A Femi Azeez brace saw off the Addicks at the SCL as Reading moved up to 18th in the table.
What a difference 112 days make. What a transformed side Reading look in contrast to the team that lost the reverse fixture to this win 4-0 in late October.
Back then, the Royals were a soft touch. They could play some good stuff and show promise as a side, but they simply didn’t know how to translate any of that into winning games. The trip to the Valley was a great example of that, with Reading looking the better side for most of the contest, probably until 2-0 in fact, but displaying appalling game management by capitulating in the second half to lose heavily.
The Reading of February 2024 however is a very different beast: it knows how to win a variety of games and it’s assured in doing so. It’s both stubborn and clever in how it goes about its business. And while Tuesday’s win was about having the physical endurance to edge a 1-0 at high-flying Stevenage, today’s 2-0 was about patience.
Overall Reading again played well and were deserving of the points, but they didn’t enjoy a completely smooth, stress-free afternoon. We’ve had better days for controlling games, creating plenty of quality chances and putting teams away, so the outcome of this contest wasn’t clear until deep into the second half.
Charlton on the other hand were in terrible form coming into today, but had the new-manager boost of Nathan Jones’ arrival on their side, and accordingly put in a dogged (albeit not great) performance to ensure the Royals didn’t get everything their own way.
It wasn’t until the 66th minute that Reading made the breakthrough, and it would take another 10 for the hosts to be confident of victory. Twice Amadou ‘MDelap’ Mbengue launched a long throw into the area, twice Femi Azeez was on hand to leather the ball home in front of the Eamonn Dolan Stand.
And this time there was neither a collapse nor much chance of there being one. Although the Addicks pushed forward to find a way back into the contest in the latter stages, Reading kept them at arm’s length, allowing just one shot on target from the visitors all afternoon.
It won’t get as many plaudits as the goals or significance of the result overall, but seeing out the clean sheet is just as satisfying - both for its continuation of recent impressive defensive form and the contrast with the 4-0 defeat.
And this sure was a significant result. These three points lift Reading up to the dizzying heights of 18th, a league position we’ve not touched since back-to-back home wins in the early weeks of the season against Cheltenham Town and Stevenage put us 13th. The Royals are not only three clear of the relegation places, but they’re also just three away from 14th. We haven’t just moved out of the bottom four, we’ve given ourselves momentum to create a real safety cushion.
What a difference 112 days make indeed!
Unsurprisingly Ruben Selles made no changes to the side that won at the Lamex.
Reading (4-2-3-1): Button; Yiadom, Mbengue, Bindon, Mola; Wing, Savage; Azeez, Knibbs, Ehibhatiomhan, Smith
If he was looking for a quick start from his side though he didn’t get it. Charlton controlled the early stages, albeit without having the Royals on the ropes, with Reading not putting any real attack together until 10 minutes in.
From that point however Reading grew into the contest, looking the better side until the break and creating some good openings to show for it. Lewis Wing forced a strong save at the near post from the left flank after a corner had been defended, Sam Smith did likewise when played in behind by Charlie Savage and was denied by another stop at a tighter angle later on, while Azeez got into a great shooting position in the area but oddly declined to shoot.
Charlton had some joy though. Alfie May almost had a one-on-one just over half an hour in, only to be shut out by the - again - impressive Tyler Bindon. Then a few minutes before half-time, Clinton Mola gave the ball away with a loose touch, Charlton moved into the area and hit the side netting with a deflected effort - one the travelling support thought had actually gone in. Lol.
That was one of a few shaky moments in the first half from Mola, but this was still a bright afternoon for him, looking far more confident, assertive and generally competent than he did earlier in the season. He contributed to something I found really encouraging from the first half: Reading’s build-up play looking well balanced. This is no longer a side that overly relies on attacking down the right flank - it’s now also capable of doing so on the left too, and having technical, positive left-footed players in both Mola and Savage on that side in the 4-2-3-1 helps.
Reading headed into the break with the score goalless though, and took their time asserting themselves on the contest after the interval, although Harvey Knibbs went close with a header from a Wing delivery that should have been directed either side of the ‘keeper. Down the other end Charlton created some decent openings without doing much with them, and in response Selles swapped left-backs: Mola off for Jeriel Dorsett on 59 minutes.
And then came the delayed one-two punch to knock out the visitors. On 66 minutes, Mbengue - still limping a tad after a heavy challenge - hurled the ball into the box from the right, it dropped around eight yards out at the feet of Azeez, and he made no mistake. On 76 minutes Mbengue had another go from a similar spot, this time finding the head of Bindon, then onto former Royal Tennai Watson, who inadvertently set up Azeez with a weak clearance to volley home for 2-0.
Charlton conjured up their only shot on target of the game a few minutes later, with David Button having a fairly straightforward stop at his near post. Azeez could have had his hat-trick shortly after however, receiving the ball on the right side of the box from substitute Paul Mukairu (who’d replaced Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan at 2-0), shifting onto his weaker foot and fizzing a shot over the bar.
There was time for a triple substitution, with Ben Elliott, Michael Craig and Kelvin Abrefa replacing Azeez, Savage and Andy Yiadom. It was pleasing in particular to see the return of Abrefa, a really talented young right-back who’s had frustratingly slow progress at first-team level. Hopefully he can kick on to become an important player in the coming weeks and months.
Before today I viewed this clash as a must-win - and certainly also a ‘must not lose’ - so job done. Tuesday’s trip to Fleetwood however feels more like a great opportunity to get another three points in the bag than an absolute necessity. Stevenage aside, Reading don’t win midweek league away games, so there’d be no shame in picking up a point on the road at a side scrapping for survival.