Finding optimism in league-table mathematics and previous performances.
Ahhh blimey. It really is squeaky bum time isn’t it? Getting into the playoffs, something that has felt all but a formality at times this year, now feels like a nerve-racking 50/50. After throwing away chances to make life more comfortable in March, Reading will now need to show their promotion credentials in the remaining games if they’re going to be one of the four teams from five in the playoff hunt that punch their ticket.
Still, Reading have played well since the break, deserving more against Barnsley and producing an impressive performance against Derby County. It’s not at all unlikely that Reading will find their way into the playoffs. But how will they do it?
The final six matches can be neatly split into two categories: games where Reading cannot lose, and tough games in which Reading need to match their performance from the reverse fixture, and preferably the point returns.
Let’s talk first about the games that Reading cannot afford to lose, see where those points would get us numerically, then find some optimism for our playoff hopes in mathematics and opposition teams already being on the beach!
Games Reading cannot lose
Those three games that Reading simply cannot afford to lose are against Luton Town, Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City. If we don’t pick up at a minimum seven points against those three teams, we won’t deserve to reach the playoffs this year. While none are pushovers, with all three teams having very little to play for, fewer than nine points will be a disappointment. Fewer than seven: a disaster.
Before Monday evening, Cardiff felt like the trickiest game of the bunch, with their playoff hopes not quite yet dashed. After their 5-0 thrashing by Sheffield Wednesday however, it looks all but over for Mick McCarthy’s men. There’s still a lot of quality in this Bluebirds team though, and Tom Holmes will need to put in a mature performance to keep Kieffer Moore and co out. Depending on how Cardiff react to their recent drubbing, a draw may be acceptable here, but with the game being played at the Mad Stad, you’ve got to hope for a win (especially if we lose to Watford).
Huddersfield: They must be bad because they’re the only team we’ve managed a comeback win against this year! That stat is absolutely rancid for the Royals, and will be incredibly amusing if it stays true to the end of the year and we end up promoted! This game comes on the last day of the season and its competitiveness will entirely depend on where the Terriers sit in the league standings by then.
The lucky thing for Reading fans then is the general adrift-ness of the relegation pack this year. Unless Rotherham and a few others pull off something spectacular, you’d expect Huddersfield to be safe and mostly checked out from a disappointing season by the final game. This one has to be a win.
Luton have not had the season many Royals fans would’ve expected from them given the seven goals we’ve put past them in our previous two league meetings. They’ve comfortably avoided relegation, and Reading will have to hope that comfort causes them to rest on their laurels on April 21st. Plus, given that Luton knocked Reading out of both(!) cups this year, you’d think that Pauno will know how seriously to take them. A win is required here.
Assuming we pick up those seven points (a huge assumption, for sure), that’ll take us to 73 points. 75 has been the general staple points total to reach the playoffs recently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an extra win is required this year, with none of the other chasing pack having particularly tough run-ins.
It should be safe to say that 78 points will be the cutoff point this year, 12 points away from where Reading currently stand. This makes it startlingly clear just how massive taking nine points from the above three games would be, leaving just one further win to pick up!
This math seems favourable: to match 78 points, Bournemouth would need four wins and one draw from their remaining seven, and Barnsley would need three wins and one draw from their remaining six. Either is likely, but both: less so.
Still however, all that implies Reading will have to pick up at least one win, and preferably four points against their tougher remaining matchups.
The tough games - where can we find four points?
Watford away feels like the toughest remaining game, and the last Reading match in which I’d accept a loss this year (which means we may have to be calm and patient after Friday night!) Watford are in great form, with only a late goal away at Middlesbrough keeping them from a five-game winning streak.
That said, their excellent March included them facing off against several teams in the bottom half. Reading have shown that putting away those teams is harder than it looks, but should still provide more of a challenge for Watford than Rotherham or Wycombe.
Still, Watford’s home form is the best in the league, and they will be more than aware of the threat we can pose to them, given that we’ve beaten them once already this year. Reading will need a performance like the one in the first half against Bournemouth in order to get something out of the game.
Swansea, meanwhile, are currently in free fall, and from this position in early April look like the playoff team Reading are most likely to nick a win against. The game takes place in late April however, and with the quality of upcoming opponents on their fixture list not being stellar, they could have arrested their slide by the time we get to them at the end of the month.
Still though, a much-depleted Reading side (Sam Baldock started) held firm against the Swans in the final game of 2020, so Reading should have nothing to fear at home, especially with Swift likely available for selection. I’d still hope for a win here. It seems apparent that Swansea will be in the playoffs now, so picking up a confidence-boosting win against a potential play-off rival would be massive for squad morale.
Finally we come to Norwich. Norwich, if not Champions by May 1st, should almost certainly be promoted. They certainly won’t want to blot their copybook, and even playing half-heartedly they’re probably the best team in the division, but you’d think that their commitment level might be closer to 80% than the full 100.
This won’t be an easy game to win however: Norwich have lost at home just once this year, and may still have a surging Watford to hold off for their second Championship title in three years. Reading gave Norwich a good game in December though, and mostly just didn’t have the attacking options to match the Canaries. This time though, the Royals won’t have to rely on Alfa Semedo up front like they did at the Madejski. If Reading need a win and Norwich don’t, don’t be surprised if the Royals pull the upset!
I hope then that I’ve provided some optimism with these calculations and predictions. It’s a tough run-in, and I really wish Reading had made the most of a weaker March schedule. Tough games breed tough teams though, and Reading could do with a little infusion of that strength before a potential playoff campaign. The playoffs are achievable for Reading, they just have to step up to the plate!