After a narrow escape from Griffin Park thanks to Fernando Torres’ late goal, Chelsea now take a much further trip up north to the Madejski Stadium to face a Reading side that is on a recent run of form. Despite sitting on 19 points in 19th position in the table, they are just 1 point out from being out of the relegation zone and are on a run of form that has seen them win 3 of their last 5 matches in the league. That isn’t good news for the Blues, who are on a similar run of form in the league but have been eliminated from the Capital One Cup over two legs by Swansea City and who drew at the weekend against Brentford. The European Champions have had a better run of form away from home as of late, having beaten a resurgent Everton side and thrashed the ever-dangerous Stoke City at the Brittania. They will need to call on that form against Reading in a match that Blues cannot afford to drop more points in.
It will be made harder, as the pressure mounts on Rafa Benitez after the 2-2 draw against Brentford. However, the manager can hardly be blamed for six absences that his side will more than likely see against Reading. Petr Cech and David Luiz are nursing minor injuries, while Oriol Romeu is out for the season after rupturing cruciate ligaments. Victor Moses and John Mikel Obi persist at the African Cup of Nations for Nigeria, and Eden Hazard serves the second match of his ban for his sending off against Swansea.
Needless to say, it should be a familiar side to the one that faced Brentford with just a few minor tweaks to the lineup.
How do the squad respond after the draw to Brentford on Sunday?
I know the cries of the players being professionals whose jobs are to be fit to play in every match. However, from a physical and mental perspective, it’s a very difficult thing to expect. From being an American and a huge baseball fan, a baseball season consists of 162 games played over the course of around 180-190 days. Essentially, the season’s viewed as a massive mental and physical grind because you play three games in one city, then you fly to the next, and occasionally get a run of games at home.
Now translate that to the fact that Chelsea’s players are essentially being asked to play once every 3-4 days in a much more physical game than baseball with the bulk of them playing for the full 90 minutes. Now factor in the recovery time from essentially running around 8-10 kilometres a match, the mental fatigue from having to focus, and the fact that just two days later, you have to get yourself up and do it again simply makes the case for a player playing every match hard to make, at least for me.
The fact is that it will be interesting to see how the team responds given their performance against Brentford. To me, it appeared that 5 or 6 players looked like a group of punch-drunk boxers who were out there just going through the motions. That’s to be expected with the size of the squad we have available, and the fact is that it’s not going to get any easier until the team gets a week off after Newcastle at the weekend.
Reading should petition the Premier League to start all their matches in the 70th minute.
With the exception of the win against West Ham, all Reading’s wins have come via goals scored after the 70th minute in the match. Against Everton, a late penalty in the 79th scored by Adam Le Fondre gave Reading their first league win, a 2-1 victory. Against West Brom, they spotted Romelu Lukaku two goals and a crossbar before charging back via three late goals to record a victory. Then, against Newcastle, they went behind to a brilliant free kick from Yohan Cabaye, only to get 71st minute and 77th minute strikes from Le Fondre to sneak three points.
It’s uncanny they way that this Reading team have found ways to come back as of late. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I do think it has a lot to do with their style of play, since you could very much argue that all three sides outplayed Reading very badly for 2/3 of the actual match.
Reading’s main reason for being able to come back late: they sometimes get carried away with attack.
Sometimes with sides at the bottom, you can point to poor defensive performances for why they’re there. In a way, you can do the same with Reading, but it would be a bit harsh because of the nature of their play.
At times when you watch Reading, they almost play a 4-2-4 on a regular basis. Because Gareth McCleary and Jimmy Kebe are very good at getting forward and putting crosses in the box, they tend to stay wide and look to get the ball in. The problem becomes that if Reading play any formation that doesn’t have a dedicated holding midfielder, their only option is to play a player in the hole behind the main striker, and generally, that play looks to support him. It creates a situation where a lot of players look to get into attack and essentially leave the two midfielders on an island to protect the back four.
That’s all well and good, but in losses such as the one against Tottenham, the midfield two and the center backs leave enough space in between for runners who try to come between the lines. And that’s where they can be hurt. Against West Brom, James Morrison caused them all sorts of problems in conjunction with Lukaku coming deep from his striker position and then bursting forward.
It’s a real bother against players such as Mata and Oscar that will look to work those spaces, because they will hurt you in those areas. However, when you’re chasing a game, it puts real pressure on the team that’s ahead because it also allows them to pour forward with abandon. Recall that Paul Lambert’s Norwich teams played a similar kamikaze style at times, where they would simply launch forward with more men than you can defend. That’s exactly what Reading do, and in Le Fondre and Pavel Pogrebnyak, they have two players capable of causing havoc in the box, especially if they have the numbers supporting them from deep.
Pavel Pogrebnyak is the danger man for Reading, though Le Fondre is the assassin.
Reading do have genuine class at the center forward position in both Pogrebnyak and Le Fondre. People do forget that when Andrei Arshavin was being looked at during his time at Zenit St. Petersburg for a big move to England, Spain, etc., the man that was viewed as possibly being even better was his teammate Pogrebnyak. This season, he’s shown that he’s a big strong center forward in the air, but his finishing has been on par with his goal scoring record at Zenit when he netted 42 times in 58 appearances. However, he’s the perfect target man and provides the main out ball and focal point for the Reading attack.
Le Fondre has turned into the epitome of a super sub poacher. He doesn’t necessarily have the ability to play at the Premier League level and contribute an all-around performance for 90 minutes, but if you throw him on late when you need a goal, he finds a way to the ball and sticks it home. The Newcastle game was the perfect example, as he made a great run to get goal side, diving in, and the ball takes a rather fortuitous bounce off him and into the net. The second came from a total miskick from Hope Akpan that ended up being the perfect dummy, and Le Fondre stuck it home. That knack for being at the right place at the right time makes him extremely dangerous and if he comes on, he must be accounted for.
Finally, Chelsea must look to put them away and put them away quickly.
As I mentioned before, Reading tend to play a very much open game and very rarely manage to control possession in their matches. They tend to look much more dangerous once they have nothing to lose and can pour forward. The mistake teams have made is not taking their chances early and putting the match out of reach. That’s exactly what the Blues must do on Wednesday in order to get a win.
One thing that has looked better from Chelsea is the goal record. While Benitez winning percentage is abysmal compared to other Chelsea managers (in fact, it’s the worst ever), the fact is that he’s still managing to get a point when the team is not at its best. Granted, the number of points dropped is still too high, but he’s also had to deal with what he’s had to deal with. I don’t think he’s made the most of his job, but I also don’t think he’s had a lot to work with. In fact, going into tomorrow, with suspensions and injuries, Benitez will have just 16 first team players to select from and having to select 2 youth players to populate the bench. By any standard, that’s a hard job to have, especially when you consider that a number of them have already played at least 30 matches this season.
I do expect the results to be better, but I can’t see how any manager in history could be expected to perform to the highest standard when you’re relying on 16, 17 players to get you through the next month of the season and playing every three days. I almost expect this to be a draw and the pressure to just continue to mount on an unpopular manager who I feel is doing all he can with one of the smallest squads in club history.
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