Just three days after another late comeback from Reading against Chelsea, it's back to the Madejski Stadium to host Sunderland. Three days should have been the gap between our first meetings with the Blues and the Black Cats but the match at the Stadium of Light was rained off... In August. When the two sides finally met, Sunderland ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in one of the worst performances from the Royals this season. But a lot has changed since December, and Reading enter this match on their best form all year.
Form Guide (all competitions, most recent result first)
Reading: D, W, W, W, W, L
Sunderland: D, W, L, W, D, L
That's right - if Reading avoid defeat this weekend, it'll be the first time since the opening day that our form has been devoid of an L. A far cry from when we played Sunderland in December, which was the 4th defeat in an eventual 7 on the bounce. Late comebacks were the flavour of the month in January, as the Royals fell behind in five matches out of six, winning three (West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United, Crawley Town) and drawing one (Chelsea). And Reading are unbeaten in five in all competitions at the Madejski, starting with a goalless draw at home to Swansea City on Boxing Day. So the signs seem to be all good...
And Sunderland are stuttering too. They were unbeaten in five to start the Premier League season, gaining creditable draws against Arsenal and Liverpool, but since then they've not gone three games without losing. So avoiding defeat at the Mad Stad on Saturday would be a welcome bonus for Martin O'Neill's side. They've won two of their last three on the road in the League, with victories at Wigan Athletic and Southampton sandwiching a 3-0 loss at Anfield against Liverpool.
Head To Head
The two sides have met 18 times in all competitions, and it's an even split of wins - seven to each side, with four draws. They've met three times in the Premier League - the aforementioned 3-0 loss was the first time this season, with Sunderland winning 2-1 at the Stadium of Light before losing 2-1 at the Madejski in the 2007/08 season.
The Royals have hosted the Black Cats nine times, with Reading winning 5, Sunderland 3, and just one draw. Reading have won the last two home meetings with Sunderland - here's hoping for the hat-trick...
Nick Blackman was the only addition to the Reading squad in the final few days of the transfer window, signing in the lead-up to the Chelsea match on Wednesday night. He probably won't start but he might make the bench alongside current super-sub and fast-track Royals legend Adam Le Fondre. Alfie's netted 5 goals in just under 80 substitute minutes recently but his red-hot form still isn't likely to see him start ahead of Pavel Pogrebnyak, who performs the donkey work for 70 minutes before McDermott changes things up.
To be honest the only real reason to change anything might be injury or tiredness. Whilst Mikele Leigertwood and Jem Karacan didn't have the best of games in midweek, facing Sunderland is a very different proposition to the star-studded Chelsea midfield. McDermott may put McAnuff into the middle again instead of Karacan in an effort to add attacking impetus, which would see Garath McCleary return on the wing. But I would imagine the team will be extremely similar to that which started against Chelsea.
For Sunderland the main news is the arrival of Danny Graham, who was for a time linked with a move to the Madejski Stadium. The Gateshead-born striker hasn't been the most popular of arrivals on Wearside but he'll want his football to do the talking (cliché alert). Whether he starts on Saturday is another question entirely - Steven Fletcher has been scoring regularly in a 4-5-1 system which seemingly offers no place for the new addition; he might have to be content with a place on the bench for now.
Lee Cattermole remains sidelined with a knee problem but Danny Rose and Carlos Cuellar could return to a Sunderland defence which has actually kept the second-most clean sheets in the League this season, and five in their last nine.
Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Kelly, Pearce, Mariappa, Harte; Kebe, Leigertwood, McAnuff, Guthrie, McCleary; Pogrebnyak
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O'Shea, N'Diaye; Johnson, Larsson, Sessegnon, Colback, McClean; Fletcher
Lee Mason is the man whose every decision will be derided and scrutinised by supporters, TV cameras and analysts. He was in charge of our 4-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge, whilst he's also reffed two Sunderland away days this term - a 1-1 draw at West Ham and a 2-1 defeat at Everton. He hasn't shown any red cards so far this season.
The Tilehurst End Prediction
After a correct prediction in midweek the pressure is on now! The Royals' form has been solid in recent weeks, whilst Sunderland just can't seem to string results together of late. Reading are marginal favourites for this one, which isn't a situation anyone could have seen a couple of months ago. Avoiding defeat here would reinforce the belief that we could escape the drop, whilst also boding well for the upcoming home games we have against fellow strugglers. I think we'll sneak a 2-1 win - and I don't need to tell you who the match winner will be for Reading...!