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Championship

Conversion not creation the problem for Reading FC

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Reading’s 2014/15 season was salvaged by an unlikely run in the FA Cup. They stuttered and stumbled their way to a Wembley semi-final against Arsenal, and as is so often the way of these things, then suddenly looked like a different side able to compete with the very best.

The truth of last season may have been that it is difficult to get yourself motivated for a game against fellow midtable opposition in the Championship – whereas a cup run has its own magic.

As we settle into the rhythms of this season, Reading’s form has been lukewarm. An off-season clearing out the deadwood and rebuilding the squad means many players who find themselves in the first team still need time to bed in.

Reading are creating chances. As of last weekend, they led the Football League with 69 shots attempted, and also led it on shots against, with the Berkshire side’s defence allowing just 21 efforts on goal. That’s a hefty 3.29 shots taken per each allowed.

Worryingly though, this comes in the midst of a run of home games without a goal. Reading have failed to score in six consecutive home games, a run stretching back to 4th April. Worse, with the departure of Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, no one in the current squad has a home goal in the league this calendar year.

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The Royals’ attacking woes were evident for all of last season, with Crystal Palace loan man Glenn Murray finishing the season top scorer with eight goals – despite playing his last game for the club on Boxing Day.

All in all, it makes for bleak viewing at the Madejski Stadium.

When you’ve gone so long without a goal at home, it becomes the first thing on the mind of every supporter as soon as the final whistle has blown – “how many minutes without a goal is it now?”

In the 1978-79 season, Reading goalkeeper Steve Death went 1,074 minutes without conceding – a record that was only beaten 30 years later by Edwin van der Sar in goal for Manchester United. Reading FC’s own goalless streak at home currently stands at 624 minutes. When you’ve come so far, it almost seems a shame not to go for the record…

The aching weight of those minutes, and the burden of the expectation from the crowd, will inevitably be having an effect. Worse still is that the expectation is not a positive one – instead, the Madejski Stadium crowd now audibly anticipates failure. A misplaced pass is typical. Of course he skewed that cross. I knew he’d scuff that shot.

Under that kind of scrutiny, even the hardiest of souls will begin to feel the pressure. Goalkeepers and strikers, more than their comrades elsewhere on the field, cannot allow this to get to them. More so than those comrades the roles at either end of the field are reflexive and instinctual. Thinking is the enemy, you just have to act – if you’re worried about failure, worried about hearing fifteen thousand people tut at you in unison, you dramatically increase the risk of just that occurring.

Royals manager Steve Clarke has made moves to bolster his attacking options during the transfer window, bringing in Portuguese striker Orlando Sa, and making several bids for Rapid Wien frontman Robert Beric.

Unfortunately for Clarke, the market for strikers is especially hot at the moment. With Andre Grey moving between Championship clubs for a hefty £9million, Benik Afobe the subject of £10million bids, and Charlie Austin surrounded by £15million rumours, the days of finding a reliable scorer at a reasonable price seem to be behind us.

Just four years ago, Reading signed Adam le Fondre from Rotherham for a fee of just £350,000. Le Fondre came with more than 100 league goals under his belt, albeit at a lower level. By contrast, Afobe, briefly a Reading loanee himself, has barely 100 senior appearances, and somewhere in the vicinity of 20 goals. Afobe is certainly a talent, and much of his somewhat pricey valuation will stem from the desire of Wolves to retain his services, but this is an especially hot kitchen to be working in.

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Afobe’s former manager Arsene Wenger is of the opinion that the transfer window, rather than encouraging the use of home grown talent, actively discourages it by making it too big a risk to go into half a season taking a gamble on the rapid development of a youth star. It seems that this risk aversion has reached such a level of prevalence that teams are willing to pay significantly inflated sums for an identified talent – rather than risk a step up, or attempt to develop talent.

Norwich City, the club responsible for Afobe’s £10million bid, as well as interest in £8million Dwight Gayle from Crystal Palace, need a goalscorer and cannot afford to take any risks. Newly promoted and correspondingly precarious, a closed window leaves them struggling through the months of September, October, November and December before they are once again able to strengthen. In short, they are desperate to do a deal.

The transfer window is a flawed system, warping the market and dangerously inflating transfer fees. It’s unsustainable and encourages financial overreach.

It’s time it was looked at again.

Featured image: some rights reserved by Crystian Cruz.

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Arlen is a Reading fan. Which means he knows a lot about losing in play-off finals, 0-0 draws, and disappointing FA Cup away ties.

FA Cup

Sheffield Wednesday 0-0 Swansea City – Tammy Abraham didn’t take first-team opportunity

Jake Jackman

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Swansea

Swansea City were held in the FA Cup away to Championship club Sheffield Wednesday. The Swans have been drawn to face lower league opposition in every round of the competition so far and this occasion saw Carlos Carvalhal return to his former club. It was a huge day for him and he will be slightly disappointed by the performance that he witnessed.

Although the Premier League side selected a talented team, it was an even contest and both teams had chances to score. Neither team deserved to go through on this viewing and they will have to meet again at the Liberty Stadium in just over a week’s time.

It will be interesting to see who will await the winners of this tie in the next round and that could dictate whether Swansea take the replay seriously or not. Here are three talking points from Hillsborough:

Tammy Abraham didn’t take his opportunity

It was a frustrating day for Tammy Abraham as he had few chances to impress in the final third and he was taken off midway in the second half. That will be a disappointment for the forward as this was an opportunity to earn more game-time in the Premier League and his contribution on Saturday is unlikely to bring that.

During the match, he failed to have a single attempt on goal, while his pass success was at a poor 58%. The service he received was non-existent as shown in the second half when Luciano Narsingh refused to play the striker in.

Abraham did nice work to release the winger and spin in behind his marker, but the return ball didn’t arrive. The striker was visibly annoyed that the ball wasn’t given back.

Jordan Ayew was the man that replaced Abraham and he offered more when he was on the pitch. He was willing to drop deep to be given possession, while he got two attempts in on goal during his short time on the pitch.

His distribution was more effective, as displayed by his two key passes. The former Aston Villa man is the player that should lead the line for the relegation-threatened club.

Adam Reach stood out in midfield

This has been a season to forget for Sheffield Wednesday as they are a considerable distance off promotion, despite being one of the best Championship teams in recent seasons.

The match against Swansea provided the players with an opportunity to prove they can compete with Premier League opposition and Adam Reach was one of the standout performers.

The 25-year-old showed glimpses of both attacking and defensive quality, which shows he can contribute in both halves of the pitch. He will be the first to admit his final ball could have been better, but he regularly got in positions to cause problems for the away side. During the match, he attempted three shots and completed 86% of his passes.

Meanwhile, he worked hard out of possession and didn’t allow Swansea to dominate the midfield battle. Reach won four tackles and made a further two interceptions. He was relentless in work rate and his energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. The midfielder will be a player to keep an eye on in the replay.

Alfie Mawson had to miss the match through injury

The Swansea City defender was pencilled in to start in the match, but he was injured in the warm up and had to be replaced in the starting eleven by Kyle Naughton.

This was a major blow for the team as Mawson is a born leader at the back and offers composure to the back-line. He was later pictured wearing a knee brace and holding crutches, in what was a worrying sight.

The last thing Swansea need is a serious injury, especially to one of the team’s most important players. Towards the end of the game, the cameras showed that he was moving his leg more freely, but it is a concern nonetheless.

Naughton came in and did well, with one excellent challenge saving a goal in the first-half. The entire Swansea defence played well, with Kyle Bartley standing out as a Premier League centre-half.

The former Leeds United loanee won five aerial duels and made four ball recoveries. He could be required to step up if Mawson has to miss some of the run-in.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time to succeed

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time if he is to achieve success at Nottingham Forest, writes Greg Whitaker.

Greg Whitaker

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Aitor Karanka
Photo: Reuters

The Championship is awash with British footballing institutions this season.

Leeds United, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves have all been Champions of England in their time, while Aston Villa have won nearly everything there is to win in the game, including the European Cup in 1982.

Yet, it is Nottingham Forest that hold one of the most unique records in football history, as the only British side to win back-to-back European Cups.

However, two decades of instability on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom have frustrated the Forest faithful.

Twenty years since the Reds last graced the top flight, nights of European glory under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor seem an eternity away.

If new manager Aitor Karanka is to bring the good times back to the City Ground, Forest must break with the bad habits and mismanagement that have plagued the club in recent years and back their man – both with time and the investment needed to wake this sleeping giant.

Since taking the hot-seat at the start of the year, Karanka has not enjoyed the best of starts.

With just one win and five defeats making up his first six league games in charge, one could be forgiven for suggesting the Spaniard is already under pressure.

After all, Karanka is the 13th manager in just ten years to take the reigns at the City Ground. But paradoxically, this is exactly why the former Real Madrid man must be given time.

Indeed, it would certainly be fair to suggest that the painfully inconsistent nature of Forest’s league form over the past decade or so comes as a direct result of their trigger happy mentality when it comes to their manager, paired with their scattergun approach to appointing a successor.

In the last four years alone, Karanka represents the seventh man tasked with kick-staring the Tricky Trees.

What is more concerning is the blindingly obvious lack of consistency in these appointments. Never has a list of seven managers contrasted so much.

From Billy Davies to Philippe Montanier, Stuart Pearce to Mark Warburton, each manager has come with radically different ideas, approaches and management styles.

As Forest legend Garry Birtles was quoted as saying in the local media last month, Consistency breeds consistency but the same is true of inconsistency.’

Although it could be argued that the appointment of the pragmatic, Jose Mourinho-esque, Karanka, immediately after the very English style of management offered by Mark Warburton, smacks of no joined-up thinking at board level once again, the appointment was welcomed by fans.

Whilst he has garnered a bit of a reputation for his short temper, the former defender has a good record in the Championship, leading Middlesbrough to the Premier League in 2016.

Of the 13 managers to take to the Forest dugout over the past decade, Karanka is certainly one of the more exciting prospects and warrants the time needed to put his own stamp on this Forest side.

Despite a poor start, the Spaniard must now work with the ragtag squad of players he has inherited and ensure Forest are still a Championship club come May, before rebuilding in his own image next summer.

After all, the squad undoubtedly possesses a good deal of ability and potential, with a number of exciting young prospects also making their way into the first team fold.

However, much of this ability is raw or inconsistent.

Karanka’s first job is surely to inject much needed confidence and organisation into this group of players.

During his time at the Riverside, Karanka managed to turn an underachieving Boro team –  who were arguably in a similar state to that of the current Forest side – into promotion winners.

He did this through implementing his own pragmatic approach – making his side defensively very well-drilled and difficult to break down.

Although this style, labelled as negative by some, proved not as successful when applied in Middlesbrough’s single season in the Premier League, this meticulous focus on preventing the opposition from playing their natural game often pays dividends in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

What is certain is that Karanka views Forest as a project.

He has shown in recent interviews and press conferences that he understands and respects the rich and prestigious history of the club.

However, he has also indicated that he is under no illusions that making Forest a true force again will require time and, in the long term, large investment in his squad.

What it all comes down to now is simple.

After five chaotic years under the ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi, will new owner Evangelos Marinakis show Aitor Karanka the patience and investment needed to revitalise one of England’s biggest footballing institutions?

After all, in the words of Nottingham Forest’s greatest ever manager, Brian Clough: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day … but I wasn’t on that particular job.’

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