By Matt Rowson
Opening presents is always exciting. I don't care how old you are, there's a level of excitement that childhood ingrains about packages wrapped in gaudy paper and sellotape. The contents of such a package can rarely do the involuntary sense of anticipation justice... and of course can provoke disproportionate disappointment.
So imagine unpulling ribbons, ripping paper, pulling open a giftbox and seeing a large turd in front of you. Or a wad of finance offers (finding managing your monthly outgoings a hassle?), pizzeria flyers and the like. Or an assortment of biro lids with their clips snapped off.
This is roughly the situation we find ourselves in having landed the prune draw of Reading (A) in the second round of the League Cup. It's difficult to envisage a draw so devoid of romance or excitement whilst simultaneously suggesting such limited prospect of progress... and the added attraction of Reading at our place in the League on Saturday to boot. The small mercy is that ties at this stage no longer take place over two legs.
The moderate prospect of victory has little to do with Reading's hundred percent home record this season, nor with any lack of faith in our own superb form, three away wins and clean sheets on the hop and so forth. The fates have something over us at the Madejski; two years ago we had a goal disallowed due to a Reading handball, the penalty saved and then a massive deflection gifting the home side the only goal. Last year, Reading's 88th minute winner came despite the cross which led to it being taken not so much in touch as from the back of the stand. Playing well or otherwise doesn't come into it.
Coming as it does in the middle of a busy schedule of League fixtures (and with the current leading two at home within a week), it would not be a major surprise to see some of our players rested... in particular, at least half of the increasingly indomitable, crucial but ill-covered Gav and Boris hit squad in the centre of midfield.
Reading, too, might be expected to name a few fringe players and as such anticipating their line-up is not straightforward. Keeper Marcus Hahnemann looked to be on his way at the end of last season, but Jamie Ashdown's defection to Pompey has allowed the American a route back in, although he still hasn't learned to kick straight. Jamie Young, also highly rated, is his deputy.
Occasional Scottish international Graeme Murty is a fixture at right-back and was player of the year last season but hadn't impressed at the start of this term. He's a decent defender but his distribution isn't great and he tends to tuck in close to his centrebacks to protect his lack of pace. On the left is Nicky Shorey, who has recently signed a contract extension. Adrian Williams and H and Boris' international teammate Ivar Ingimarsson is the first choice central pairing, although summer signing from Brentford Ibrahima Sonko would seem to be a reasonable bet for a start on Tuesday whilst the experienced Ricky Newman is another option.
In midfield, Glen Little's absence with a hamstring strain has led to a lack of width although former Brighton and Leicester winger Paul Brooker, who can play on either flank, appears to be improving. Left-sided American Bobby Convey might be another who gets a chance on Tuesday - he looks to have talent but "has had trouble adjusting" so far. Hardworking Andy Hughes has been filling in on the right, but might get a chance in his more natural central midfield, which would mean disrupting the talented but perhaps unbalanced partnership of Steve Sidwell and James Harper in the centre.
Up front, 6'3" Dave Kitson and Nicky Forster seem to be established as the first choice pairing although they don't appear to yet be dovetailing quite as effectively as manager Coppell would like, despite six goals between them in the last two games. Shaun Goater, Lloyd Owusu and Dean Morgan are the alternatives should one of the first-choice pair be rested.
We could probably do without this. Given that history suggests that we're unlikely to get anywhere in this competition, a week's rest before two big League games would be welcome. Even if the Ray'n'Terry'n'Nige management team decide to run out the reserves on Tuesday, a defeat would still interrupt the fantastic momentum that the side has built up over the last few weeks. However, fielding a strong team could lead to key players in positions where we have little cover knackered, or worse injured.
A hurdle to be negotiated. That's all.