FOR THE second year in a row, Reading travel to Oakwell on April 2, the first game after the last international break of the season, for a massive match between two sides chasing the same goal.
Last year the Reds were fifth and the Royals sixth, with a 1-1 draw – secured by an inexplicable Lucas Joao miss – a key result in ensuring that Valerien Ismael’s men reached the play-offs and the Berkshire club eventually missed out.
Both clubs have had a miserable year since then and once again face each other in what is likely to be a season-defining game – at the other end of the table as 21st visits 22nd.
This time a draw is very unlikely to be sufficient for the third-bottom Reds, who would remain five points from safety with seven games to play – while a defeat would all-but consign them to League One.
Only a victory will realistically do for Poya Asbaghi’s side, who could move to within two points of Reading and put huge pressure on Paul Ince’s Royals.
Bottom two Peterborough and Derby County – who host Middlesbrough and Preston respectively – will be surely hoping Barnsley can win to keep the four-way survival battle alive.
It is the biggest league game played in front of fans at Oakwell since at least the promotion run-in of 2019.
The two clubs are rivals on and off the pitch, with Barnsley threatening legal action if the Royals are not further punished for alleged breaches of EFL spending rules, having been deducted six points already this season.
Reading have been under a transfer embargo but still signed loanees and free agents with plenty of Premier League and international experience, thought to command large wages.
It is understood to be unlikely that the Reds will be able to force the EFL into any further docking of points this season so their most likely route to escape, by far, is winning at Oakwell on Saturday.
Barnsley have taken 14 points from their last nine games – double the tally of the previous 29 – but they have also only won one of their last five matches.
The Royals host Stoke on Tuesday – when the Reds do not play – so will be targeting two wins this week to increase the gap between them and Barnsley into double figures, essentially ending the relegation fight.
Jonathan Low, from Berkshire live, said: “Reading go into the game in confident mood having picked up a couple of decent results before the international break.
“Everyone was fearing the worst when they lost 4-0 at Nottingham Forest the weekend prior to the break but they bounced back in style with a solid performance at Bournemouth where they came from behind to draw 1-1.
“They then followed that up with a strong display against Blackburn which they won 1-0 but could have won by more.
“Injuries to Andy Rinomhota and Yakou Meite will hit them hard as both are key players – especially Rinomhota who is the engine room of the side.
“Reading still have plenty of quality but individual talent only gets you so far and it’s all about if they can pull it together as a team.
“Ince is finally getting a tune out of them and with survival in sight, it’s now time for one final push to get over the line.”
The last time Reading visited Oakwell, their manager was Veljko Paunovic who clashed with Ismael in angry scenes on the dug-out.
The Serb was sacked on February 19 this year, despite a 3-2 win at Preston that day – paying the price for a previous eight-match losing run which left them a place above the drop zone and one of four teams cut adrift from the rest.
He was replaced by former England midfielder Ince, whose son Tom plays for Reading but who had not managed for eight years since being sacked by Blackpool.
Ince senior’s only game against Barnsley as a player was the infamous Premier League win for Liverpool at Oakwell in 1998 when the Reds had three players sent off.
He won his first Royals game at home to Birmingham but then lost three in a row – including four-goal thrashings by Blackpool and Nottingham Forest – and saw Barnsley move to within two points of them.
But Reading followed a 1-1 draw with second-placed Bournemouth with a 1-0 home win over sixth-placed Blackburn Rovers, increasing the gap to five after Barnsley had lost their derby at Sheffield United.
Reading have scored the most goals of the bottom six with 44 but their 73 conceded is the second most in the division behind second-bottom Peterborough.
Approaching their goal has not been difficult for most opponents this season as Reading have conceded the most shots on goal of any Championship side, and had to block the most shots.
But, of all the clubs in the EFL, only the bottom side Scunthorpe have fewer goals this season than Barnsley’s 28.
The first goal is likely to be vital as Barnsley have lost their last 11 matches when falling behind.
Barnsley lost 1-0 at Reading in October under Markus Schopp, after another international break.
The Reds delivered one of their better performances under the Austrian who partially blamed young substitute Will Hondermarck for disrupting the balance of the side before John Swift’s late winner.
Impressing in that game were former Reds captain Andy Yiadom, as well as Danny Drinkwater who excelled on loan to Barnsley in the 2011/12 season before winning the Premier League with Leicester and playing for England. He is on loan from Chelsea who signed him for £30million, as is left-back Baba Rahman who the London club brought in for £15million.
Barnsley’s last five home matches have brought wins over QPR, Middlesbrough and Bristol City as well as draws with Stoke and leaders Fulham who scored late equalisers.
Their home form is likely to be the bedrock of any survival bid.
Reading also have a good record at Oakwell, going back longer. They have not lost in nine trips, winning five and drawing four including 1-1s in their three most recent visits.
The last time they lost in Barnsley was in 1998 in a 3-0 League Cup defeat, thanks to a Darren Barnard free-kick and a Jan-Aage Fjortoft double.
Reading’s last league loss in Barnsley was two years earlier, under Danny Wilson, by the same scoreline with Darren Sheridan opening the scoring before Andy Liddell struck twice.
Barnsley have not won any of the last nine home or away meetings with the Royals, drawing four and losing five.
Their only wins in the last 21 have been at the Madejski Stadium, with the most recent being a 3-1 success in 2014 in Wilson’s second spell thanks to goals by Stephen Dawson, Reuben Noble-Lazarus and Dale Jennings.
Noble-Lazarus and Wilson are among a group of about 15 former Reds who will be special guests at the game as part of the launch of the club’s ‘alumni’ project.
They are due to be introduced to the crowd before kick-off which may liven up the atmosphere for the crucial fixture, the result of which is likely to define Barnsley’s season.