READING’S automatic promotion hopes were dealt a severe blow with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat against new Championship leaders Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex this evening.
Royals competed well for the first 25 minutes but fell behind to a fine Sam Baldock strike.
And after Danny Williams saw a header cleared off the line 10 minutes after the restart, Brighton took control with a second goal from Jamie Murphy.
Reading could not find a response and conceded a third through star man Anthony Knockaert to round off a tough week for the club.
The loss sees Royals drop to fifth place, 10 off the top two but still with a healthy seven point gap to seventh.
Jaap Stam made three changes from the defeat at Huddersfield Town on Tuesday night with captain Paul McShane returning alongside George Evans and Yann Kermorgant with Liam Kelly, Jordan Obita and Lewis Grabban dropping out.
It was Brighton who made the stronger start, coming close twice from the dangerous set pieces of Knockaert with Shane Duffy heading just wide.
But Reading grew into the contest and forced a couple of openings themselves, without testing goalkeeper David Stockdale.
The deadlock looked to have been broken just before the half hour mark when, after Reading committed numbers forward in attack, Roy Beerens’ cut back was intercepted.
Brighton broke quickly with Jamie Murphy feeding the ball out to Baldock, who cut inside McShane and curled towards the far corner.
Ali Al-Habsi was rooted to the spot but the ball cannoned back off the woodwork and away.
But Baldock would not be denied just five minutes later.
After chances had been missed at both ends during the liveliest spell of the match with Williams heading straight at Stockdale and Knockaert’s low drive held by Al-Habsi, Baldock broke the deadlock.
Full-back Bruno Saltor clipped the ball forwards for the striker, who beat the offside trap, brilliantly controlled it out of the air and lashed past Al-Habsi to send the Amex into raptures.
Reading tried the instant response with Beerens digging out a cross for McShane, but the Irishman headed wide before Knockaert tried to double the advantage after being played in by Baldock, but Al-Habsi made the save.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, the task was twice as tough for the Royals.
It could have been so different had Williams’ header at the other end not been cleared off the line by Duffy just moments earlier, but Brighton survived and produced the sucker punch.
Another quick break proved to be the undoing for the visitors as Dale Stephens released Murphy to charge through one-on-one and he made no mistake in dispatching past Al-Habsi.
Stam rang the changes with three in quick succession, introducing John Swift, Kelly and Grabban, but the chances continued to fall the way of the hosts.
Knockaert fired into the side netting after Reading’s defence was picked apart while Glenn Murray tucked in Bruno’s cross, but the flag was raised for offside.
In truth, Stockdale remained untroubled for the rest of the contest with two free-kicks the best the Royals could muster in reply but both Kermorgant and Swift fired straight into the wall.
And salt was rubbed into the wounds with 10 minutes to go as Knockaert got the goal he deserved, sweeping into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
READING (ratings out of 10): Al-Habsi 6; Gunter 5.5, McShane (c) 6, Moore 6, Blackett 5; Evans 6.5 (Kelly 69 5.5), Williams 6, Mutch 5.5 (Swift 57 5); McCleary 4.5 (Grabban 72 5), Beerens 6.5, Kermorgant 6.5.
Subs not used: Jaakkola, van den Berg, Obita, Popa.
Yellow card: Evans (68)
BRIGHTON: Stockdale; Bruno (c), Duffy, Dunk, Pocognoli (Tomori 83); Knockaert, Stephens, Sidwell, Murphy; Baldock (Akpom 82), Murray (Hemed 77).
Subs not used: Walton, Huenemeier, March, Kayal.
Goals: Baldock (35), Murphy (56), Knockaert (80)
Yellow card: Stephens (27)
Referee: Peter Bankes
Attendance: 29,613 (inc. 2,032 away)