SCOUT Phil Smith feels tonight’s game at Reading is the most crucial of the season so far
Call me a pessimist, but I refuse to read much into a comfortable victory over a poor Barnsley side devoid of penetration. Their 45% possession reflects the game of keep ball they enjoyed in the defensive zone, but, when it came to the final third, they had no idea whatsoever.
We may have grabbed the three points, but so did Cardiff City, Reading and Blackpool. Indeed, it is an indication of our lacklustre start to the campaign that, despite our good form of late, we are yet to taste life in the top six. One reader commented over the weekend that this resurgence has merely compensated for our disappointing record of just 18 points in the opening four months of the season. Defeat tonight,and he may just have a valid argument.
Victory for Reading will see them open up a seven-point gap on ourselves. Throw their game in hand against Doncaster Rovers into the mix, and that is likely to rise to 10. With less than a third of the season to go, it would be a mammoth task to bag 11 more points than the Royals, title form even.
As March rapidly approaches, eyes inevitably begin to focus on the fixture list. With games against Cardiff City, West Ham United, Blackpool and Birmingham City yet to take place, we are currently in control of our own destiny. However, the margin for error is so small,we cannot afford to drop a single point against any of our promotion rivals.
Win or bust? Probably so, we collected 76 points in the promotion season, and a colossal total of 29 from a maximum of 45 points would see us equal that once more.
History dictates that you can sometimes sneak into the mix with 70, whilst 75 is more or less guaranteed to see the season extended by two games, at the very least!
I recall a conversation I had with Brian Laws at Birmingham City back in the Premier League season. I asked him what his target was for life back in the Championship, and he bluntly informed me that it was the top six.
I told him that this left no margin for error. Unfortunately, I was correct.
We should have aimed for an automatic berth, and then had the safety option of the play-offs if that failed to come to fruition.
In my opinion,he set the bar too low and settled for a standard that was below what it was prudent to be.
We had no fallback option,no get out clause and certainly not a plan B.
I do not want Eddie Howe to make the same mistake. We must not aim for a likely total or one that may be satisfactory. That is why I openly ask the manager to aim for 75 points, nothing less.
Back to tonight and statistics dictate that we cannot afford to concede. Reading have dropped a mere two points from a winning position this season, the best record in the Championship. First goal to prove crucial? Not necessarily, they have also bagged 15 points from a losing position, compared to our 11.
Toughest test of the season to date? Maybe not, but certainly the most crucial. The game doesn’t need any extra hype,it cannot be described as anything but a six-pointer.
We didn’t turn up against Southampton,but the players have the chance to set the record straight at the Madejski.
I know this squad is good enough to get into the top six,and so does Eddie Howe.
The time for talking is over, if we want another date at Wembley, three points are an absolute must this evening.