Preview: Reading

After the drama of Wednesday night’s late point against Blackburn Rovers, Coventry City now know that the task ahead of them is to win back-to-back home games against teams in the bottom half. Do so and the Sky Blues will head into the last day of the season with a chance of making the play-offs, any less and they will have to hope that the teams around them in the table continue to drop points.

The fly in the ointment for Coventry City is that they haven’t been particularly good this season at putting away teams in the bottom-half of the table at home. With at least one further injury picked up in the creative positions in midweek, in the form of Ben Sheaf, the challenge over these next two games is how this team looks to break down deep, determined defensive opposition without many accurate ball-players to play those passes to open teams up.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2): Wilson; McNally, McFadzean, Doyle; Dabo, Eccles, Hamer, Kelly, Wilson-Esbrand; Godden, Gyokeres.

It’s not just the injury to Ben Sheaf that presents Mark Robins with a selection dilemma for this game, it is the number of players who look short on energy levels as a long season with a thin squad takes its toll. Players such as Josh Eccles, Matt Godden and Gustavo Hamer looked to be running on fumes in the Blackburn Rovers game on Wednesday night, with such a tight turnaround for this game, getting a fit, competitive team on the pitch could be a challenge for the manager.

Liam Kelly made his first appearance for the club in just over two months during the second-half against Blackburn Rovers and may have to be called in for his first start in nearly a year for this game. The concern with starting Kelly is twofold, the first is whether he is fit enough to do so having been injured for much of the past year, the second is whether he can provide the team with the quality on the ball in midfield which they’ll need to break Reading down in this game. With the alternatives looking to be either the youngster, Ryan Howley, or playing Josh Wilson-Esbrand in midfield, the manager might perceive Kelly as the best option right now.

There is little opportunity to hand anyone available who started on Wednesday night a rest, save for the wing-back positions. It seems likely that Mark Robins will rotate both Jake Bidwell and Brooke Norton-Cuffy out of the side for this game, purely to inject some freshness into the team, with this game presenting a big opportunity in particular for Josh Wilson-Esbrand to help the team’s creative efforts.

Last Time We Met

It was the first game back after the World Cup break and both sides looked pretty rusty after a six-week gap in the league schedule. A scrappy first-half from both teams gave way to a period of dominance from Coventry City as they looked set to grab a goal and take control of the game. However, Reading scored from a rare attacking foray, which resulted in a corner-kick that was pretty tamely defended to allow Amadou Mbengue to head in from close range for the home side. After that, the Sky Blues lacked the impetus to turn the game around.

The Opposition

The Manager – Noel Hunt (Caretaker)

Stepping into the breach after Paul Ince’s impact at the Madejski Stadium had ran out, Noel Hunt has claimed two valuable points in the games he has had charge thus far to give a Reading side that is in the bottom three because of a points deduction something to fight for over the remaining weeks of the campaign. Promoted from the club’s under-23 side, Hunt hasn’t really had much scope to change up Ince’s defend deep and hope to nick something at the other end approach, but the new manager bounce appears to have lifted spirits somewhat.

One of the key reasons why Reading have struggled this season is their terrible away form, they would be seventh if only their home record counted, but have picked up just 12 points from 21 road trips this year (which is the worst in the division). Their combative, defensive approach should be well-suited to battling for points on the road, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case for them. However, they have only lost once in their last six games as they fight for their lives, so this looks set to be an attritional battle for Coventry City.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-4-2): Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, Sarr, Guinness-Walker; Azeez, Hendrick, Casadei, Fornah; Joao, Ehibhatiomhan.

As a result of the transfer restrictions the club has had to operate under for much of the past three seasons, Reading have a pretty weird squad made up of leftovers from a previous era of overspending, an assortment of free agents they have been allowed to pick up, a couple of decent loan players and academy youngsters filling in the gaps. Amongst the mess there are some pretty good Championship performers, with Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and Tom Ince their star players, but there is little structure or sense to how this squad has been put together.

Any success Reading have had this season has been founded on being able to defend their penalty area well before hitting teams on the counter or nicking something from set-pieces. That makes the defence the most important area of the team, led by Joe Lumley in goal who has proven to be a pretty reliable shot-stopper despite arriving on loan from Middlesbrough last summer with a gaffe-prone reputation. Ahead of Lumley, Tom Holmes, Naby Sarr and Andy Yiadom are very solid defenders who will throw their bodies on the line to protect their goal, while the midfield shape even further forward is compact to provide that extra level of protection.

In attack, injuries to Tom Ince and Yakou Meite, as well as a suspension for Andy Carroll, takes a lot away from Reading’s counter-attacking threat. Nonetheless, Lucas Joao is a striker whose presence at Championship level should not be underestimated and is showing greater willingness to work off-the-ball under Noel Hunt. Additionally, youngsters Femi Azeez and Cesare Casadei are potential sources of excitement with moments of skill on the break, albeit not quite of the same calibre as the aforementioned Ince and Meite.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Coventry City’s primary strategy of luring teams onto them so they can break at pace via Viktor Gyokeres and Gustavo Hamer is unlikely to be relevant for this game. Instead, the task is to dominate possession, move it quickly into dangerous areas and create chances with it, which this team has tended to struggle to do for much of this season. In the absence of Ben Sheaf, Gustavo Hamer will play an important role here, if fit, as conductor, but the team really could do with getting him into forward positions to join the attack whenever possible. The question then is who can step up to get play going for the Sky Blues?

Josh Eccles and, if he starts, Liam Kelly are likely to have to play a role in controlling possession and moving the ball quickly that they haven’t really shown much of an aptitude for in a Coventry City shirt. Additionally, Callum Doyle from left centre-back is likely to spend a lot of this game stepping into midfield to help the team’s creative efforts. It would also be helpful for the wing-backs to play a bigger role in creating chances than they normally do.

With all the focus on breaking Reading down, there is a concern that Coventry City could leave themselves open for the sucker-punch at the other end. The absence of Andy Carroll for this game means that the Royals are less of a threat from long balls forward and crosses into the box, however, there is a decent amount of pace between Lucas Joao, Femi Azeez and Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, who could cause some issues for the Sky Blues on the break. Concentration levels at the back are going to be important here.

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