult matches to follow. We have a number of key problem areas not least up front. Kuqi deserves his share of the limelight, but looking out of breath after his first 15 minutes I suspect he’s still not quite ready for a starting place. There’s a lot of work to do but maybe the signs are there that we can start to turn our season around.
- GK 29 A.Niemi
- RB 22 E.Omosuzi
- CB 18 A.Hughes
- CB 06 D.Stefanovic
- LB 38 N.Ashton
- RM 25 S.Davies
- CM 10 S.Davis
- CM 27 D.Murphy
- LM 24 H.Bouazza
- ST 23 C.Dempsey
- ST 11 D.Kamara
Subs: 12 T.Warner, 07 S. Ki-Hyeon, 09 D.Healy (for 11), 14 S.Kuqi (for 24), 37 A.Leijer