Is every game a six-pointer from here on out? You'd think as the Royals play catch up from the middle of January. Saturday sees the return of Shane Long to the Madejski Stadium, but Reading fans will be hoping the home team can secure only a third Premier League win this campaign.
I don't know about you, but it feels like an eternity between every Premier League game now. We had the 24-day break between Chelsea and Tottenham at the start of the season, and now this ten-day League wait after overcoming an early shock against Crawley Town in the FA Cup. All minds are now firmly focussed on League survival, much as a kind draw could see us repeat our Cup successes of recent years. West Bromwich Albion are the visitors to the Madejski Stadium, with a certain prodigal son making an emotional return to the home of his rise to the top. But there's no room for sentiment in the Premier League, and once the whistle blows, everyone in blue and white will be aiming for three important points.
Form Guide (all competitions, most recent result first)
Reading: W, L, W, D, L, L
West Brom: D, L, L, W, W, D
A win over Crawley Town in the FA Cup will have boosted confidence down at Hogwood Park, especially after going 1-0 down to the Sussex side after just 14 seconds. It was a rotated side which secured victory that day, but it still counts as a squad effort and a W on the results board. The other win in Reading's recent form came at the Mad Stad against West Ham, in which the Royals were solid if nervy winners of that contest. A draw against Swansea on Boxing Day means this game could return the Madejski to "Fortress" standard if we remain unbeaten for the third home game on the bounce. The three losses came against Tottenham (A), Arsenal (H) and Man City (A) - arguably, the last should have been a draw.
Meanwhile in the Black Country, a slight slump in what's been an otherwise stellar campaign for Steve Clarke's charges. A draw at QPR in the League Cup was preceded by back-to-back losses in the Premier League against Man Utd and Fulham, but they overcame the Fake Hoops in the League on Boxing Day and Norwich at the Hawthorns just before that. Those are their only two wins since the 24th of November though, so their form has certainly slumped. They still sit in 7th place in the table though, which gives you an idea of just how good they were in the first four months of the season.
Head to Head
We've already played the Baggies in the League this season - a late goal from Romelu Lukaku was the difference between the sides as he drilled in from 18 yards past Alex McCarthy. Since 2005 we've played West Brom 8 times - amazingly, 5 of these have been in the FA Cup, where the Royals have twice taken the Baggies to a replay and qualified in every tie between the sides.
The two sides met in the Championship in 2009/10, when we lost 3-1 away before drawing 1-1 at home as West Brom secured promotion back to the top flight. And for those who love overall records, we haven't lost to West Brom at home since 1995. avoiding defeat in 9 contests between the two teams.
We should see a few changes from the side Brian McDermott put out against Crawley as that was very much a rotated team. The big question is whether 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 will be the order of the day. Five in midfield has been the League setup for a few games now but a return to two up top saw a good performance, albeit against a lower standard of team. I'd imagine Brian will stick with 4-5-1 as we've looked decent defensively recently, so hopefully it can all come together in attack.
Where the new signings slot in is another big question. Stephen Kelly should sign in time but probably won't be in the squad, but Hope Akpan and Daniel Carrico could come straight in. Mikele Leigertwood has been struggling with injury recently so Carrico could come in for him, patrolling the midfield with Jem Karacan and Danny Guthrie. Adam Le Fondre bagged two goal against Crawley but might have to be content with a spot on the bench, as Pavel Pogrebnyak has made a habit of scoring early goals (4 mins against Tottenham, 5 against West Ham) and is more of a presence up front.
West Brom have a few doubts over their team. Jonas Olsson has been the subject of interest from QPR recently but is also struggling with injury, as are Steven Reid, Claudio Yacob and Goran Popov. Zoltan Gera definitely misses out with a cruciate ligament injury, whilst Youssouf Mulumbu has travelled to the African Cup of Nations. Shane Long scored against QPR last weekend but was only on the bench for West Brom's last League game - he may have to wait for his official welcome back to the Royal County.
Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Gunter, Pearce, Morrison, Harte; Kebe, Karacan, Carrico, Guthrie, McAnuff; Pogrebnyak.
West Brom (4-4-2): Foster; Jones, Ridgewell, McAuley, Tamas; Morrison, Brunt, Thorne, Dorrans; Lukaku, Fortune.
Kevin Friend is the man in the middle for this contest. The last time he was here, 12 goals were scored in one of the most amazing matches you're ever likely to see... but not if you're a Reading fan. 7-5 was the score to Arsenal that day, but 4-0 to Reading after 45 minutes certainly did not suggest the Gunners would qualify. He also reffed us on the opening day of the season, as a late Adam Le Fondre penalty rescued a point for Reading. That said, he was particularly lenient on Dean Whitehead, who should have been sent off before his final, critical demeanour.
West Brom 8/5
The Tilehurst End Prediction
I'm confident about this game - whether that's misplaced will come to fruition at about 4.55pm tomorrow! Reading in the last few years have found a different gear in the second half of the season, whilst West Brom have stalled after their conversely impressive start to the campaign. The new signings, whilst not the big-name mega-stars some fans have demanded, will improve the squad no end, and you only have to look at West Brom's number nine, who signed for Reading for pennies, to see that outlay is not the indicator of success. This could be the ideal time to play the Baggies, and I fancy Reading to continue their recent home improvement and win 2-1.