One piece in jigsaw missing for Adkins

Posted by Jon Keen

Ben Hoskins/Getty ImagesReading, shown before their recent friendly against Swansea, is looking to regroup and return to the Premier League.

The day Loyal Royals have been waiting for will be here Saturday -- the day that heralds the end of 74 days without competitive football for Reading FC. But many cynics would suggest that for the vast majority of last season Reading were anything but competitive as they were relegated from the Premier League, and so Saturday's Championship home opener against Ipswich is the start of a new era for Nigel Adkins' team.

He arrived at the club too late to make any difference to the outcome of last season, but Saturday is the one day of the season when all the clubs in the Championship are equal and there is a completely blank slate, so everyone is feeling optimistic for the new campaign.

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But despite the natural optimism, there are still a few questions hanging over the new-look Royals squad. Because since the rash of four signings in very quick succession at the start of July transfer activity has been minimal, and Loyal Royals are wondering if there are likely to be further arrivals -- and departures -- before the transfer window slams shut Sept. 2.

Between the posts, Adkins is blessed with an abundance of riches, with the great unknown being which of his two highly talented young goalkeepers will get the nod. Although Adam Federici has been handed the actual Number One shirt, it remains to be seen if he will be first choice keeper, or whether highly rated youngster Alex McCarthy, who ended last season with a call-up to the England squad, will be preferred.

In defence, newly signed left-back Wayne Bridge is an almost certain starter, but whether he will be partnered by Chris Gunter or Stephen Kelly remains to be seen. Last season Kelly impressed greatly in his natural position on the right, but this decision will be a very close one.

In the centre of defence, Adkins can pick two from Alex Pearce, Adrian Mariappa and Sean Morrison -- or possibly even Kaspars Gorkss, now back at the club after a disastrous loan spell at Wolves. My money would be on Pearce and Mariappa, but Morrison is in with a definite chance after good preseason performances.

Midfield is where the biggest changes by far will come. Adkins has no fewer than five wingers to choose from -- Jobi McAnuff, Garath McCleary, Jimmy Kebe, Hal Robson-Kanu and new signing Royston Drenthe. I can’t see Drenthe getting a full 90 minutes as there are doubts about his match fitness, but he looks to be a particularly exciting player, and one Adkins is clearly taking a big gamble on after his disciplinary problems at Everton.

In the centre of midfield, Adkins is likely to choose two out of Jem Karacan, Danny Guthrie and another new signing, American Daniel Williams. Although Mikele Leigertwood and Hope Akpan are also available, I don’t see them being much more than squad players under Adkins, with Leigertwood possibly departing in the next few weeks.

Toward the end of last season, there were flashes of real potential from the combination of Guthrie and Karacan, and so that would be my favoured central pair, with Williams not getting his starting place just yet. Having said that, don’t discount the possibility of McAnuff or Robson-Kanu playing in a central role.

The striking positions are where most questions are being asked, and where most Loyal Royals have their biggest concerns, since the only change in the forward players available is the almost-certain departure of Simon Church to Charlton. That means the most likely pairing is big Russian Pavel Pogrebnyak and Adam Le Fondre, with Nick Blackman an outside bet for a role up front, while Jason Roberts is still injured and looking to be so for an indeterminate time. But many doubt Pogrebnyak’s workrate and even his commitment to Reading, and whilst Le Fondre scored some great goals as substitute last season he was largely unsuccessful when starting.

So it’s up front where Adkins seems to be short of options, and I'd say that while the rest of the squad looks to have more than enough quality to make a serious challenge in the Championship, it's the strike force that gives the most concern. This was reinforced in preseason friendlies -- for instance, against Swansea, when Reading had 124 attacks to Swansea's 76, but lost 3-0.

So while Loyal Royals will flock to the MadStad in the hope of seeing their team start the season with a win, most will probably, like me, be thinking that a striker who can score 20 or 30 goals in the season would be the final piece to complete the Royals' jigsaw.

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