Reading forward Pavel Pogrebnyak returned from suspension to score two second-half goals and help the Royals to a 3-1 victory over Derby County at Pride Park Stadium.
After an impressive first-half from the hosts that saw goalkeeper Alex McCarthy produce numerous fine saves to keep Derby at bay, a defensive lapse two minutes into the second period gifted the Royals an opening.
Jordon Obita’s deep free-kick to the far post was knocked down by central defender Alex Pearce, where an unmarked Pogrebynak was allowed to tap the ball into the net.
Then an individual error from Johnny Russell a quarter-of-an-hour later gave the former Fulham striker the opportunity for a second, which he duly accepted, firmly side-footing the ball beyond Lee Grant.
Will Hughes halved the deficit with 10 minutes remaining with a superb, curling 25-yard effort that flew into the top corner, but as the Rams chased the game, Reading sprung a counter-attack late on, that saw Nick Blackman squeeze the ball into the bottom corner.
Prior to kick-off, the visitors had not conceded in their previous three league outings, or 285 minutes (four hours 45 minutes) of Championship football, since Tom Barkhuizen scored during Blackpool's 1-0 win at Bloomfield Road almost a month ago.
The Royals’ new found stringency this season, away from home in particular, was apparent in the manner in which Nigel Adkins deployed his starting line-up; a midfield five content with long spells of patient possession.
The visitors’ dominance in possession in the opening 10 minutes drew two opportunities at goal, with full-back Stephen Kelly dragging a low shot wide, before winger Gareth McCleary cut in from the right and thrashed an effort over.
The opening exchanges also included a couple of ripostes from the Rams, with Russell’s snap shot drawing an excellent save from goalkeeper McCarthy, while Craig Bryson volleyed into the turf moments later, after playing a neat one-two with countryman Russell.
Derby’s interchangeable formation allowed Clough to tweak the team throughout the first-half, as he looked for a formula to try and break down the rigidity of Reading.
Jamie Ward initially started behind the front pairing of Chris Martin and Russell, although there were spells during the first 45 minutes that saw the forward drift out to the left, with former Dundee United striker Russell, moving to the right.
The Royals struggled to get to grips with Ward’s positional changes in particular, with the Northern Ireland international predominantly at the heart of the Rams’ attacking moves.
The 27-year-old came close to breaking the deadlock in the 23rd minute himself, after latching onto Martin’s lay-off before seeing a left-footed curling effort from 25-yards parried away by McCarthy.
Ward’s licence to roam included him picking the ball up as deep as the half-way line in one move, prior to driving a pass to Hughes on the edge of the penalty area, who had a fierce shot tipped behind by McCarthy.
From the resulting corner, Ward’s clipped delivery found Jake Buxton at the far post, but the former Mansfield Town defender’s resulting header only brushed the side netting.
The Rams ended the half in the ascendancy, with Craig Forsyth’s cross from the left picking out an onrushing Adam Smith, but the on loan right-back was always behind the delivery, and could only volley over on the stroke of half-time.
However, although the hosts ended the first 45 minutes on top, they could not have started the following period sloppier.
Obita’s 40-yard free-kick was floated towards the back post. Alex Pearce headed the ball down, leaving Pogrebynak with the simplest of tasks of poking the ball across the line from inside the six-yard box after 47 minutes.
15 minutes later, matters got even worse for the Rams when Russell’s uncharacteristic miss-control in the penalty area gifted the ball to Pogrebynak, who side-footed past Grant.
Derby prodded and probed but lacked a killer instinct in front of goal, and the Royals almost capitalised on that when McCleary latched onto Obita’s cross, but the former Nottingham Forest winger could not keep his volley down.
However, the Rams continued in their quest to try and break down a robust and well-oiled Reading, although it took a piece of brilliance from Hughes to find the back of the net, as the England Under-21 international curled home a terrific 25-yard effort with 10 minutes remaining.
As Derby searched for an equaliser, they threw men forward, but that came at a price. In a swift counter-attacking move in stoppage time, Blackman escaped his marker and squeezed the ball into the bottom corner from a tight angle.
Derby County: Grant (GK), Smith, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Eustace (Coutts 65'), Bryson, Hughes, Ward (Jacobs 79'), Russell (Sammon 74'), Martin.
Subs Not Used: Deeney (GK), Freeman, Bennett, Davies.
Reading: McCarthy (GK), Gunter, Kelly, Pearce, Morrison, Guthrie, Baird (Apkan 64'), Obita (Cummings 78'), McCleary (Blackman 84'), Robson-Kanu, Pogrebnyak.
Subs Not Used: Federici (GK), Gorkss, Tshibola, Le Fondre.
Attendance: 21,465 (779 visiting supporters).