The skies above the Madjeski Stadium sent down rain and hail on those unfortunate enough to be arriving and leaving on foot, but an utterly riveting game between Reading and Fulham delivered only goals. All the pulsating encounter lacked was a winner – leaving both sides a little disappointed. Martin Jol couldn’t quite fathom how his side – who surrendered a late lead at Southampton a few weeks ago – were leaving with just a point having been pegged back twice in the final thirteen minutes, whilst Brian McDermott’s boys looked on course for their first Premier League win until the introduction of Bryan Ruiz just before the hour mark revitalised the visitors.
The Royals would have targeted this fixture as the one to end their winless start to the league campaign and McDermott’s side should have been ahead inside three minutes. Two former Fulham men almost gave McDermott, who himself had a brief spell at Craven Cottage as a player, the early goal he would have craved. Nicky Shorey galloped into yards of space on the left and his cross dropped between the static Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland only for Pavel Pogrebnyak – the scorer of his six goals in twelve games for Fulham last term – to head inexplicably wide of Mark Schwarzer’s goal.
Even if Jol’s side saw more of the ball, they struggled to cope with Reading’s high tempo. The rugged Jason Roberts’ intelligent runs were pulling Fulham’s centre backs apart and Jimmy Kébé and skipper Jobi McAnuff offered both pace and penetration down the flanks. The opening goal came courtesy of a rising drive lashed in from distance by Mikele Leigertwood, once a centre half but now an imposing presence in midfield, but owed much to McAnuff’s mazy meandering in from the left flank, but it didn’t serve to shake Fulham from their slumber. The visitors looked ponderous in possession and their lethargy was epitomised by the proligfigacy of Hugo Rodallega, who twice headed straight at Alex McCarthy from close range, before the returning Damien Duff skewed a shot wide from Kieran Richardson’s cross.
The second half followed a similar pattern with Jay Tabb and Leigertwood blunting most of Fulham’s promising play before Jol replaced Rodallega with Ruiz. It took just three minutes for the Costa Rican to make his mark, exchanging passes with Duff, before curling a classy equaliser past the helpless McCarthy from just outside the box. Playing just behind Berbatov, whose brilliance was all the more impressive after Jol revealed the Bulgarian had sustained a rib injury in the first half, Ruiz was suddenly the conductor of a Fulham side signing an altogether happier tune. Such was the shift in momentum it came as little surprise when Chris Baird headed home Ruiz’s corner to score his second goal in seven days, although the Northern Ireland international’s joyous celebrations saw him collapse into an advertising hoarding and later limp off.
Fulham’s mesmorising movement seems to have come at a price though. The resolute defence of old appears much more brittle these days and for all of Reading’s commendable spirit, the Royals shouldn’t have been allowed back into a game that twice appeared beyond them. Gareth McCleary found far two much room between Hughes and Hangeland to fire home his first goal since signing from Nottingham Forest after reaching a cross from his fellow substitute Adam Le Fondre and, after Berbatov’s control and clinical finish to power home Steve Sidwell’s pass from what seemed an outrageous angle, Jol’s side failed to hold onto an advantage that would have taken them into the top four. Fulham failed to clear a Shorey free-kick and Hal Robson-Kanu punished them at the death. Were it not for a fine Schwarzer save from the Welshman in added time, the damage might have been even worse.
READING (4-4-2): McCarthy; Cummings, Shorey, Mariappa, Gorkss; Leigertwood, Tabb (McCleary 69), Kébé (Robson-Kanu 78), McAnuff; Pogrebnyak (Le Fondre 80), Roberts. Subs (not used): Federuici, Gunter, Pearce, N. Hunt.
GOALS: Leigertwood (26), McCleary (85), Robson-Kanu (90).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird (Sidwell 80), Diarra; Duff (Dejagah 67), Richardson, Berbatov; Rodallega (Ruiz 58). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Karagounis, Petric.
GOALS: Ruiz (61), Baird (77), Berbatov (88).
REFEREE: Mike Jones (Chesire).