Championship leaders Southampton take on nearest rivals Reading at St. Mary’s Stadium this evening in a clash that could all but confirm Premier League promotion if one of these sides emerge victorious. Both sides lie six points ahead of heavy pre-season title favourites West Ham United with four games remaining and - with the lucrative goldmine of Premier League football, jobs, star players and all important momentum in jeopardy for one of these sides – here are the key battles that could mean Reading or Southampton have one hand on the football league’s top prize.
Rickie Lambert vs Kaspars Gorkss
Saints have had the most lethal strike force in the Championship season and Reading have the tightest defence, so one of those must surely give for this crunch match. Saints have been in the top two from day one this season, and a catalyst for this sustained streak of superb form has been down to Liverpool-born hit man Rickie Lambert, who has netted 26 times in the league this season, nine more than any other striker.
The all-important role of keeping Lambert quiet may rest on the shoulders of Latvian centre-back Kaspars Gorkss, who has helped Reading form the meanest defence of the division since his arrival in August. Since the turn of the year, Reading have won 14 matches compared to Saints’ 10 and, while they haven’t had one prolific goalscorer in the side, they have shared the goals evenly amongst the frontmen and ground out some crucial slender victories to maintain their fantastic form.
Jos Hooiveld vs Jason Roberts
At the other end of the pitch this evening, a big part of Reading’s attacking threat will form in the powerful frame of 33-year-old striker Jason Roberts. BBC pundit Roberts has caused a big stir in the media since arriving from Premier League strugglers Blackburn in January, and he has proven to be a revelation for the Royals. Eight consecutive wins after his arrival really ignited Reading’s automatic promotion charge. He’s a good finisher, a powerful target man and his years of Premier League experience have been invaluable for the club.
Saints put behind a tough turn of the year with a significant improvement in the side’s defensive performances. Central defensive pairing Jos Hooiveld and Jose Fonte have been vital, and it is towering Dutchman Hooiveld who I would say is best placed to deal with Roberts’ physical and aerial presence. But both defenders have been superb this season, and they will have to be at their best to keep out a confident Reading side.
Danny Fox vs Ian Harte
In such a massive game, the set piece delivery and crossing from full-backs is crucial, and the key for both sides making the breakthrough from set plays comes from left back. Southampton’s Danny Fox has contributed an outstanding 11 assists during his first Championship campaign on the south coast. Fox’s delivery from corners and indirect free-kicks has been quality throughout the season and, while Rickie Lambert is likely to be first choice from shooting range, Fox could be key to breaching the Reading rear-guard.
In blue and white, former Leeds full-back Ian Harte has been a big success. Perhaps more of a threat from shooting range with 14 goals in Reading colours since his arrival in 2010, Harte proved his importance in the side with a vital winner against Brighton on Tuesday night.
Adam Lallana vs Jimmy Kebe
In a game like this, both managers would look towards their main playmakers to produce something special – a bit of magic that could be the difference in a tight, tense encounter. In terms of quality that could be crucial in making that difference tonight, you don’t need to look much further than Saints’ Adam Lallana and Reading’s Jimmy Kebe.
Kebe, predominantly a winger with pace and power to terrorise Championship full-backs had a slow start to the season but he has certainly turned it round, scoring a few goals and providing a big threat on the right hand side. The Mali international scored twenty goals from out wide in his first two campaigns under manager Brian McDermott’s stewardship, and you wouldn’t be against him causing Saints problems at St. Mary’s this evening.
Nigel Adkins has described 23-year-old Adam Lallana as the most talented player in the Championship this season, and it is hard to argue otherwise. Lallana was nominated for the Championship player of the year, which Lambert won, and there is no doubt that the team look significantly stronger and more creative with him in the starting line-up. He has scored ten goals this season, but it is his movement, eye for an incisive pass and superb technical skill that has proved vital for the Saints this season, and he is definitely one to watch out for in front of the Sky Sports cameras at 19:45.
First vs second, the best home record against the best away side and the highest scorers against the league’s meanest defence; Southampton versus Reading has all the right ingredients to live up to its billing and have a huge say in the destination of the 2011/12 Championship title. Who fancies a drab 0-0?!
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