STOKE // The great escapologists sensed another dramatic reprieve. For the fifth successive game, Reading scored late. For the first time in that sequence it was not quite enough.
Because, while Reading appealed for a penalty in the final minute of added time, their claims were rejected, this comeback was in vain.
"It is a setback," said manager Brian McDermott, whose side remain perched precariously above the relegation zone. They received unwanted proof that football can be a contrary game.
And so it was that, with Stoke City on their worst run of the season and Reading their best, City emerged with the points and a belated first win of 2013. While Adrian Mariappa opened his Reading account with an 83rd-minute header to begin the fightback, his most telling contribution occurred just earlier.
The defender's mistake allowed Cameron Jerome to score Stoke's second and, ultimately, deciding goal in a match where mistakes and set pieces accounted for each of the strikes.
It was a day neither for men whose efforts have been recognised recently or for the most decorated manager in the business.
Reading had secured a January double, Brian McDermott and Adam Le Fondre winning the Manager and the Player of the Month awards.
Sir Alex Ferguson was in attendance, scouting Asmir Begovic, who is tipped to be the successor to David de Gea in the Manchester United goal. Yet while Begovic was beaten by Mariappa's header, he was otherwise unoccupied.
"Up until that goal I don't think Asmir has had a shot to save," Stoke manager Tony Pulis said. Indeed, for the first hour, the Bosnian was as much of a spectator as the United manager. Reading were muted, Stoke the more attacking and effective but the majority of the drama came in the closing stages.
Indeed, for much of the match, the only goalkeeper with an opportunity to impress Ferguson was Reading's.
Adam Federici tipped Ryan Shawcross' hooked shot over the bar and the Australian was at his acrobatic best to keep Peter Crouch's scissor kick out after Michael Kightly picked out the target man with a deep cross.
However, the breakthrough came after Pulis sacrificed both in a reshuffle, introducing Jerome and Kenwyne Jones. Then Jonathan Walters had a shot deflected over and, from Glenn Whelan's resulting corner, Robert Huth rose highest to head home.
Stoke's second was a more direct result of Pulis's changes.
"The two subs made a great difference," the manager said. "Cameron Jerome is a great impact player and he scored a great goal."
Jerome was brought off the bench in preference to Michael Owen and he illustrated why, capitalising on Mariappa's poor header, showing his strength to hold off Alex Pearce and finish forcefully.
Reading felt the comeback should have been completed. In the third minute of injury time, Le Fondre tumbled to the turf under Ryan Shotton's challenge, dramatically in referee Michael Oliver's view. McDermott disagreed.
"Alfie [Le Fondre] got hold of the ball," added McDermott, whose side will now travel to Dubai for a training camp ahead of their FA Cup fifth-round tie at Manchester United. "He caught him and it was a stonewall penalty from the last kick of the game."
Pulis, informed that replays rather contradicted that view, explained: "The lad isn't caught, he just arches his back and falls over."
Justice was done, both over the course of the incident and the match as a whole.
"I thought we deserved to win and I would have been absolutely devastated if we didn't," Pulis added.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE