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5 Things - Middlesbrough

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With Reading moving into the next round of the FA Cup last weekend thanks to a win at Huddersfield, Steve Clarke took charge of his first league game in 2015 with a 0-0 draw against high-flying Middlesbrough. Bucks Royal digs out his five key talking points from the match.

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Pog outta nowhere

Pavel Pogrebnyak was widely expected to be unavailable at least for the Middlesbrough, and maybe more fixtures beyond that. Despite talking up Nick Blackman after his goal scoring exploits at the John Smith's Stadium, Steve Clarke quietly dropped him to the bench on Saturday. As Charles Watts pointed out, with Murray now gone, Reading desperately need a strong forward to lead the line.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Think it&#39;s clear by Pog going straight in from the start, that Clarke is desperate to have a strong target man leading the line. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/readingfc?src=hash">#readingfc</a></p>&mdash; Charles Watts (@charles_watts) <a href="https://twitter.com/charles_watts/status/553917410252963840">January 10, 2015</a></blockquote>

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That's not a role that the likes of Simon Cox or Nick Blackman can play - upper body strength isn't... well, their strength. If he can be brought back to the form that he showed last season, the Pog could do just that for Reading. 13 goals was a good enough return in 2013/14, and those came throughout the season, in good and bad team performances, home and away.

The return of Captain Marvel

16 months is a desperately long time to be waiting on the sidelines. Club captain Jem Karacan could only watch as Reading laboured throughout the rest of the underwhelming 2013/14 campaign. This must feel like a very different team to the one that faced Leeds United in September 2013. Nigel Adkins was in charge of a positive outfit owned by a rich Russian oligarch that would bankroll any signings necessary, and Royston Drenthe had been putting in some pretty decent performances. With Steve Clarke now in charge of a financially poorer side looking to bounce back from the disappointment of last campaign, Karacan will be glad to be part of the new regime from its early days.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>READ: In case you missed it, read <a href="https://twitter.com/JemKaracan21">@JemKaracan21</a>&#39;s thoughts on his emotional comeback <a href="http://t.co/IbvvCaVLdD">http://t.co/IbvvCaVLdD</a> <a href="http://t.co/holW8r4goc">pic.twitter.com/holW8r4goc</a></p>&mdash; Reading FC (@ReadingFC) <a href="https://twitter.com/ReadingFC/status/554261486429036544">January 11, 2015</a></blockquote>

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The need for speed

Steve Clarke teams are at their most dangerous when they attack with pace. As a Liverpool blog pointed out during his time at Albion, Clarke relies on players like Saido Berahino and Stephane Sessegnon (ie, forwards with pace) to provide the edge when going forwards. But how to replicate that at Reading? On the topic of speed, Garath McCleary's name comes up time and time again - the Jamaica international gives Barry Allen a run for his money (pun very much intended).

Against 'Boro, the injury to McCleary meant that Forest loanee Jamie Mackie took his place on the right wing. For me, Mackie is very much a Noel Hunt type of player - his workrate is unquestionable and his stamina is unreal - the kind of player that every team needs. That said, he lacks the pace that Garath McCleary has in abundance, and as a result, Reading didn't threaten down the flanks as much as they have done in the past. We lack that edge on the break when McCleary isn't in the team, so that's something that Steve Clarke could look to rectify.

The spark is back

Perhaps the biggest indicator of how badly a club is doing is the mood in the stands. Seeing your team lose is one thing, but to see them lose without looking like they're trying to win really grates any supporter. In the dying days of the Adkins era, the mood at the Madejski was bleak - an opposition goal could suck the life out of the home crowd in a heartbeat. It's clear though that Steve Clarke is trying to change the ethos of the support as much as that of the team. And before Saturday's game, new assistant manager Kevin Keen spoke about how the club as a whole needs to acquire a harder edge...

"This is a friendly, family club but we've just got to make sure that there is a winning mentality running throughout it. Perhaps, as a club, we are sometimes a bit too nice."

I interpret that as a pretty unsubtle nod to the lack of atmosphere on matchdays. Perhaps more than the average fan, I'm happy that the Madejski is a good place for families to come to on a Saturday afternoon or a Tuesday evening, but a more vibrant engagement from the crowd can improve the experience for everyone, not to mention helping performances on the pitch.

The match against Middlesbrough looked to be a step in the right direction. Although the first half was recognisably flat, Y25 and Y26 upped the volume in the second period, thanks in part to the team doing their bit. Those two aspects - atmosphere and performance - support each other: if the team plays well, the fans are happy. If the fans are happy, the team plays well. The last weeks of 2014 broke that cycle, but an upturn in performances under Steve Clarke seems to have injected some much-needed energy.

Keeping the team in the game

Adam Federici put in a top performance on Saturday against Middlesbrough. That's reflected in our man of the match voting, with a whopping 94% of you (at the time of writing) picking the Aussie stopper for the award. Feds won a point for the Royals with some very smart close range stops, topped off by tipping a Patrick Bamford drive onto the bar when it looked destined for the top corner. Judging him on Saturday's outing, he looks back to his 2011/12 best.

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