U23s finish campaign with close-run victory
The Royals’ Under-23 squad ended their Premier League 2 campaign winning fashion, seeing off visitors Sunderland by a 3-2 scoreline at Madejski Stadium.
After a goalless first period, the deadlock was finally broken early in the second half as a low ball into the area by Yakou Meite forced the error from defender George Brady who put into his own net.
And one became two a matter of minutes later when Andy Rinomhota was taken down in the box, allowing Josh Barrett to dispatch the spot-kick, and third followed in similar fashion – Andrija Novakovich capitalised on a short back-pass to slot in.
Josh Maja’s late strike looked like it would just be consolation for the guests, although a stoppage-time free-kick by Elliot Embleton meant for a nervy few minutes.
The result means that the Royals are mathematically in with a chance of avoiding the drop into the second tier of Premier League 2 for next season… although admittedly that looks unlikely with goal-difference playing its part in a tightly-congested table in which the whole of the bottom half is separately by merely three points.
But the Royals will contest for silverware at the season’s end – in a week’s time they travel to the Liberty Stadium to contest the final of the Premier League Cup against the Swans, who were Division 2 champions at a canter this season and who are targeting an Under-23 double.
Midfield man Stephen Quinn was named amongst the starting XI as an over-aged player for the Royals – he put in an energetic display in the first half of the fixture, marking his first competitive 45 minutes since the senior squad’s trip to Brentford back in September.
A possession-heavy start for the Royals didn’t initially merit any opportunities – and instead the Royals’ first attack of note came on the counter, as some composed play under pressure built the springboard for an attack.
Omar Richards slotted to Meite in space in the centre of the field, and his forward foray and wide ball to Barrett was followed by a sumptuous low cross… which Novakovich could only turn wide on the stretch. The offside flag had been raised anyway.
It was all Reading, but chances were going begging. Axel Andresson opted for a direct ball forward to Meite, who had the pace to outstrip the defence and latch on, but the angle was unfavourable by the time he was able to connect with his first-time effort and it fizzed past the far post.
And then Novakovich did well to close down a clearance and attempted to lift over the advancing goalie James Talbot – the ball landed on the roof of the net, while the stopper and colleague Tommy Beadling collided in their defensive effort and were left in a heap and in need of treatment.
Beadling continued; Talbot couldn’t, and needed replacing by Michael Woud. And even though Reading were still on top when the game restarted after a lengthy delay, it was a while before they were able to trouble the replacement stopper. Instead Ryan East twice had to make well-timed interceptions at the other end to deny Josh Maja a route to goal.
Rinomhota’s doggedness gifted Reading a chance on goal – pinching possession upfield, he tried to slot in Novakovich, but the pass was just behind the striker. However the American forward improvised a shot which was blocked, as was the follow-up. And from the resulting corner, Meite’s well-timed run and powerful header saw the woodwork come to the visitors’ rescue.
Meite again came close as the game ticked into first-half stoppage time – he tried to catch the goalkeeper off guard with a thunderous effort from 30 yards, but the strike was a matter of feet past the post.
And while the Royals had been unable to make the net burst in the first half, they were given a helping hand just six minutes into the second – Meite got to the byline and pulled back a powerful cross, which Brady inadvertently turned past his own goalkeeper for the opener.
The second goal followed just minutes later. Rinomhota was quick to seize the opportunity when a back-pass for the goalkeeper was played short – he dashed onto the ball, drew a foul from the goalkeeper, and won the spot-kick. Woud guessed right from Barrett’s penalty, but his strike into the bottom corner was too powerful and too precise.
It could have been three before the hour-mark. Novakovich clipped a clever first-time ball around the corner for half-time sub Tyler Frost, whose curling effort as he entered the box was held at the second attempt by the goalkeeper.
But in the 65th minute, Novakovich had the Royals’ third and it was, again, a bit of a gift that Reading were glad to accept. Another short back-pass in a central area allowed the forward to rush on and beat the goalkeeper to the ball… he rounded Woud before slotting in.
Goalkeeper George Legg had been relatively untested throughout. And that remained the case due to some intelligent defending, and, where necessary, some important interventions by defensive pair Andresson and Rob Dickie. The latter put his body in the way when Josh Maja’s shot had deflected loosely into the middle, before the former timed a sliding challenge well on Asoro.
However the Black Cats did get back into the game five minutes from time, as Maja struck through a mass of bodies in a crowded area for the visitors’ first shot on target – it was out of reach of the unsighted Legg.
And then the visitors set up a nervy finish when Embleton lashed in an unstoppable free-kick in the first minute of the three that the fourth official had signalled.
The defender had an opportunity to level deeper into added time, but Legg saved and held well to ensure the three points went Reading’s way.
Full-time: Reading U23 3-2 Sunderland U23
Reading U23: Legg, Watson, Richards, Dickie, Andresson, East, Rinomhota, Quinn (Frost HT), Barrett, Meite, Novakovich (Smith 83).
Unused subs: Driscoll, Holmes, Holsgrove.
Sunderland U23: Talbot (Woud 18), Robson, Hume, Embleton, Brady, Beadling, Molyneux (Gamble 64), Robson, Asoro, Maja, Greenwood (Diamond 83).
Unused subs: Brotherton, Wright.