If 2019 ended well with three straight wins, we couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2020. On New Year’s Day, goals by John Swift and Charlie Adam helped the Royals to a 2-1 win at Craven Cottage.
Swift’s opener came after some early pressure from the hosts, before Adam added a second soon after half-time. Ivan Cavaleiro, fresh from the bench, got Fulham back within one just after the hour.
And even though Fulham attacked in waves in the closing stages, the defensive resolve which characterises this Reading team shone through once again.
For a third straight match, the Royals starting XI was unchanged going into the game – Lucas João leading the line, a settled back four and goalkeeper, and a midfield five. The only change came on the bench where Sam Baldock returned.
The Royals’ defence, on the back of four straight clean-sheets, were being tested in the early stages by Fulham. The Championship’s leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic won a corner as Michael Morrison had to nod behind at the back post, before danger-man Anthony Knockaert drilled over from outside the area when the set piece was played short.
Rafael’s had produced heroics in recent weeks and, before ten minutes appeared on the clock, the Brazilian had pulled off a fine double-save.
It was Mitrovic who was played in behind and forced a low save from the goalie, and then from Bobby Decordova-Reid was denied on the follow-up by more quick reflexes. Tyler Blackett put his body on the line to prevent Aboubakar Kamara from converting, and Decordova-Reid fired the loose ball against the post.
And just as Reading had soaked up the pressure, they stunned Fulham on the counter. Composure from front to back – Swift found Ovie Ejaria flying down the left, who in turn picked out the overlapping run of Tyler Blackett. The full-back’s square ball was met by Swift, whose side-footed effort beat Marek Rodak via a deflection off the ankle of Tim Ream. Against the run of play, the Royals had their noses in front.
The Cottagers continued to hold a bulk of possession, even with an early withdrawal of Harrison Reed through injury, and Reading were comfortable in defending in numbers. With little else available on the counter-attack, Adam tried a trademark punt from the half-way line which had Rodak wrong-footed, but sailed a few yards wide.
João was providing an outlet when necessary and his hold-up play could have brought a Reading second. Some strong forward play from the Portuguese front man eventually allowed Yakou Méïté and Swift to combine on the right, but João couldn’t get over his header as Swift’s cross came in from the right.
The run of shut-outs has been a team effort – and in this fixture, that was typified by a defensive intervention from Ejaria. Most noteworthy for his silky skills in the attacking third, the midfielder showed sheer desire to get back into his own area and prevent Stefan Johansen from equalising on a lightning-fast counter.
On the cusp of half-time, the Royals had a chance to double the advantage as Joe Bryan hacked down Ejaria just outside the area, causing the referee to reach for his yellow card. Swift struck but into the wall.
Half-time: Fulham 0-1 Reading
Skipper Liam Moore headed a corner over early in the second half, but it wasn't long after the break that the Royals had a second, and they made it look easy.
Swift flighted a ball wide to Ejaria, who had time to check his shoulder, control, and line up defender Cyrus Christie - he danced past the defender and picked out Adam in the middle, who couldn't miss from six yards. A well-worked cushion.
It could have been a third soon after when Ejaria flighted over an inswinger which João ghosted onto, totally unmarked. Rodak produced an incredible last-ditch save, and to add insult to injury, the referee pointed for a goal-kick rather than a corner.
But just after the hour, the third goal of the game went the way of the hosts. Knockaert drove inside off the right and sprayed cross-field for Cavaleiro - off the bench minutes earlier, the Wolves loanee curled casually into the far corner to halve Whites' deficit.
Matt Miazga was reintroduced midway through the half; a defensive switch in replacing Méïté, and immediately made an important contribution as Mitrovic aimed to tap home a low delivery from Decordova-Reid. A critical sliding intervention from the USA international.
And there were some hearts in mouths among the Royals supporters when the referee blew as Mitrovic went down with Miazga in close proximity - the Serbian striker deemed to have dived, and subsequently booked.
Bodies were being put on the line for the Reading cause. Within a matter of moments, both João and skipper Moore were receiving treatment; the forward was replaced by Baldock for the closing stages and the captain played on despite a shoulder complaint.
Fulham were piling on late pressure and, after Morrison had made a dominant header, Cavaleiro's long-range follow-up rattled the post with Rafael at full stretch. Kamara blazed over on the follow up; the angle wasn't in his favour.
Five added minutes shown for the Royals to hold out. And in the first of those, Cavaleiro's cross from deep on the left was headed goalwards by Mitrovic; once again, a stunning stop by Rafael to push onto the crossbar.
Mitrovic had a chance to level from a free-kick but hammered comfortably over from 25 yards. The last chance of note as Reading held out for a hard-fought three points.
Happy new year!
Full-time: Fulham 1-2 Reading
Fulham: Rodak, Christie, Bryan (Cavaleiro 57), Odoi, Ream, Johansen, Decordova-Reid, Reed (O’Riley 19 (De La Torre 83)), Knockaert, Kamara, Mitrovic (c).
Unused subs: Bettinelli, Mawson, McDonald, Harris.
Goal: Cavaleiro (61).
Yellow: Bryan, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic.
Reading: Rafael, Gunter, Blackett, Moore (c), Morrison, Pelé, Adam (Rinomhota 63), Ejaria, Swift, Méïté (Miazga 68), João (Baldock 83).
Unused subs: Walker, Obita, McCleary, Boyé.
Goals: Swift (14), Adam (48).
Yellow: Pelé, João, Morrison.
Referee: Mr G Eltringham