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Stephen Hunt spoiled Lawrie Sanchez’s return to Reading by the scoring the winner as the Royals kept their slender European hopes alive with a narrow victory over Fulham. Sanchez, installed as Chris Coleman’s successor until the end of the season, bemoaned the decision to rule out Papa Bouba Diop’s goal for offside and will now turn his attention to tackling the underlying problems in Fulham’s defence.

Sanchez is popular at the Madjeski Stadium having played for Reading and studied for a business degree as his career came to an end. He received a warm welcome for his first game in charge of Fulham but there was no sentiment on the field as Hunt exploited the Cottagers’ familiar defensive frailties to end Reading’s own winless run. The goal was very avoidable: Carlos Bocanegra and Franck Quedrue fluffed chances to clear their lines and a combination of Kevin Doyle and Seol Ki-Hyeon steered the ball through to Hunt, who fired his third goal of the season into the top corner.

Reading, who were far from convincing themselves, might have had more. Doyle, still without a goal since January, stabbed wide and Antti Niemi saved well from Brynjar Gunnarsson. Dave Kitson headed off and Hunt was off target with two volleys as he gave Quedrue a real runaround. Fulham’s threat was fleeting. Ian Pearce blasted over the bar and Quedrue went close from long range, before Diop’s header was wrongly chalked off.

Sanchez said he was able to get his ideas across at half-time and Fulham did improve in the second period. They were mostly restricted to efforts from distance with Quedrue and Diop off target but Brian McBride did well to play in Simon Davies, who should have equalised, only to be denied by the feet of the former Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann. The new Fulham boss eventually heeded the calls for Vincenzo Montella from the travelling fans but even the Italian’s invention couldn’t magic up an equaliser.

Instead, John Oster could have wrapped up all three points for Reading but miscued his shot horribly wide. Doyle had a header correctly disallowed for offside before, right at the death, Michael Brown almost rescued a point for Fulham with a curling effort that crashed off the crossbar. So near and, yet, so far.

READING (4-4-2): Hahnemann, De la Cruz, Bikey, Ingimarsson, Shorey, Ki-Hyeon (Oster 70), Gunnarsson, Harper, Hunt, Kitson (Long 70), Doyle. Subs (not used): Federici, Halford, Duberry.

BOOKED: Hunt, Shorey.

GOAL: Hunt (15).

FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Rosenior, Queudrue, Pearce (Knight 25), Bocanegra; Diop, Brown, Davies (Davies 68), Routledge; McBride, Helguson (Montella 71). Subs (not used): Lastuvka, Radzinski.

BOOKED: Helguson.

REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).

ATTENDANCE: 24,082.