Reading's fixture schedule so far has been strange to say the least... 24 days without a game before our loss to Spurs, one week to another defeat at West Brom, and now the third match in 7 days after the Royals' dismissal of QPR in the Capital One Cup. After Gylfi Sigurdsson made his return to the Madejski last time we were at home, it'll be another former Royal who'll be stepping onto the turf this Saturday - albeit, in the technical area. Alan Pardew may have left Reading in acrimonious circumstances in 2003 to join West Ham United, but nearly 10 years later most of the bad blood has been forgotten as he guided his Magpies side to the summit of the table last season. His return to the dugout after a two match ban for pushing the fourth official coincides with the Royals' return to the Mad Stad for their third home game of the season.
Differing fortunes for both sides as we come off the back of the Capital One Cup Third Round fixtures. The Royals of course came from behind twice to beat fellow Premier League strugglers QPR, to record a morale-boosting win. Newcastle, meanwhile, narrowly lost 2-1 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. How much you can read into these fixtures is debatable, as both the Royals and the Magpies made a number of changes for the Cup games. But the importance of the Cup is less to Newcastle, as Alan Pardew admitted he was concentrating on the League this season. Reading, meanwhile, will be riding a high after scoring an all-important win against PL opposition, which will certainly boost their confidence going into this fixture.
The League is of course where it predominantly matters for both sides, and there have been differing fortunes for both sides early doors. Reading are still without a League win and lie at the foot of the table after three losses and a draw. Newcastle, meanwhile, sit just in the top half, having played a game more than the Royals. They've been solid at home, beating Spurs on the opening day and sneaking past Norwich, but only drawing against struggling Aston Villa. They haven't yet won away in 5 matches in all competitions - although three of these were in cup competitions. In the League they've drawn 2-2 with Everton and lost 2-0 against Chelsea at the Bridge.
Head To Head
We haven't met the Magpies since the 2009/10 season, when Newcastle sealed an instant return to the Premier League. St James' Park was the opening day trip for the Royals that season and we were soundly beaten 3-0. In April, Newcastle visited and Kevin Nolan grabbed a brace as the Magpies all but sealed the Championship title with a 2-1 win.
One good omen for Reading is that both times we've faced them at home in the Premier League, we've won. Dave Kitson grabbed the only goal in our inaugural PL season, whilst he was on the scoresheet again along with Shane Long as we sneaked a 2-1 win in the second campaign. Before meeting them in England's top flight, we'd only ever faced off in Cup competition - Reading will be hoping to make another good impression on Saturday.
If squad rotation was the aim when Brian McDermott made 7 changes to the starting lineup last night at Loftus Road, he's certainly created more questions than answers. All of the players who came in acquitted themselves well, especially Noel Hunt and Shaun Cummings, who have found their starting chances this season limited at best. After a couple of failed 4-5-1 experiments the Royals manager is likely to stick with the 4-4-2 which has shown a marked improvement in the last couple of outings. It might be that Hunt is preferred to Adam Le Fondre up top to partner Pavel Pogrebnyak, to shoulder some of the attacking burden.
The midfield has another huge question mark hanging over it. None of the starting midfielders at QPR began on the pitch at the Hawthorns, and yet their commitment and passion showed through - Brian McDermott, the expert at squad management, must decide exactly how to manage the side now. Jimmy Kebe will probably stay in the starting lineup as he got through 70 minutes at Loftus Road, and I would have thought McDermott would have kept him back for the Newcastle game if he didn't think he was ready. McAnuff may well come back in for an unlucky Hal Robson-Kanu, who was another to impress on the night. And the central midfielders again could switch out - Jem Karacan tweeted that he broke his nose and his legs were feeling sore after his first 90 minutes this season, and Jay Tabb is probably 4th choice at the moment - meaning Danny Guthrie (against his former club) and Mikele Leigertwood will probably start.
Alex McCarthy will continue in goal after another solid performance against QPR. Alex Pearce should return for Adrian Mariappa after being given the night off on Wednesday. Nicky Shorey has impressed on his return to the Reading lineup, scoring one and creating another with two classy set pieces at Loftus Road. But the big question is right-back. Shaun Cummings was our most-improved player last season and his understanding with Jimmy Kebe was very apparent, just as Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary clearly possess their own from their time together at Forest. So Brian's biggest headache will probably be at right-back, where dropping either player would seem harsh.
Newcastle made 9 changes on Wednesday from the team which beat Norwich at the weekend, so expect most of those to return. The only real injury worry the Magpies have at the moment is over goalkeeper Tim Krul, who's missed the last few games with an elbow injury. He's likely to miss the game so Steve Harper should continue to deputise in goal. Newcastle's other injuries are both in the full-back position as Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor are both out.
The dangermen for Newcastle should be the Senegalese front two, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse. The former grabbed the only goal last weekend against Norwich, whilst the latter came off the bench to net a consolation at Old Trafford in midweek. The Reading defence will have a tough job keeping those two quiet if they're on song.
Reading (4-4-2): McCarthy; Cummings, Pearce, Gorkss, Shorey; Kebe, Leigertwood, Guthrie, McAnuff; Hunt Pogrebnyak
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Perch, Williamson, S Taylor, Santon; Ben Arfa, Tioté, Cabaye, Gutierrez; Ba, Cissé
Andre Marriner, West Midlands
Over a year since we last had the pleasure of Mr Marriner's company, as he oversaw our FA Cup 5th Round victory over Everton at Goodison Park, Matt Mills grabbing the only goal of the game. Our last five games with him have gone WLWLW... let's hope the pattern doesn't continue on Saturday. So far this season he's refereed 4 games, showing 6 yellow cards and 1 red.
Reading 2/1, Draw 12/5, Newcastle 6/4
The Tilehurst End Prediction
It's amazing what confidence can do to you. Grabbing that win on Wednesday, even if it was just in the Cup, will have boosted the mood around Hogwood Park immensely. There's no doubting that Newcastle will be tough opposition as they have a lot of classy international level players. But both teams aren't quite firing on all cylinders yet - Reading without a League win, Newcastle without an away win and only sneaking past Norwich last week. For those reasons I'm going for a 1-1 draw, but a far more positive performance than recent efforts against Spurs and West Brom. And against a team which has its eyes set on Europe this year, that should be a valuable, merited point gained.