Reading 2 Aston Villa 1 - Report
Having broken a 14-month winless streak on their travels at the Madejski Stadium last season, Steve Bruce must have hoped a trip to Reading might again provide a cure Villa’s away day blues.
Instead it delivered another miserable defeat, which means pressure is already mounting on the manager with the season not yet a fortnight old.
For the second time in four days Bruce watched as his team were for the most part comprehensively outplayed - Conor Hourihane’s late consolation should not disguise that.
Villa were not bullied, as they were during Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Cardiff. They were, however, second best to a Royals team brimming with the inspiration and ideas so badly lacking in Bruce’s at the moment.
Villa, admittedly, missed a golden chance to seize the advantage when Andre Green could not convert when through on goal in the opening minutes.
After that however they were very much second best and though it took an unlucky Glenn Whelan own goal to give them the lead four minutes into the second half, it was all they deserved.
Modou Barrow hammered home a second from close range soon after and though Hourihane gave them hope when he pulled one back with three minutes remaining, there could be no papering over the cracks.
Changes were inevitable as Villa looked to bounce back from their Cardiff horror show. In the end Bruce made four, with Henri Lansbury, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Alan Hutton all coming out of the first XI along with Ahmed Elmohamady, who was absent through injury.
Replacing them were Birkir Bjarnason, Hourihane, a fit-again Green and Ritchie De Laet, in what was the right-back’s first appearance since sustaining a serious knee injury last September.
Former Villa midfielder Leandro Bacuna was named on the Reading bench, having completed his move to the Madejski last weekend.
As convincing as Saturday’s defeat was, there were moments when Villa might have turned the tide had they taken their chances.
Another big opportunity arrived within five minutes of the start here and again went begging.
John Terry’s pass out to defence to Hogan suddenly had the home defence on the retreat and when the striker’s attempted ball for Josh Onomah was deflected, it fell straight into the path of Green. The teenage winger found himself through on goal but with just Vito Mannone to beat his finish lacked conviction and was easily stopped by the keeper.
It was the one big chance of the opening half-hour as the game settled into a familiar pattern.
Reading dominated possession, with Villa on occasion sometimes not seeing the ball for what felt like several minutes. Yet for all their patient probing, the Royals could find no way to break down the visitor’s resolute defence, with a John Swift shot which curled inches wide of the post the only real effort of note in the early stages.
Injuries have also been a factor in Villa’s early season and they suffered another blow on the half-hour mark when Hogan was forced off, to be replaced by Agbonlahor.
Reading’s pressure finally began to tell in the closing ten minutes of the half. Villa keeper Sam Johnstone was called into his first serious of action of the night, diving to his left to keep out Popa’s sweetly struck drive.
The same player was denied again moments later after cutting in from the left following a swift counter-attack and then drove a shot straight at Johnstone as the clock ticked into stoppage time.
Ultimately it took a moment of fortune for the hosts to find a way through four minutes after the break.
Villa lost possession while looking to attack down the right and when Popa advanced into the box, his attempted shot took a deflection off Whelan, looped over Johnstone and in via the far post despite the keeper’s best efforts to prevent it crossing the line.
Six minutes later Reading were two up and Villa left with a mountain to climb.
Liam Kelly’s corner to the edge of the box was helped on by Swift to Liam Moore who, in acres of space inside the box, fired in a cross which Barrow slammed home at close range.
At that moment the game already felt well beyond Villa, though as the hosts sat back, content to protect their advantage, the visitors finally began to exert some pressure.
Green drilled an effort which Mannone comfortably saved, diving to his left. Bjarnason came close to getting Villa back into it when, after the Royals had failed to clear their lines, he struck a shot which deflected just wide of the target.
Then, with three minutes remaining, Hourihane gave Villa and Bruce hope when he drilled home left-footed after Agbonlahor had chested Bjarnason’s cross into his path.
Green then saw an effort deflect just wide of the post as Villa almost snatched an improbable point.
Reading (3-5-2): Mannone, Gunter, Blackett, McShane (c), Moore, Van den Berg (Evans 70), Kelly, Swift, Clement, Barrow (Beerens 76), Popa (McLeary 70) Subs not used: Mendes, Bacuna, Ilori, Jaakkola (gk).
Villa (4-5-1): Johnstone, De Laet (Hutton 63), Chester, Terry ©, Taylor, Green, Whelan, Onomah (Adomah 77), Hourihane, Bjarnason, Hogan (Agbonlahor 29) Subs not used: Samba, Lansbury, Bree, Steer (gk).