Reading 0, Barnsley 0
Successive goalless draws since the numerous comings and goings of the January transfer window suggest that Barnsley have been left better equipped to cope with the defensive loss of James Bree than the midfield/attack combination of Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall.
Despite the numerous enforced changes the Reds remain solid at the back and they are continuing to produce some pleasing approach play, but there is a noticeable lack of an end product.
Having said that, it was, especially in the rebuilding circumstances, a very commendable achievement to come away from Reading with a point against an in-form third in the table side whose manager, Jaap Stam, had just received the Manager of the Month Award for January.
Barnsley are well known for their desire to play open, attacking football, but on this occasion Stam’s opposite number, Paul Heckingbottom, wisely opted for a more defensive approach, relying on the pace currently present throughout the team, to trouble the opposition on the break.
And the game plan almost worked to perfection, the Reds coming closest to a winner with an effort from Marley Watkins which struck the foot of the post.
On the other hand, the Oakwell team produced only one shot on target, also from Watkins, and that was easily saved by Al-Absi in the Reading goal.
However, it was a determinedly defiant, hard-working team performance by Barnsley – who had their backs very much to the wall in the final quarter-of-an-hour – Adam Davies (pictured) taking the individual honours with two particularly memorable saves, the second, in the closing stages, to deny Reading all three points.
Said Heckingbottom: “Everything we had planned and worked on happened. Because of the way Reading play we knew we would get chances by pinching the ball high up the pitch and counter attacks, but, apart from hitting the post, we hit the target only once, and that was the tell-tale stat.”
Once again there were changes in Barnsley’s starting line-up. Andy Yiadom returned at left-back after playing for Ghana in the African Cup of Nations; Ryan Williams came in for Adam Armstrong up front and Adam Hammill was preferred to Ryan Kent wide left.
It was Hammill who created the first opportunity for the Reds, his whipped free-kick curling just out of the reach of Mark Roberts at the far post, and the visitors followed up with a classy inter-passing move involving Watkins and Josh Scowen, but again the resulting cross failed to find its target, Tom Bradshaw this time just failing to get on the end of it.
Liam Kelly, meanwhile, shot over the bar for Reading and was then foiled by a brave block from Angus MacDonald. He and the towering Yann Kermogant continued to be a handful for the Barnsley centre-backs, but they stood up to the task extremely well.
Another free-flowing move from the Reds resulted in their only attempt on target, Matty James feeding Watkins, but the latter’s shot was weak and comfortably saved by the Reading ‘keeper.
And so it went on, Reading having more possession and doing most of the pressing, but Barnsley looking dangerous on the counter, with Hammill playing a prominent part. Two trademark crosses were headed wide by Roberts and Tom Bradhsaw, and a clever flick set up for the adventuring Jones, only for the full-back to shoot tamely wide.
Reading responded with a Kermogant header, which was well saved by Davies.
There was a blow for Barnsley just after the re-start when the livewire Scowen had to be retire from the action, still suffering from the effects of a crunching tackle minutes before the break, George Moncur substituting, and it was Moncur who immediately set up a shooting chance for Bradshaw, but yet again the effort, though well struck, was off target.
It was then that Davies produced the first of his two exceptional saves, diving low to his right to keep out a half volley from Kermogant.
From then on The Royals began to take more and more control, but the Reds still managed to conjure up a move which could have secured a magnificent victory. A Williams’ cross in the 64th minute was headed down by Bradshaw, and Watkins was on hand to fire in a shot which seemed destined for the bottom corner of the net. Instead it hit the foot of the post and rebounded to safety.
Pressure on the Barnsley goal mounted in the last 15 minutes as the home team launched cross after cross, but the Reds, with Roberts and MacDonald twin towers of strength in the middle, held firm until the first minute of stoppage time.
Then Danny Williams finally found space just inside the crowded 18-yard area to fire in a shot that was winging its way into the top corner before Davies launched himself in spectacular fashion to turn the ball one-handed over the bar.
It was a hard-earned but deserved draw against a very good Reading side and was a promising start to a formidable February fixture list which now sees the Reds entertain Brighton and Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town – the in-form teams who are second and third in the table – after a visit to Aston Villa on Tuesday.
Reflected Heckingbottom: “This was a good point, but every game is tough. Whether we’re home or away, playing a team at the top or not, everyone is fighting for things now so it is important that we approach every game with the same belief in what we do – a game-plan and the mentality to go and win the game. Whatever happens we will keep working hard.”
Reading: Al-Habsi; Gunter, Moore, Blackett, Obita, Evans, Williams, McCleary (Popa, 82 mins), Kelly (Grabban, 45 mins), Beerens (Meite, 90+2 mins), Kermogant.
Barnsley: Davies; Jones, Roberts, MacDonald, Yiadom, R Williams (Armstrong, 67 mins), Scowen (Moncur, 48 mins), James, Hammill, Watkins, Bradshaw.
Bookings: Gunter, Obita (Reading), Jones, Armstrong (Barnsley).
Referee: Darren Bond.
Attendance: 16,222 (744 Reds).