There is to be no respite in Chelsea's tumultuous season. Even games that seem to have been won with ease against relegation-threatened opponents are being wrested from the European champions, the sense of farce that is building leaving the interim first-team manager, Rafael Benítez, alone and increasingly exposed amid the maelstrom. Indignity is being delivered on a match-by-match basis at present.
The club's hierarchy watched on in disbelief from the directors' box here, Bruce Buck, Ron Gourlay and Michael Emenalo blanching as the visitors caved in to the only two shots of any potency mustered by Reading on the Chelsea goal. That suited trio of chairman, chief executive and technical director have the ominous look of a firing squad about them, as so many previous incumbents have discovered to their cost, and they were grim-faced as they exited amid the locals' giddy delirium on the final whistle. Benítez's position is apparently not under immediate threat, with his side still five points clear of fifth, but this was unacceptable.
It was also unexpected. Reading may have come back to score three times in the last eight minutes to beat West Bromwich Albion, but they had looked spent here against a Chelsea side who eased into a two-goal advantage without breaking into a sweat. They were professional rather than spectacular but the hosts were still kept at arm's length until three minutes from time. And then, from a position of complete authority, they disintegrated. Reading's first goal was neatly constructed, the substitute Hope Akpan clipping a neat pass inside Gary Cahill for Adam le Fondre, free of Branislav Ivanovic, to dispatch first time inside Ross Turnbull's near post.
Even that should only have been a mild inconvenience, but Chelsea's composure had drained. By the fifth minute of stoppage time, Le Fondre – new to the Premier League but whose reputation as a goal poacher is already well established – was one of three unmarked players at the far post as Adam Federici's free-kick prompted panic. Ivanovic and Cahill allowed the ball to bounce, Jimmy Kébé headed across goal and Akpan flicked on, and there was Le Fondre to volley back and across Turnbull to equalise. Such sloppiness will eat away at Benítez. "Everybody had the same feeling in the dressing-room," said the Spaniard. "Everyone could see the game was under control for us until the last minute. Really disappointing."
It says much when 87 minutes of dominance against a team struggling to avoid a swift return to the Championship yields only a point. Benítez pointed to their dominance – and they were so assured – as reason for optimism, and even suggested he could not be angry with his players for their late capitulation given how superior they had been. "If you play bad and draw, you can say it's a problem," he said. "But when you play so well, and have the chances we had … we did a good job, a great game, but we have to manage these little mistakes. We need to get the result we deserve."
But, for all that it is only 10 days since they beat Arsenal, their current form has served up draws with Swansea and Brentford prior to this. A fortnight previously they had led Southampton, another of the strugglers, by two at home and only drawn. The hierarchy, via Emenalo, may have impressed upon Benítez the need to finish in the top four and the manager is still on course to achieve just that, but it felt inexcusable not to have squeezed closer to Manchester City in second place once Juan Mata's fine finish from Fernando Torres's perfectly conjured pass had edged the visitors ahead. Add to that Frank Lampard's 196th goal for the club, thumped in from a corner, and a fifth consecutive league away win was surely theirs. Perhaps the sight of Le Fondre entering the fray immediately after that goal should have heightened the Londoners' concentration. Instead, they dawdled and Reading prospered.
Brian McDermott's side are out of the relegation zone and showing glimpses of that irrepressible post-Christmas form that has propelled them upwards over the last three years. They had lost only one of their previous seven games in all competitions before this match and, even when their position felt hopeless, retained the conviction that they could eke something from the contest. "We got a draw against the champions of Europe when we were 2-0 down with three minutes to play," said McDermott, through a smile. That summed up the drama. Le Fondre now boasts five goals in his last three Premier League outings, all cameos from the bench. "He's a great bloke, funny and with good banter, and wants to be the best player in training," said the Reading manager. "Our players all have so much more to come: that hunger and desire to improve. We haven't played particularly well tonight but we got something: these guys have so much heart and desire."
They retain such energy even into the latter stages. Chelsea are not as effervescent, with this their 41st game of a morale-sapping campaign. Benítez has overseen 20 of those in a little over two months. There simply is no relief to be had at this club.