West Ham United just could not land a late knockout blow in this Boxing Day fixture as ten-man Reading left the Boleyn Ground with a precious point.
Alan Curbishley's side had looked set to record their second win inside five days after Nolberto Solano had given the hosts an interval lead with his second goal of the season. Dave Kitson levelled on the hour for a Reading team that had been reduced to ten men as a result of Brynjar Gunnarsson's first-half dismissal.
Following his eleventh-placed side's sensational last-gasp win at Middlesbrough on Saturday, Curbishley had made just one change as Carlton Cole returned from suspension to replace Henri Camara in attack. Sitting just one spot and four points below West Ham United, Steve Coppell had predictably named an unchanged side following his team's stoppage-time sinking of Sunderland at the weekend.
Safe in the knowledge that the visitors had come into this contest with just two draws from eight Premier League awaydays, the hosts began in determined mood. Straight from the kick-off, the marauding Hayden Mullins climaxed his bulldozing run to the 18-yard line with a low shot into Marcus Hahnemann and then Solano curled a long-range free-kick just inches wide of the Reading keeper's right-hand angle.
Both Cole and Lucas Neill also slashed shots wide of the target, while at the other end, a couple of Royals' raids saw Kevin Doyle drill a low shot wide, before the Republic of Ireland international sent a diving header thudding into Robert Green's ribcage. Slowly but surely, the blue-and-white hoops were finding their feet and, on 17 minutes, Doyle was in the thick of things again as he nodded into the path of Bobby Convey, whose point-blank shot was bravely charged down by Green.
On 29 minutes, though, the visitors' game-plan was wrecked by the receipt of an unwelcome Christmas card, after the airborne Gunnarsson, having just missed out to Scott Parker, slid full-length into Mullins, before picking himself up off the Boleyn Ground grass to see referee Peter Walton brandishing red. Only the alert Hahnemann prevented Matthew Upson from turning in the consequent free-kick and, as the half-hour mark passed, Ashton hooked a 12-yarder on to the roof of the net.
Somehow, Reading looked set to limp off all-square, but three minutes before the break, West Ham United sent the claret and blue supporters amongst the holiday crowd of 34,277 wild with delight as they finally broke the deadlock.
This time, Carlton Cole's run into the heart of the Royals' rearguard was thwarted by a trio of defenders but as the ball broke from the scrum, the supporting Solano got the better of Nicky Shorey before lifting an angled, eight-yarder over the advancing Hahnemann, beyond the retreating Ibrahima Sonko on the line.
Just before the break, the dynamic Mullins almost doubled the advantage with a scorching shot that flashed across the face of goal and just an inch or so beyond the far post. Just after the restart, Parker also had a great chance to find the net, but after craftily cutting back from the byline, he found the angle too tight and Hahnemann saved.
Instead of being down and out, Reading were still in the contest and, as the hour-mark approached they clawed themselves level, when Shorey hooked a defensive clearance back into the danger area for the unmarked Kitson to spin and fire a 12-yarder beyond the exposed Green.
Jolted by the loss of their lead, West Ham United quickly went looking to restore it, as Jonathan Spector back-headed Freddie Ljungberg's cross on to the outside of Hahnemann's near post, and then the Swede himself forced the towering American keeper to divert his close-range effort skywards.
With well-drilled Reading defending deep and in numbers, Curbishley introduced the fresh legs of Henri Camara at the expense of Cole, while Mark Noble stepped from the bench to replace the tiring Solano for the frustrating final stages in which West Ham United just could not force another late winner as Parker went close and Ashton's stoppage time header bounced on to a post.
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