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Title APART from the excellent win at Bristol City, it has not yet been a Happy New Year for Reading FC. The much-anticipated FA Cup-tie at Old Trafford turned out to be a fairly tame surrender to a weakened Manchester United team - although admittedly a team which which would probably win the Championship. The following home game, against well-organised, but unexceptional, QPR on a snowy Thursday night, was just the latest of so many depressing midweek matches at the Mad Stad in recent years. The 1-0 defeat was totally demoralising for the fans, who, as manager Jaap Stam (right) admitted, were pretty much let down by the team’s lacklustre display. The hoped-for bounce-back this weekend will not be easy. Even though Royals have a decent record at Derby, the Rams are also in the dog-house for under-performing in the league recently and Steve McClaren is sure to have them fired up.
So if there’s to be a successful Ram-raid, Royals will have to be at their best - and that means Stam is facing a trickier than usual team selection, particularly in midfield and defence. The front three will probably remain unchanged, with Garath McCleary on the right, Yann Kermorgant through the middle and Roy Beerens wide left. Beerens has been out of touch in the last two games, but with Callum Harriott injured, Stam has few other options. A radical one might be to play Jordan Obita on the left, putting him back in his original position. His transition to full-back has seldom looked a sound one defensively, but since Wayne Bridge departed Royals have not really had a thoroughbred left-back. Tyler Blackett has also played there, but also looks uncomfortable too many times. This week’s signing of Tiago Ilori from Liverpool does nothing to plug that gap, because central defence is his game. Even though he will have had little time to read his team-mates’ play, Ilori might get an immediate debut, especially if skipper Paul McShane remains out after his wrist operation. Chris Gunter at right-back and Liam Moore in the middle will already have their names on the team-sheet, with Joey van den Berg likely to return to his biting-tackler job in midfield - especially as it’s an away game. Danny Williams will probably start there as well, with Liam Kelly likely to complete the picture on the back of his enthusiasm and passing ability.
As for Derby, they have talent aplenty, and after promotion near-misses in the last few seasons they will be desperate to at least make the play-offs this time. McClaren, for one, will not have forgotten the 3-0 home roasting his team took from Reading to rob them of a last-day top six place two seasons ago. Since then the boss has been to Newcastle and back, and Derby fans have mainly forgiven him his desertion to St James Park. Will Hughes in midfield is a stand-out performer, as is Tom Ince, who is too good for this division when he’s in the mood. The Rams have also added veteran striker David Nugent to their squad in the past fortnight, and already have Johnny Russell, Andreas Weimann, Matej Vydra and Darren Bent for a wealth of attacking experience. They hope to have Nugent fit after a knee niggle, and Marcus Olsson will return after injury at left-back. Of the four ex-Royals at Pride Park, Chris Baird will be a starter in midfield, and maybe Alex Pearce at the back and Matej Vydra up front. Nick Blackman is likely to miss out through injury. C’mon URZZZ - let’s see some bouncebackability!
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GOOD NEWS WEEK AT THE MAD STAD ROYALS fans breathed a collective sigh of relief this week with two pieces of news which indicate there really is ambition on the field at the Mad Stad as well as off it. On Tuesday Garath McCleary, the club’s stand-out player this season, signed a contract extension, then 24 hours later came final confirmation that Liverpool’s Portuguese defender Tiago Ilori actually had signed for the club (RFC pic, right) - eight days after media in the Liverpool area announced the “signing”. The fear was that the protracted takeover bid by a Chinese consortium - still not confirmed by the EFL or Premier League - meant there would be no investment in the transfer window, either for contract extensions such as McCleary’s or new signings, including Ilori. But whether from the present owners, or the proposed new ones, the purse strings appear to have been loosened this week, which is good news, because it would indicate the club is now serious about helping Jaap Stam get his surprisingly successful team a place at least in the top six this season.
The signing of Ilori, however, looks at first sight to be a gamble. The Liverpool end suggests the fee was what would be a club record £3.75million. Whispers from the Reading end suggest it was nearer £2million with a few success-related add-ons. Either way, it’s an astonishing amount of money for a player who has yet to prove himself anywhere at senior level. Ilori joined Liverpool from Sporting Lisbon for a reputed £4million in September 2013 - although Liverpool are now claiming to have made a small profit on the player. He was one of 31 Anfield signings by former Royals boss Brendan Rodgers. Ilori was actually born in London, with a Nigerian father and Portuguese mother, but he grew up in Albufeira, Portugal. After playing locally at junior level he joined the youth ranks of Sporting Lisbon in 2006 and made his debut for the first team in November 2011. In the following two years he played mainly for Sporting B before Liverpool took the gamble on his potential.
Ilori has played for Portugal’s age group teams at every level, from U18 to U23 but has never broken through at any club. Liverpool loaned him out to Granada in 2014, then to Bordeaux, and last season to Aston Villa, although he didn’t make a first team appearance for them. This season he has been playing for Liverpool Under-23s, but a move to Reading will be seen as make-or-break for his career. Certainly the Royals have been weak in the centre of defence this season. Skipper Paul McShane is a terrific battler, but occasionally shows his age in a foot race. Liam Moore is solid, if unspectacular, and Tyler Blackett has yet to convince the fans that he was worth bringing in from Manchester United in the summer - although he has been playing more, and often uncomfortably, at left-back. Young Jake Cooper has never really fulfilled his terrific early promise, and Joey van den Berg is happier in midfield. It all adds up to a very definite need for an addition of class and athleticism at the back. Whether Tiago Ilori is the answer remains to be seen, but Jaap Stam speaks very highly of him as a player who can fit Reading’s new system. He will certainly be in the squad, if not the starting eleven, at Derby on Saturday.