It seems to be the default position at Reading now. Unless a player scores a ‘worldy’, or Sandro Wieser discovers the cure for cancer on a rare Saturday off, the Player of the Month award is usually a dead-cert to go to Ali Al-Habsi. And it’s not just because he is an easy pick, with his contribution to a game incredibly easy to judge compared to others. If anything, the opposite is true. Being the only player on the pitch in goal, his mistakes are much easier to identify.
With Reading maintaining their position within the top six comfortably as they head into the final straight of the 2016/2017 campaign, there were two games which were sure to play a particular role in whether The Royals would extend their season by a few weeks or fall at the last hurdle: Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. The former came at the end of March, just before the international break, and faced The Royals against one of the teams who has the highest shots-per-game stats in the division.
This could very well prove to be Al-Habsi’s most crucial ninety minutes of the season, the answer to the question “how many points does your goalkeeper win you?”. His performance against Wednesday deserved, at the very least, the Man of the Match award he won. With Yann Kermorgant and Adrian Popa handling the goals at the other end, it was Ali Al-Habsi who prevented Sheffield from adding to their goal-haul in this campaign by making nine saves across the whole game, ensuring that the effort made at the other end of the pitch wasn't wasted.
But it wouldn't be fair to the Oman international to just judge him on one, albeit important, result alone. The table below shows the statistics for the best goalkeepers in the Championship for the month of March. What sets out Al-Habsi from his other two, worthy companions is that twelve out of fourteen of his saves in the four matches were diving saves, suggesting that they were far from run-of-the-mill efforts, and surely count for more than collecting a rolling ball.
Let's not forget the goalless draw against league-leaders Newcastle United, which featured five saves from Al-Habsi (making it two clean sheets in the month, both against top six teams) and a creditable 2-1 victory over mid-table Wolverhampton Wanderers, with Al-Habsi again proving fruitful in goal for The Royals.
|Chris Maxwell (Preston North End)
|Ali Al Habsi (Reading)
|Robert Green (Leeds United)
Last but not least, particularly for those few remaining Al-Habsi-doubters left out there, his distribution has also shown improvement this month, with his success rate going up to 72% in March, up from 70% in February. And if a 35-year-old footballer, whose salad days are well and truly over (with Premier League and European football in his past) is still able to develop and improve his game, surely there is hope for us all.