After a fantastic display at Millwall on Sunday, Slaven Bilić’s team should be full of confidence as they travel to Reading. Albion’s head coach will be looking for the same intensity and quality of performance, a level that he feels should be the minimum for the remainder of the season.
The hosts have failed to register a victory in the Championship since New Year’s Day. Ten days ago, Albion were, of course, in a similar situation in that their only recent wins had come in the FA Cup, and Mark Bowen’s side are also through to the Fifth Round having won at Blackpool in Round Three before needing a replay and penalties to get past Cardiff City.
The Royals’ last league victory was away to Fulham on the first day of the year, and capped off a fantastic holiday period in which they also beat Derby County and QPR at the Madejski Stadium and won away to Preston North End. Since those four successive victories, however, they have recorded four draws and two defeats from six league games.
Reading were in the relegation zone when the “self-appointed” Mark Bowen took charge and, while there was a significant degree of scepticism amongst commentators at the time, he has succeeded in leading the Royals away from the bottom three and they now sit in 16th place some ten points clear of the drop zone. That is, however, largely due to that four match winning streak with Reading having won only one other game in the league since Bowen took over in late October. Nonetheless, with 15 games of the season left, it would take a number of clubs to have a significant upturn in form to put Reading’s Championship place at stake.
When Albion last visited the Mad Stad back in April, the hosts were in significant risk of relegation and their fans celebrated wildly at the full time whistle having earned a point following a 0-0 draw that more-or-less guaranteed their survival. It should be a different atmosphere on Wednesday evening and it is the visitors who should be far more desperate for the points.
Following back-to-back victories, the mood will be buzzing in the Albion dressing room, particularly after the excellent display at the Den. With a massive game against Nottingham Forest to come on Saturday lunchtime, Bilić may be looking at switching one or two players around but, as he said in his post-match interview at the weekend, when you play as well as Albion did on Sunday, you don’t feel tired.
Furthermore, Bilić will no doubt remember his decision to rest Pereira, Diangana and Hal Robson-Kanu for the midweek trip to Wigan in mid-December. Albion produced a lacklustre performance that night and it has taken until now to get the spark back.
Personally, I wonder if that display was more down to the lack of playing time that the replacements had enjoyed up to then with the Croat having preferred to keep a settled line up during the six match winning run – the switch of three key members of that team with players who hadn’t played together that much in recent weeks was perhaps too much for the team to bear.
Bilić will be anxious to avoid that impact and, furthermore, he does now have one or two additional options. I thought it significant that Pereira was substituted on Sunday – he had played the full 90 minutes of his previous ten appearances and I feel that this may be the sign of things to come in the coming weeks.
Rather than resting players en masse, I foresee an approach of regular changes but smaller in nature to spread the load while also involving the wider squad on a more consistent basis. For each game, rest one and bring one or two off early, so as not to disrupt the rhythm too much. Whether that would be extended to the defence is less clear, but it could be argued that keeping the likes of Ahmed Hegazi involved is a good ploy as injury or suspension could easily make his involvement a necessity.
Slav, of course, may have other ideas and he’s certainly got far more right than wrong this season. What is clear is that the Baggies have regained some momentum and need to find a way of maintaining that for as long as possible.
Having broken one stadium duck at the new Den on Sunday, Albion are looking to break another on Wednesday evening having never won at the Madejski Stadium.
It had been more than 30 years since the Baggies had won away to Millwall, and it’s not quite as long since Reading were defeated on their own patch, although it is more than a quarter of a century.
January 1995 was the last time an Albion side won at Reading, then of course at Elm Park, the stadium the Royals had called home since 1896. The 1994-1995 season was one of flux at the Hawthorns. Having escaped relegation on the last day of the previous campaign, the Baggies started the season with just one win in the opening 13 games in all competitions, including defeat over two legs in the first round of the League Cup to third division Hereford United. That run culminated in four straight defeats that eventually led to the sacking of manager, Keith Burkinshaw.
Alan Buckley was appointed in late October and, while there wasn’t a miraculous upturn in results, Albion had started to move away from the relegation zone and were in 17th place when they visited Elm Park.
Reading, on the other hand, were enjoying a good season and were challenging for the play-off places although the departure of manager Mark McGhee in December to take up the reins at Leicester City was threatening their continued success. For the visit of the Baggies, joint player managers Mick Gooding and Jummy Quinn were in charge.
The hosts started the game brightly and Albion were fortunate when Michael Gilkes’ shot hit the underside of the bar early on. Ian Hamilton was next to threaten for the visitors as he ran through on goal but his shot was well saved by Royals’ ‘keeper, Shaka Hislop. Both sides had further chances in the first half, but Albion started to dominate after the break.
They finally broke the deadlock when a long clearance from Stuart Naylor was flicked on by Hamilton into the path of Andy Hunt who managed to squeeze the ball past Hislop into the corner of the net.
The hosts came close to an equaliser when Gilkes’ chip was cleared off the line by Paul Mardon, but Albion secured the points in the last minute when Kevin Donovan fired in the rebound after Hunt’s shot was saved.
Albion remained unconvincing that season and ended up in 19th place, albeit a comfortable 12 points above the bottom three.
Reading, meanwhile went from strength to strength under their joint player-managers and ended up as runners-up to Middlesbrough. However, as the Premier League was being reduced in numbers that season, there was only one automatic promotion spot and the Royals lost in the play-off final to Bolton Wanderers and would have to wait another 11 years for Premier League football.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
21 Aug 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Zohore (pen))
Reading 1 (Ejaria)
Last meeting at Reading
22 Apr 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 0
6 Oct 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 4 (Gayle (2), Barnes, Bartley)
Reading 1 (Bacuna)
Last win at Reading
14 Jan 1995 – League Division 1
West Brom 2 (Hunt, Donovan)
Albion’s Record against Reading