Reading could go top with a win tonight, but they’ve got tricky opposition standing in their way, Birmingham City, who have lost just once on the road in the Championship this season. Now under the management of the experienced Aitor Karanka, City’s focus is on staying in the second tier after four consecutive bottom-third finishes.
We got the lowdown on tonight’s opposition with the help of EFL writer and Birmingham City fan Gabriel Sutton.
How’s the season gone for you so far?
Mixed. We’re definitely a lot more solid than last season, especially post-restart, but we’ve dropped points in games where we shouldn’t. Failing to beat Coventry City, Luton Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley and Wycombe Wanderers is a real negative and the football has been uninspiring.
What have you made of Aitor Karanka?
If we’re in the same situation this time next season, I could swing to questioning Karanka’s position. At this point in time though, I’m respectful of the fact that it’s a process; we’ve been in relegation trouble pretty much every season since Gary Rowett left and I don’t think we’ll go down this year.
I trust Karanka to get the defensive basics in place this season – but next year our use of the ball has to improve. Positive signs at Bristol City last time out though.
How does he set his side up tactically?
It’s been defence-first. We’ve tended to be very protective of the leads we’ve picked up which has almost counted against us in the 2-1 defeats to Wycombe and Barnsley, in which we’ve shown the opposition too much respect.
The formation changes game to game but, because the midfield is fairly rigid, I think we’re better with a back four than with a back three.
What are the main strengths of this team?
Alen Halilovic made his debut from the bench at Bristol City last time out and he really lit up the game. He’s someone you’ll have to watch out for. He’s quite an elusive player with good agility and balance, possessing excellent technical qualities.
Aggressive centre-back Harlee Dean is having probably his best season so far with us, George Friend has added intelligence in defence too.
The passing can be hit and miss. We struggle to create chances. We’ve only scored four goals from open play all season. The individuals are certainly there for that to change but it’s taking some time to establish a clear playing identity.
What have you made of Reading this season?
Very impressive! That energetic double-pivot of Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota is clearly making you hard to break down. I’m a big fan of Ovie Ejaria, he’s got quick feet and an eye for a pass that few in the division possess. It also helps having that physicality in attacking areas in the likes of Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite.
Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford are the obvious contenders because they’ve got the payment packages from the Premier League but you’ve been an inspiration to other clubs, because you’ve shown that it’s possible to launch yourselves into promotion contention out of mid-table obscurity.
Hopefully Blues can do likewise in the next couple of seasons.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
We’ve taken eight points off Swansea, Stoke, Brentford and Bristol City so there’s evidence to suggest we raise our games against the better sides.
IF we can win the physical battles against Joao and Meite, and deny Olise and Ejaria those pockets of space – which is easier said than done – that’s a big step forward towards nullifying Reading.
Karanka will want to make sure that the Royals outfielders spending the most time on the ball are Michael Morrison, Liam Moore, Laurent, Rinomhota and possibly right-back Tom Holmes, who is a centre-back by trade.
We’ll be relatively deep for much of play, but then use the aggression of Dean, left-back Kristian Pedersen and tenacious midfielders Maikel Kieftenbeld if he plays, plus Ivan Šunjić, to stop your key threats in their tracks.
We’ll look to draw you on, then break through Jeremie Bela and hope he can feed others in transition.
I’m going to be extremely optimistic and say 2-0 to Blues – I’d be disappointed not to get any stick off Maffff and others if this prediction comes back to bite me.