It’s hard to tell which of this weekend’s Premier League matches is most anticipated, with Paolo Di Canio making his first appearance as Sunderland manager at Chelsea on Sunday and the Manchester derby on Monday night – but there is little doubting Saturday’s most high-profile clash is Reading entertaining Southampton in Sky’s lunchtime kick-off.
Of course, any clash between Reading and Southampton was always going to be an intense match due to the rivalry accrued from last season’s tussle for the npower Championship title, but Nigel Adkins’ recent appointment at the Royals adds a new dimension to the fixture completely.
Adkins was cruelly sacked as Southampton manager in January with his side sat 15th in the Premier League and on a five-match unbeaten run.
His decision to join Reading looks a gamble – not to keep the club up this season (there is little hope on that front), but to get them promoted from the second tier next term.
The former Scunthorpe boss’ new charges are rock-bottom of the Premier League table following a six-game losing streak and the latest defeat saw the Royals thrashed 4-1 at Arsenal last weekend.
Strikes from Gervinho, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Mikel Arteta did the damage – and landed a juicy 13/5 winner for anyone following our 2-1, 3-1 or 4-1 Arsenal win tip for the game – with Hal Robson-Kanu offering a mere consolation for Reading.
Meanwhile, Adkins’ former side are gaining plaudits galore under new manager Mauricio Pochettino, with Chelsea their latest scalp on Saturday thanks to two excellent finishes from Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert.
The Saints are now up to 12th in the table and are the 23/20 favourites in bwin’s 3Way market to make it three wins in a row on Saturday, while both Reading and the draw are priced at 23/10, and it’s really hard to argue against those odds.
Southampton already look a different team under Pochettino from the one they became under Adkins. They are more aggressive and direct, and by direct, I don’t mean Wimbledon at Plough Lane direct.
Instead, they are direct in their pressing and movement, and also in their passing, taking fewer touches when in possession so they move the ball quicker and drag opposition players out of position (Rodriguez’s opener against Chelsea is a prime example).
This should be far too much for a Reading side low on confidence and on the precipice of a return to the Championship, even with the ever-positive Adkins having had a week to galvanise his new team.
The Royals have conceded the most goals in the Premier League and Southampton have scored the most outside of the top seven, and that should be the difference on Saturday.
A quick look at the goalscorer markets suggests that the obvious choice to break the deadlock, yet again, is Lambert. I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but with eight from his last 14 appearances, including six in his last eight away matches, you understand why.
Lambert is a goal machine, but he’s also one of the most all-round strikers in the division, as that bastion of insightful punditry, Robbie Savage, struggled to convey on Match of the Day 2.
Yes, Lambert is the highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League, directly involved in more than 40% of his team’s goals this season and deserving of an England call-up.
But they are all quite superficial observations; delve deeper and you can really see his worth. He boasts a 22% chance conversion rate, which is better than Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez, Demba Ba, Carlos Tevez, Gareth Bale and Sergio Aguero.
He is also joint-seventh in the list of top creative players in the division having made 66 chances, all created from open play, at a rate of a chance every 38 minutes.
Only David Silva, Juan Mata and Suarez have a better record from open play. The only other English striker in the top 50 for chances created is Rooney.
Not bad for a slow 31-year old who only cost £1 million from Bristol Rovers three-and-a-half years ago.
Lambert is the market leader to net first at the weekend at 5/1 to net first and the same price to notch last. He’s also priced at 15/2 to score twice or 40/1 to plunder a hat-trick.
Rodriguez could also attract interest due to his recent form and given he will be out to prove a point to Adkins after he struggled to get much game time under his former manager, for an anytime goal could be a good price.
For Reading, Robson-Kanu sticks out at 20/1 to score last or 7/1 to score at any time as the young Welsh winger has scored three goals in his last six appearances for club and country.
As for the correct score, a 3-1 away win is always a popular result – Southampton have won with that scoreline in seven of their 25 away victories over the last three years.
That can be found at odds of 29/2, while a 3-1 Saints win with Lambert scoring first looks a live option in the scorecast markets at 50/1.
However, the smart money is surely on Lambert simply getting on the scoresheet at a very tempting 6/4, which would return £50 for any new bwin customers successfully backing him with their free £20 bet after registering.
Saints might have only won twice on the road this season, but against Reading they should make it three with the help of their talismanic front man and in the process push their former manager closer to the drop.