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Middlesbrough v Reading FC: Key Battles

Sam looks at a tricky fixture for Reading who face 'Boro away from home. Which players could decide this midweek clash?

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The Royals were quite frankly abysmal against Birmingham City on Saturday and were punished for their slow tempo, sloppy passing and almost complete lack of creativity. Boos at half time and a large amount of empty seats at full time summed up what was in my opinion the Royal's worst home performance all season. Something will have to change if Reading are going to get anything out of Tuesday's game.

Even more worrying for Royals fans everywhere is that they face strong opposition in the form of Middlesbrough who kept the pressure on league leaders Burnley by picking up a narrow win against Preston last time out. 'Boro are one of the best defensive sides in the league and Reading will have to be much more creative to get three points or even one on Tuesday.

Simon Cox vs Daniel Ayala

Brian McDermott believes that Simon Cox brings an excellent work rate to his side. The problem with that currently is that all of this hard work often goes unrewarded. So many times on Saturday we saw Cox dropping into the midfield or peeling off into the channel to receive the ball, only to completely ignored as the ball was sent sideways across the midfield or defence. Cox is clearly in the team to benefit from knock downs from Yann Kermorgant but this tactic isn't working as the midfielders seem to be refusing to play the ball up to him. Cox has gone a staggering 16 months without a goal for Reading but I don't think that's his fault at all. Cox has suffered from a lack of service into him but is still a good goalscorer if he gets chances to show this.

Daniel Ayala has been a key player in the Middlesbrough defensive line this season. It is no coincidence that 'Boro picked up an impressive 21st clean sheet on Ayala's 29th appearance this season. Standing at 6ft 3 the former Liverpool FC misfit is now a towering presence in the centre of the 'Boro defence. He made an impressive 19 clearances last match so any Royal's crosses will have to be spot on to get past him.

Grant Leadbitter vs Danny Williams

Williams was a small sign of life in an otherwise dormant Reading team against Birmingham. I was particularly impressed with a charge from almost the halfway line to the edge of the box where he lashed a shot wide. However this kind of directness was seldom seen against Birmingham and is something I feel we need to see more of from the Royals. Williams is at his best when he is allowed to run forward in the middle of the park and although it doesn't always come off it is nice to see him try some ambitious passes. Williams has also got a thunderbolt of a shot in his locker and will hopefully be allowed to go forward instead of being restricted to sitting deeper.

Grant Leadbitter has the kind of consistency and experience in midfield that you can build teams around and Aitor Karanka has done just that. He has played 36 times in the league this year and more often than not will play the full game. Leadbitter could quite easily dominate the midfield against Reading and for the Royals to have any success they will have to make sure that he can't do so. If he is allowed t run the game like he so often does then 'Boro will be able to unleash some very accomplished attacking talents.

Jake Cooper vs Jordan Rhodes

With Michael Hector playing further forward Jake Cooper has been asked to step into the breach at centre back. Although he has been inconsistent and vulnerable at times I think Cooper has done very well at such a young age in a very difficult league. However to take his game to the next level he needs to be less of a gentle giant. Often an attacker will push their way past and Cooper will find himself in a difficult situation on the wrong side of a player. If he can stand strong and become more of a commanding presence however then he could have a long and bright Royals future ahead of him.

Cooper comes up against one of the most consistent championship goalscorers in recent years. Rhodes joined on deadline day and has 13 Championship goals this season (two for Middlesbrough). Rhodes is a huge aerial threat and Cooper will have to be up for a challenge. He is a clever goal scorer but a move to the Premier league has always eluded him and he will be hoping he can fire 'Boro into the top flight for next season.