Preston North End travel to the Madejski Stadium on Wednesday night for another game on which, statistically speaking, has been one of the hardest runs for any Championship side at the beginning of this season.
North End have already faced three of the four teams that reached the 2019/20 play-offs in their first 10 games, and now face a Reading side which have stormed to the top of the table under new boss Veljko Paunović.
If you’re not into your Major League Soccer, or your Serbian age category football, you probably wouldn’t have known too much about the former Chicago Fire boss when he was appointed by the Royals, but his track record at both club and international level is excellent.
His Reading side play a good brand of attacking football, underpinned by the solid defensive pairing of Michael Morrison and Liam Moore.
But PNE have an excellent goal-scoring record on the road, which is in complete contrast to the current home form.
Jayden Stockley’s wonder goal on Saturday did lift the spirits, and for large periods of the second half, I thought we looked much more likely to score than visitors Birmingham, but despite chances, the goal just didn’t come and we were undone at the other end by Gary Gardner’s pinpoint header. Give Oli’s tactical review of the game a read here – PNE vs. Birmingham tactical review.
The Madejski has not been the happiest of hunting grounds for PNE in recent years, and we’ve only won there once since returning to the Championship in 2015.
The Royals have, for a large part of the season, been excellent defensively, although the three goals they conceded in a 3-2 defeat to Coventry City last Friday, and Moore’s second-half withdrawal due to injury, shows that they are not unbeatable in that area.
Portuguese striker Lucas Joao has been a revelation for Reading this campaign, scoring six goals in eight games.
The 27-year-old possesses good hold-up ability, whilst his pace, power and finishing ability are all important assets. His goal against Coventry on Friday night was perhaps the finest of the lot, moving into inches of space on the edge of the box before firing into the bottom corner of the net off his left foot.
What was more of a surprise was the two opportunities he missed inside the box, but scoring goals generally hasn’t been a problem for Reading and Joao this season.
The second player for North End to watch is 18-year-old Frenchman Michael Olise, who is having what can only be described as a breakthrough season for the Royals. The midfielder featured and impressed on 19 occasions last season, but seems to have moved his game up a gear this term.
Two goals from nine starts represents a good return, whilst he is an effective presence in central areas, out wide and even directly in front of the back four.
He also has the ability to mix up his passing as well, with Reading’s first goal against Blackburn Rovers (scored inside a minute) coming from Olise’s long range ball from deep.
The third player to watch is FC Porto loanee Tomas Esteves who, like Olise, is just 18 years of age yet has nailed down a consistent starting spot for the Royals in recent weeks.
Right-back Esteves has already caught the eye with his ability in both defensive and attacking areas, with this being the Portuguese’s first taste of English football. Reading fended off interest from several clubs to land the Portugal Under-21 international, with Wolves and Valencia both said to be keen.
This time, we have Alex Everson of Reading Fan podcast, Elm Park Royals (@ElmParkRoyals). You can stream the podcast (should you be of a Reading persuasion or fancy a listen) in all the usual streaming apps and you can follow Alex on Twitter here – @ReadingFanMan.
What a start! 9 games and just 5 points dropped to date and we sit top of the table by 4 points going into the midweek games. The start we’ve had is so unlike Reading who traditionally are a little slow out of the blocks, so to start so emphatically is a little unnerving for long time fans!
There have been some doubts from outside the Reading camp as to whether the figures are real, and are we ‘cheating xG’. However, defensively we have been nearly rock-solid – keeping 6 clean sheets so far.
Our last game out against Coventry was the first time we have been suspect defensively, with Rafael having what many thought may have been his worst game for Reading to date.
Going forwards we’ve had the dual-threat of Joao and Meite driving us on who have a combined 10 goals already this season – bear in mind they only got 19 between them last year! They have formed a partnership up front with Meite coming in off the right-hand side which has been tough to stop.
Last time out, the game against Preston was in the midst of our best form under Mark Bowen at the back end of December 2019. Since then we’ve had major changes with Bowen out and a relative unknown in Paunović come in. We’ve adapted into a double pivot, 4-2-3-1 system, with new signing Laurent and Rinomhota becoming known as ‘The Wall’.
With such a strong start – expectations have seemingly been raised, whilst before the start of the season, most would have accepted a top 10 finish as a very good season – this may be an underperformance now.
From a personal standpoint – a top 6 has to be the minimum aim now and to achieve that we only need to remain a mid-table side for the remainder of the season.
Looking at Preston’s results, they appear to have performed well away from home with some good results against Brentford and Norwich particularly. Whether this is just a fortunate start or a pattern remains to be seen.
I can see the game playing out in a similar manner to many of the early games of the season for Reading with it turning into a low scoring scrap with a piece of luck or talent spinning the game either way.
As for my starting XI – Rafael; Esteves, Morrison, Moore (McIntyre if not fit), Richards; Rinomhota, Laurent; Meite, Olise, Ejaria; Joao.
Score prediction – 1-0 Royals.
Unsurprisingly, the odds will be in favour of a home win here, with the Royals four points clear at the top of the Championship before the latest midweek fixtures kick-off. They are currently the league’s second top scorers behind Blackburn Rovers and had only conceded three goals from eight games before last Friday’s defeat to Coventry.
That 3-2 result will give North End confidence going into a game where a positive result would be seen as a big boost.
The home form has been well documented, but North End haven’t suffered defeat on the road since July. And whilst Reading will be looking to avenge their first league defeat under Paunovic’s management and get back to winning ways, I’m going to punt for a 1-1 draw.
In terms of the starting XI, I’d expect to see both Ryan Ledson (read Jimmy’s piece about Ryan for LancsLive here) and Emil Riis back in the side after they were replaced on Saturday, both having suffered from illness in the days prior.
The fitness of both Darnell Fisher and Andrew Hughes is a concern, and Alex Neil could decide to take a safety-first approach with Fisher after he has missed the last month with a hamstring injury. That would mean Joe Rafferty slotting in at right-back, with Josh Earl making his first start of the season on the opposite side if Hughes is unavailable.
Scott Sinclair has four goals away from home this campaign, and I predict he will return to the side in place of Josh Harrop.
With all that in mind, my starting XI would be – Rudd; Rafferty, Bauer, Storey, Earl; Ledson, Johnson; Barkhuizen, Browne, Sinclair; Riis.
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