ALI Al-Habsi saved a late penalty as Reading reclaimed third place in the Championship table after beating Fulham 1-0 at Madejski Stadium.
It was Jaap Stam’s men who claimed all three points in this cracking rearranged fixture after the original one in December was abandoned due to heavy fog.
It needed a 49th minute goal from Roy Beerens after John Swift’s penalty had been saved by David Button to settle the clash.
But there was late drama when Liam Moore conceded an 89th minute penalty for foul on Lucas Piazon, only for Al-Habsi to pull off a blinding save to deny Chris Martin and ultimately win the match.
In truth, a draw would have been harsh on Stam’s side after a performance of quality, imagination and guile ended a run of successive league defeats.
Imagination because Stam did not name a single striker in his starting line-up and went with Garath McCleary up front in a fluid three-man attack alongside John Swift and Beerens.
The move, which raised eyebrows, worked wonders. This was one of Reading’s best displays in weeks. They were bright, lively and always a danger and their interplay often left Fulham chasing shadows.
Stam made three changes from the side that lost at Derby County on the weekend.
Tyler Blackett replaced the suspended Jordan Obita, while Joey van den Berg came in for Tiago Ilori and Beerens was preferred to Yann Kermorgant as a better fit in a fluid 3-5-2 formation.
Kermorgant was one of four strikers on the bench along with Yakou Meite, Dominic Samuel and Joseph Mendes. However, McCleary, the team’s leading scorer, regularly interchanged with Swift and Beerens in a new-look system.
It nearly led to an opening when a lovely pass from Williams sent McCleary through only for Button to grab his cross before it could reach Beerens.
But Royals were also exposed from a ball over the top that Martin latched on to, but van den Berg raced back to snuff out the danger.
The visitors registered the first shot on target when Michael Madl’s 25-yarder bounced right in front of Al-Habsi on the threadbare surface, but Royals’ keeper held on easily.
Fulham were enjoying a decent spell, but they failed to capitalise when Kevin McDonald sliced wide from 12 yards after a corner had fallen to him nicely in the box with 17 minutes gone.
But four minutes later Royals went close again when McShane’s powerful header was blocked by Madl on the edge of the six-yard box from a Swift flag-kick.
McShane, though, had to be at his best at the other end when his crucial block prevented a Ryan Fredericks cross from doing any damage.
It was entertaining stuff from both sides and Reading looked a threat, no more so that in the 27th minute when Beerens bombed down the right and cut the ball back for Swift whose first-time effort required all of Button’s attention at his near post.
The action was frantic and the Cottagers responded when Cairney’s pass found Sone Aulko, but the striker’s finishing let him down with only Al-Habsi to beat.
They went close again seven minutes before the break when Stefan Johansen blazed over after van den Berg had given it away.
But Stam’s men continued to probe for an opening, and it almost came when an excellent pass from Swift left Williams in space just outside the box, but the midfielder’s first touch was poor and his shot lacked the power to trouble Button.
And as half-time approaching Swift failed to keep a free header on target after neat work from Beerens, who then saw a shot deflect wide for a corner after a slick team move.
There was plenty for Stam to get his teeth stuck into at the interval, whereas Jokanovic made a change for the second half and threw on former Royal loanee Piazon for the injured Madl.
But his best laid plans went up in smoke four minutes after the restart when referee Stephen Martin pointed to the spot after Tim Ream bundled over Liam Moore.
Swift’s firmly struck penalty was superbly saved by Button, but Beerens reacted quickest to slam the rebound home for his sixth of the season.
It would have come as no surprise to Royals supporters who have seen their side win 11 penalties this season, score five, miss six from which they have netted five from the rebound.
Suddenly, spaces opened up and the hosts almost doubled their lead moments later when a beautifully disguised pass from Kelly gave Swift a sight at goal, only for Fulham block his shot from close range.
McShane then headed wide from Kelly’s subsequent flag kick before Swift’s shot on the turn was well saved by Button.
The momentum was now with Royals and McCleary almost added a second with 57 minutes gone when he cut in front the left only for his 25-yard thunderbolt to slam against the crossbar with Button well beaten.
But try as they might, the second wouldn’t come and another chance went begging four minutes later when a three-on-two break ended with a shot from Beerens deflecting past the post.
They were nearly made to pay soon after when Piazon found himself free in the box, but McShane was alert and made a vital block.
The hosts quickly hit back, McCleary testing Button again when perhaps he should have passed to a supporting player.
Further chances followed for Reading which neither Danny Williams nor Beerens could take.
But they rarely looked like conceding either.
So when Moore fouled Piazon in the area in the 89th minute there was disbelief all round.
Thankfully Al-Habsi came too his side’s rescue by diving full-stretch to deny Martin from the spot.
Reading rode out the final moments of pressure to seal a victory that will do wonders for the promotion hopes, and most of all their confidence.
Reading are back at Madejski Stadium this Saturday (3pm) when they host Cardiff City, beaten 1-0 at Brighton last night.