To many, when those twenty two men step out onto the sacred Wembley turf later today, it will just be a game, a game of football. But to us, as football fans, be that of the Blue and White stripes of Huddersfield Town or the Blue and White hoops of Reading, it’s an enormous game. Forget for a moment that the game is said to be worth potentially £200 million, it is a one off game. A cup final to gain promotion to the Premier League.
In two tight encounters, the first at the Madejski Stadium, Jaap Stam’s Reading side got the better of Town when Roy Beeren’s somehow managed to squirm a shot past Danny Ward. Early in the game, Rajiv van La Parra was sent off for two needless bookings. However, despite being down to ten men, Town showed the character and mettle to be more than a match for Reading.
In the reverse fixture, another extremely close encounter was decided by a late close-range Philip Billing volley which was enough for Town to secure all three points and continue to put pressure on the top two.
After the two fixtures finished with an aggregate score of 1-1, there is very little to choose between two evenly matched sides who both are a greater sum than their parts. Going into the Wembley face off, it is anyone’s guess who will get the better of the other. Whereas Reading’s masterclass over Fulham was mainly tactical, I feel that who can handle the occasion and the pressure that it brings could be the difference later today.
Moving into the preview, I will explore the game changers, the key battles and what to expect.
The Game Changers.
Of a resolute Reading outfit, veteran front man and serially underrated forward Yann Kermorgant is the Royals’ most likely goal scorer, having taken his total up to nineteen goals this campaign. Significantly, nine of which have come in his last ten appearances. Strong hold-up play and aerial prowess are a couple of the Frenchman’s best attributes but the fierce striker does have an aggressive side to his game, as he has, along with nineteen goals, picked up ten yellow cards this season. The 35-year-old is, without doubt, one of the most lethal finishers in the division and if his teammates can provide service for him, then Kermorgant could be the man to send Reading back to the top flight.
Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy has played a key role in the success of Huddersfield Town this season. The defensive midfielder has appeared on the scoresheet on four occasions and has totalled seven assists. Over the season, his forever blossoming partnership with Jonathan Hogg has proved to be one of the main factors as to why Town’s campaign has been so rewarding. The Australian’s passing game is arguably his most notable attribute, the 25-year-old can spot a key pass or play a pinpoint pass from all over the pitch. As the midfield maestro at the heart of the midfield, he is likely to be the trigger for the majority of the attacks from the Terriers.
Royals shot-stopper and player of the season Ali Al Habsi is rated highly by the Reading faithful and arguably the best goalkeeper in the entire division this season. The experienced goalkeeper was pivotal to Reading’s promotion campaign, especially in their Playoff semi-final second leg against Fulham in which he produced a magnificent performance. Town fans will remember that Al Habsi saved a Rajiv Van La Parra penalty when the sides last met back in February. Despite losing that night, Al Habsi’s excellent season has seen him earn an impressive 16 clean sheets from a possible 48 this season.
Elias Kachunga has been a fan favourite since his move from Ingolstadt. Originally recruited as a striker, Kachunga has played the vast majority of the season in the right attacking midfield role. The 25-year-old has 12 goals to his name this season which is enough to make the DR Congo international top scorer for Town. Drifting inside, he has formed a formidable partnership with Tommy Smith this season. This season, no combination has produced more goals in the Championship than Elias Kachunga-Tommy Smith. Could we see the same tomorrow?
The final potential game changer is Kasey Palmer. The 20-year-old central attacking midfielder could be the ace up the sleeve for David Wagner. Having not featured since the start of February, it is yet to be seen if Palmer is fit, let alone match fit. If he is, the Chelsea loanee could offer the psychological boost for the squad and fans alike. On the field, as a direct bundle of energy, the 20-year-old could make all the difference against a tiring Reading defence.
Kermorgant v Hefele
Whereas Wembley is known for a beautiful playing surface and the two sides are known for their possession-heavy style, there is almost definitely going to be a war. A battle between Yann Kermogant and Michael Hefele. In recent matches including the second leg fixture against Sheffield Wednesday, Michael Hefele was aerially dominant and seemingly everywhere. However, Yann Kermogant showed in the second leg fixture against Fulham just how effective he is as a lone frontman. The battle between these two could set the tone for which side will come out on top.
Williams v Hogg
As two notoriously hard tacklers with the engine and athleticism to match it. The battle in the centre of midfield between Danny Williams and Jonathan Hogg will be one to savour. Neither man will be afraid to lunge into a tackle and the duo have had previous when it has come to encounters between the two sides. There has been some debate in recent weeks about who is better. Well today, we will find out.
Gunter v Van La Parra
Within both league match-ups, one of the key battles has been between Rajiv Van La Parra and Chris Gunter. Although the Dutchman has proved to be both inconsistent and enigmatic, he has also proved to be one of the most skilful wingers in the entire division. In what is likely to be an extremely tight encounter, the battle between Chris Gunter and Rajiv van La Parra could make the difference between winning and losing.
Wells v Al Habsi
Today could be Nahki Wells’ final appearance in a Huddersfield Town shirt so no doubt will he want to make it a memorable one. Despite Elias Kachunga finishing the season as Huddersfield Town’s top goalscorer, in recent weeks, Nahki Wells has looked extremely sharp. With a good record against Reading, Ali Al Habsi will have to be at his best to prevent the Bermudan striker from scoring against the Royals.
Wagner v Stam
Having followed a similar trajectory, both coming from well-known clubs but both remaining an unknown managerial quantity, David Wagner and Jaap Stam have worked wonders for their respected club.
It is well known that David Wagner has followed closely in the footsteps of Jurgen Klopp when implementing the gegenpressing philosophy. This has entailed a fast, attacking style of football in the 4-2-3-1 formation with a high press which the Terriers have flourished under. Almost every single recruitment made by the German have proved to be a success at Town, and you feel if The Terriers are to keep hold of the wanted Wagner in the summer, then promotion to the Premier League is a must.
Similarly, Jaap Stam has also shown that he has a good eye for recruitment and that he also has been influenced by previous clubs. The Dutch possession-heavy style of Reading has not been to everybody’s taste this season (mainly Leeds fans) but it has proved effective. In the playoff semi-final, Jaap Stam simply out-thought Slavisa Jokanovic with a game plan that the Serbian didn’t have an answer to. Today, he might have more difficult tactically out-mastering David Wagner.
What to expect?
Aside from poor coverage, both Reading and Town have been given the title ‘underdogs’ not only in their recent playoff semi-final triumphs, but throughout the campaign as a whole.
Reading finished the Championship season in third spot with a total of 85 points, whilst Huddersfield ended their season fifth, securing 81 points. Based primitively on league positioning, the Royals are seen as slight favourites.
Considering that Reading went on to beat in-form favourites Fulham, it would appear further than Reading are the favourites. However, Huddersfield’s confidence boosting victory over an experienced Sheffield Wednesday side could be the perfect preparation ahead of the trip to Wembley.
Aside from a tight head to head record, throughout the campaign, both sides have shown that in the big matches against the best opposition, they thrive. Tomorrow will be the biggest test of them all for two rather inexperienced squads and equally inexperienced managers.
Whilst we may all enjoy an open flowing game, with such a high stake on the line. Expect a tactical chess match and a stress inducing day out with the first goal proving vital.
As we all know, on the day anything can happen. These two sides know better than any club that being the underdog means nothing. The biggest prize in football awaits for either Reading or Huddersfield Town.
May the best team win.