Here was a match that rather summed up the unpredictability of the Championship. Fulham, having battered Birmingham after a surprise defeat at Blackpool to return to the top of the table, were heavy favourites to beat Reading, especially given that the Royals hadn’t won in ten away fixtures. The hosts dominated possession and created the clearer chances, but Velijko Panouvic’s side established a clear established through two terrifically taken Ovie Ejaria goals and clung on for victory even after Rodrigo Muniz had ensured a frantic finale with four minutes left.
Reading were resolute, first weathering a strong spell of early Fulham pressure, and managing the game effectively after Ejaria had curled in a fabulous opener and extended the lead when he spun superbly into the area and squeezed a shot past Paulo Gazzaniga. They played with panache at times too, with some pretty passing that featured the in-form John Swift prominently, and this result will give further weight to the received wisdom that the Royals remain in something of a false position at present – hindered by one of the country’s longest injury lists.
Academy graduate Luke Southwood kept his place in goal after impressing in the recent win over Peterborough and proved equal to almost everything Fulham threw at him. He improvised an early save at his near post when Denis Odoi’s cross deflected off Michael Morrison and drifted dangerously goalwards and then scampered off his line to put Bobby Decordova-Reid under pressure as he latched onto a lovely through ball from Nathaniel Chalobah. The Fulham forward will feel he should have done better than scoop his finish over the bar – and perhaps it might have been a different game had Marco Silva’s side gone in front.
Fulham continued to threaten with Aleksandar Mitrovic, who was largely well-marshalled by the visiting defence, lashing wide from the edge of the area but Reading were gradually finding their feet. Junior Hoilett blazed over from close range when a cross from Alen Halilovic fell at his feet and Tom Dele-Bashiru then shot straight at Gazzaniga after tricking his way past a posse of Fulham defenders. There were further warning sides for the home side when the Argentine goalkeeper pawed away Hoilett’s shot after the Canadian forward had got a touch to a devilish free-kick from Swift.
The away side took the lead with a high-class counter attacking goal in the twentieth minute. Mitrovic lost the ball midway through the Reading half and Halilovic led the break, driving deep into Fulham territory before finding Swift in a central position. The former Chelsea midfielder committed the home defence before picking the perfect moment to play in Ejaria, who drifted into from the left and curled a magnificent finish into the top corner. That setback clearly discomforted the hosts, who might have fallen further behind had Swift’s free-kick from just outside the box dropped the other side of the post.
Fulham did fashion a prolonged period of pressure before the break. Decordova-Reid sent a free header straight at Southwood after Robinson had roamed clear down the left flank and whipped in a teasing ball, before the Jamaican international was denied by a smart save from the Reading goalkeeper at his near post moments later. The Royals rode their luck just before the interval when Decordova-Reid rattled the post after racing onto Ivan Cavaleiro’s floated through ball and Mitrovic’s miscued close-range finish came back off the crossbar after Robinson found more room down the left.
Silva’s stirring words at half-time produced an immediate response from the home side with Cavaleiro cutting in from the left and bringing a good save out of Southwood, who was then nearly left stranded by an overhit Morrison backpass. But that early adventure counted for nothing when Reading scored from their first attack of the second half. Ejaria and Halilovic worked a brilliant one-two, with the Croatian’s cute pass drifting over Tosin Adarabioyo. There was still plenty for the Liverpool loanee to do but he slotted home on the turn from a tight angle to send the travelling contingent wild.
That saw Silva summon Muniz off the bench for his home debut and the Brazilian certainly perked up Fulham in attack. A flurry of chances followed a succession of yellow cards, with referee Stephen Martin losing control of what suddenly became a feisty contest. Baba Rahman was on hand to hook away after Southwood spilled a cross in front of goal, Morrison denied Muniz with a superb saving tackle and Jean-Michael Seri lashed over from 20 yards out. Muniz and Mitrovic linked up brilliantly, with the Brazilian chesting down a Robinson cross only for Fulham’s number nine to fire wastefully over.
When the Serbian did seem set to find the bottom corner, Southwood’s strong hand prevented him from giving Fulham a lifeline. Reading were dropping deeper and deeper and salvation appeared possible when Mitrovic rose majestically at the back post to head a Wilson ball back across goal, handing Muniz the simplest of headers into an unguarded net for his first Fulham goal. Silva’s side threw everything at Reading in the six minutes of stoppage time, with Southwood denying substitute Onomah an equaliser with an outstanding save after the midfielder had brought down an Adarabioyo ball, turned and fired goalwards. Referee Martin – who awarded a phantom penalty against Fulham at Burton four years ago – then ignored loud home appeals for a spot kick when Mitrovic looked to be manhandled in the area by Laurent and Reading held on for a memorable victory.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Odoi (Onomah 71), Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri (Kebano 71), Chalobah; Wilson, Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid (Muniz 55); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Hector, Mawson, Quina.
BOOKED: Seri, Wilson, Odoi, Ream.
GOAL: Muniz (86).
READING (4-2-3-1): Southwood; Yiadom, Rahman, Holmes (Drinkwater 20), Morrison; Laurent, Swift; Halilovic (Puscas 88), Ejaria, Dele-Bashiru; Hoilett (Telek 89). Subs (not used): Boyce-Clarke, Ehibhtationham, Stickland, Clarke.
BOOKED: Hoilett, Swift, Rahman.
GOALS: Ejaria (19, 53).
REFEREE: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).