Reading hoping to prove a bump in the road on Watford’s route to Premier League return


Despite seeing a six game winning run come to an end courtesy of a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough on Easter Monday, Xisco Muñoz’s Watford remain clear favourites to join league leaders Norwich in securing automatic promotion from the Championship.

The Hornets have won 14 of the 20 league games since Spaniard Muñoz replaced Vladimir Ivic in December, leaving them nine points clear of third-placed Brentford with just six games left to play this season.

Even though they were picking up wins in a similarly unconvincing fashion to what they were under Ivic during the early weeks of Muñoz reign, since changing to a 4-3-3 formation ahead of a 6-0 win against Bristol City in February Watford have found a way to get the most out of a talented group of players.

Francisco Sierralta and William Troost-Ekong have formed one of the most effective partnerships in the Championship at the heart of the defence, Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah look to be coming close to fulfilling the potential they showed as England youth internationals since Muñoz gave them important roles in the middle of the park, and the front three have thrived in the absence of the Troy Deeney.

Club captain Deeney is expected to recover from an achilles injury to be in involved in the final few weeks of the campaign, although his team-mates may well have automatic promotion sewn up by the time he returns.

“Since we arrived, we’ve only been thinking about our job, our squad, our goal.

“Now we need to keep moving on with the same goal and the same ambition. We always try to give a good performance. We’re not thinking about other teams, we’re thinking about our team and we’re always improving our football.”

Watford Head Coach Xisco Muñoz speaking to the club’s website

Watford have not been at their best since returning from the recent international break – the draw at the Riverside was preceded by an unconvincing 1-0 home win against relegation-battlers Sheffield Wednesday on Good Friday – but their ability to continue to pick up points regardless of performances has seen them pull clear of the other promotion contenders.

On Friday night, they host a Reading side that still harbour their own hopes of returning to the top flight.

A 3-1 win against Derby County on Monday has left the Royals sixth in the league table and therefore right in the mix for a play-off spot come the end of the season.

A four game winless run either side of the international break had increased fears that it could be Veljko Paunovic’s side that miss out on a place in the top six, with it now appearing to be a battle between five sides for the four play-off places, but a moment of magic from Michael Olise and the return to goal scoring form of Lucas Joao saw them past Wayne Rooney’s Rams.

Portuguese striker Joao came off the bench to score his first goal in five games to take his tally for the season to 19 and make up for a horrendous miss in Reading’s 1-1 draw at Barnsley three days earlier in the process.

Whilst Paunovic will be pleased that his top scorer is finding the back of the net again, he was dealt a blow in the week, as it was revealed that centre-back Michael Morrison will be absent for the remainder of the regular season due to a hamstring injury after he was forced off in the first half of the Barnsley game.

“I see a fantastic group with a fantastic spirit. We have built very good energy and identity in and around the team.

“I just hope it now lights up and it’s the moment to put everything together.

“We have a great game in front of us which should motivate us to do that. It can be a catalyst not only for securing the play-offs but for moving forward too.

“The mood is very positive. The intensity and the way they compete in training, you can’t ask for more.”

Reading manager Veljko Paunovic speaking to BerkshireLive

Morrison has been one of the Royals most consistent performers this season, particularly with regular centre-back partner Liam Moore missing the majority of the campaign up to this point, and with young defender Tom McIntyre also expected to be out for the rest of season, there is now a shortage of options at the back.

However, the potential return of mercurial midfielder John Swift will no doubt provide some solace for Reading supporters. The Chelsea academy graduate has been one of the Royals’ most consistent performers since arriving at the Madjeski Stadium in 2016 but has been dogged by hamstring issues throughout much of this campaign.

Therefore, Paunovic’s declaration that he could be involved at Vicarage Road is a massive boost for both their hopes of picking up points against the side with the best home record in the Championship and their chances of securing a place in the top six.

Reading beat Watford 1-0 when the sides met in October during the Royals excellent start to the season, but the Hornets will be hoping for a very different scoreline tomorrow night in order to move another step closer to regaining their Premier League status.

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