Games of little consequence are a familiar feeling come April for Leeds fans. Beyond the faint whiff of relegation, it's usually dreams of miraculously transforming the entire squad to one that can vaguely compete.
Well, last summer that actually happened. Leeds United can compete.
The magnitude of the result against Brighton, and excellent recent form, has opened up a relatively comfortable eight point gap between us and Fulham in 7th. This is a game we can actually afford to lose, putting a warm and fuzzy spin on the usual April apathy.
That’s not to say that this game doesn't matter. Looking eight points below, we don't want to precipitate a collapse. Looking eight points above, second place doesn't look impossible, though we'd probably have to pick up every point to make it happen. Assuming neither extreme occurs, there’s still value irrelevant to the standings in the table.
First of all, this could well be a dress rehearsal for an encounter in the play-offs. The league double over Sheffield Wednesday gives us a confidence that could prove to give us the edge should we face them again, and it can't be overstated how valuable that could be if we replicate the same against Reading.
Form in general is arguably the most important thing come the play-offs. Leeds are currently second in the form table, and it would be excellent if we can maintain this momentum over the final eight games.
Second, there's an extra bit of needle in this fixture, adding a welcome sense of anticipation on a club who who are ordinarily one of the most inoffensive in the football league. The 2-0 loss at Elland Road really appears to have got to Jaap Stam. Monk’s admittedly conservative approach - probably Leeds United’s most defensive approach of the season - had the former Manchester United centre back frustrated and responding with evangelical diatribes on how to play the game.
What really seems to have irked the Dutchman was the taunts of "boring, boring Reading", laughter and general ridicule of Reading's impotent possession, much of it in their own half with the ball passed between defenders. He had a go at the time, and three months later, can’t resist another jibe, stating "it must say a lot about them as human beings" in the build-up to this fixture.
Yann Kermorgant, also had his say when he had said Leeds was a one-man team, nothing special without Chris Wood. In response, Garry Monk noted that Chris Wood left the field after thirty minutes. After that, Leeds not only held Reading at bay, but doubled the lead in his absence.
The pattern of play in the home fixture was curiously inverted, Leeds looking like the away side, putting in one of their most tactically astute displays of the season - having just 23% of the ball but only facing two shots on goal.
That may well prove to be the key to playing against this undoubtedly impressive Reading side, who would leapfrog us with a win. Their possession-based game may well have a bit more impetus to it at The Madejski - only ourselves and Brighton have picked up more points at home - so this time should prove to be a bigger challenge.
After an international break that has given most of the squad a well-timed break, and fortuitously kept the travellers uninjured (reports suggest it was only a knock that had Chris Wood returning home early), Leeds should be able to field their best eleven (minus the still-suspended Luke Ayling).
With Bridcutt and Green in excellent form, in front and behind our exemplary back four, defensively Leeds look capable of rising to any challenge in this league.
It will be interesting to see if Jansson regains his place. While Cooper deputised ably against Brighton, the Swede is still the second name you look for on the team sheet, after Chris Wood. Leeds haven’t been at their most creative away from home of late, though in recent weeks only a fool would bet against the league’s leading goalscorer extending his tally.
Reading have more injury concerns but are able to call upon their most important players. Ali Al-Habsi, fresh from his excellent display to keep out Sheffield Wednesday, has arguably been the Championship’s best goalkeeper. Up front, Yann Kermorgant announced he’ll be retiring at the end of next season and will be keen to cap of a solid season with promotion. Paul McShane’s return will be a big boost.
For Leeds, Luke Ayling serves the second of a two game ban due to disciplinary points. Reports suggest that Chris Wood’s knock wasn’t serious and sounds fit to start.
For Reading, Deniss Rakels, Callum Harriott and Stephen Quinn remain sidelined. Tiago Ilori, Liam Kelly and Jordon Mutch have returned to training but are doubtful to be ready for this one.
Other Notable Fixtures
Barnsley (11th) vs. Sheffield Wednesday (6th) (South Yorkshire derby, early kick-off)
Huddersfield Town (3rd) vs. Burton Albion (21st)
Brighton & Hove Albion (2nd) vs. Blackburn Rovers (22nd)
Rotherham (24th) vs. Fulham (7th)
Two of The Championship’s mainstays (one season for Reading aside), there’s been plenty of meetings between the two clubs in recent years. The most recent result - and only meeting of Stam and Monk - was the 2-0 win at Elland Road.
The last visit to the Madejski was back in August 2015, a 0-0 draw.
Leeds are unbeaten against Reading in five, winning three of those. Before that, Reading won four on the bounce against Leeds.
Leeds are second in the form table, winning three and drawing two of the last five.
Reading are tenth, with two losses, two wins and a draw in their last five.
Reading vs. Leeds United
EFL Championship fixture
Madejski Stadium, Reading
Sky Sports, LUTV, BBC Radio Leeds, International Listings
Saturday, April 1st, 2017
9:30am PT / 12:30pm ET / 5:30pm BT
Leeds United’s predicted starting XI
Green, Berardi, Bartley, Jansson, Taylor, Bridcutt, Vieira, Sacko, Hernandez, Pedraza, Wood
Reading’s predicted starting XI
Al-Habsi, Blackett, McShane, Moore, Gunter, Berg, Williams, Beerens, Swift, McCleary, Kermorgent
A point would be a valuable one, not least by denying Stam’s men all three - and we’re more than capable of getting it. The fact that both sides can be satisfied with a point should set the tone for what could be a cautious affair. It would be a surprise if Reading’s possession-based style created a great deal of chances against Leeds superlative defensive unit, while we also have struggled with creativity away from home in recent weeks. A low scoring draw. 1-1.