GRANT’S BACK IN THE HUNT FOR THE PREMIERSHIP

By Rowan Farnham-Long
Jan 29th, 2008

After recent successful sprints in the cup competitions, its back to the marathon that is the Premier League, with Chelsea hosting Reading at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night. With both sides missing players through injury and participation in the African Cup of Nations, squads are thin on the ground but not bereft of talent. One player who is bereft of talent however is Reading winger Stephen Hunt, who of course fractured Petr Cech’s skull last season. He should receive a hostile welcome (he should have received a prison sentence) from the Blues’ fans, who haven’t forgotten the “accident”. Back to the game though, and with Reading struggling without a win in their last seven games, and Chelsea pushing Manchester United and Arsenal right to the wire in the Premier League title race, the likely result on paper must be put into practice at the Bridge.

While our injury list is finally decreasing, Ghana’s win over Morocco in the African Cup of Nations and subsequent qualification for the knock-out stages means Michael Essien is still needed in his home country. John Mikel Obi’s Nigeria are on the brink of elimination-anything other than a win against Benin should see them on the flight home-while Ivory Coast stars Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba have already joined Essien in the next round. John Terry and Frank Lampard are still injured while Andriy Shevchenko is doubtful of a place in the match-day squad but rejoined training recently. Right-back (and somewhat crowd favourite) Juliano Belletti is unfortunately suspended, after picking up a fifth booking of theĀ  season against Everton last week. Steve Sidwell could be in line for a start, and a clash against his former team-mates.

Reading also have players out in Africa, with Andre Bikey, Emerse Fae and Ibrahima Sonko involved in the cup competition. Midfielder Brynjar Gunnarsson is out with a groin injury while former Blue Michael Duberry misses out on a return to SW6 with a knee ligament problem. Striker Shane Long is suspended. Royals’ boss Steve Coppell has added two new faces to his squad during the January transfer window, with Czech midfielder Marek Matejovsky and Mali international winger Jimmy Kebe joining up with the squad. The former will be in the match-day 16, however, Kebe has a slight injury and won’t be risked.

Recent games between the two sides have been memorable to say the least. Early on in the season we went behind at the Madejski Stadium as Cech blundered to allow Bikey a simple finish in the first-half. However, by the 50th minute, the Blues were ahead. Goals from Lampard and Drogba swung the game in our favour, and took the points from a hard-working Reading side. Reading haven’t beaten Chelsea since September 1987, in a League Cup 2nd round 1st leg game. To put that time-scale in perspective, I was just a couple of months old.

Thankfully things have changed a bit since then, and despite the last home meeting with Reading resulting in a 2-2 draw last season, this is a game we should win. Although both sides are missing key figures, we have shown that our second-string is arguably as strong as our first-choice XI, and we should be just too strong for Reading. They currently sit near the bottom of the table whereas we are pushing for honours. The final dash is starting to edge nearer and nearer; clearing the hurdles like Reading is the key to success.

Prediction: A confident home performance and three points in the bag. The squad is starting to strengthen again while the fringe players have spurred themselves on to push for starting berths. Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips are in fine form, and with Nicolas Anelka getting off the mark against Wigan on Saturday, the trio could be vital figures against Reading. I’m going for a slightly cocky 3-0 win.

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