News and Views

Preview: New Season Starts At Birmingham

07 August 2015
By Alex Bower

After much anticipation, several new signings and a productive pre-season, Reading FC get their new campaign off to a start against Birmingham City on Saturday afternoon. Having finished in 19th in the Championship last season, everyone involved at the club will be focused on getting off to a good start and finishing as high up the table as possible. Birmingham City, meanwhile, finished in 10th last season and will be hoping for an even better performance this time around.

"Birmingham are a good team... They are a threat on the counter attack and from set-pieces and they are always a formidable opposition when playing at St. Andrew's."- Steve Clarke, Reading FC Manager

Reading have had a busy summer so far with both major arrivals and departures in the ranks. Adam Federici, Alex Pearce and Jem Karacan have been amongst those who have left the club, but the arrival of Stephen Quinn, Paul McShane, Jonathan Bond and Ali Al-Habsi earlier this summer has boosted spirits. Together with the emergence of Tariqe Fosu, the return of players such as Dominic Samuel and Aaron Tshibola from loan and more signings on the horizon, the squad is looking to be in decent shape.

Birmingham City have had a few of their own departures, notably Nikola Zigic and Darren Randolph, but arguably the best deal of the Summer for the side was holding onto Reading transfer target Clayton Donaldson. The striker will be hoping to better his performance from last season where he scored 16 goals in all competitions. Birmingham also have several new players available for selection including ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, Maikel Kieftenbeld, Jacques Maghoma, Adam Legzdins and Arsenal loanee Jon Toral.

Reading will be keen to get their season off to a winning start, but they will also want to get revenge over a Blues team that embarrassed them in the corresponding fixture last year. The Royals were thrashed 6-1 at St. Andrew's in 2014, with Demarai Gray getting a first-half hat-trick. Things weren't much better for Reading in the reverse fixture, with Donaldson coming up with the winner in a game that finished 1-0.

Demarai Gray will be one to watch out for once again if he lines up for the Blues on Saturday. The winger has already shown what he is capable of against Reading, and he also scored in Birmingham's pre-season game against Leicester. His pace in particular will be a real concern for the away side and if given a chance he will not think twice about having an attempt on goal.

"It's the first game of the season, we're at home, we've got to focus on what we do well."- Gary Rowett, Birmingham City Manager

The Reading team is by-no-means cemented and several injuries mean that places are up for grabs in the starting line-up. Pavel Pogrebnyak and Garath McCleary are both definitely ruled out and it is the latter's injury that is the most disappointing for fans.

As one of the biggest earners and most experienced strikers, Pogrebnyak is a player that Reading could have done with being in the squad. McCleary, meanwhile, is a player that Reading would certainly have wanted for selection due to his speed and creativity, but will miss out due to an injury sustained during his time with Jamaica in the Gold Cup.

Another who may still miss out is Hal Robson-Kanu and doing so will not do him any favours. Voted by fans in a "Get Reading" survey as the one who has most to prove in the up-coming season, missing the first game is less than ideal. Having returned to training during the week, however, he may still be able to make the squad. Tariqe Fosu (if he has recovered from his knock), Aaron Tshibola and Nick Blackman will be hoping that their pre-season performances have earned them a place in the starting line-up.

In terms of squad selection it will also be interesting to see who Clarke opts with in several key areas of the pitch. Reading had a stand-out number one last season in the form of Federici, but this season it is not so clear-cut. With Al-Habsi and Bond both featuring in pre-season either could line up for the Royals at the weekend. Bond has taken the number 1 shirt while Al-Habsi has gone with 26. Numerically Bond would therefore seem the first choice. What is nice, however, is the fact that Clarke has two strong choices at the back that could both do the job well for Reading.

Central defence is another where the manager has several options. New #8 Michael Hector is almost guaranteed to take one of the places due to a highly impressive season last year, while Anton Ferdinand and Paul McShane will be left to fight over the second spot. There are questions over McShane's match fitness and Ferdinand has impressed thus far in pre-season so it will probably be the latter that starts against Birmingham. The new signing at left-back, Andrew Taylor, could also be included in the squad.

The main concern for Clarke will be up-front. Everyone involved with the club will be aware of the lack of a clinical striker last season and it is something that he has attempted to rectify. Going into the Birmingham game, however, it is still a worry. With Pogrebnyak injured, Clarke will probably opt with Orlando Sa, despite not being up to speed. Blackman has had an impressive pre-season but may be asked to operate out wide, especially with the current squad absences. Clarke will also have the option of Samuel but it may be too soon to rely on him as potentially the sole striker, at least from the off. As for Simon Cox, his future with the club seems to be precarious. Compare Reading's current crop of strikers with Birmingham's, and the Royals may be at a disadvantage. This could, however, be a great opportunity for players to stake a claim for a permanent starting spot in the squad even with the potential for a new signing.

While there may be a few concerns heading into the first game, there is an overriding sense of excitement that is associated with the beginning of a new season. Having sold-out their initial allocation for the game, a large number of Reading fans will be there to support the team and hopefully help them on their way to the first victory of the season. With everyone starting on a level playing field, this is Reading's chance to set a precedent for the rest of the season by getting all three points.

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