Keeping hopes alive, selection issues and polishing the diamond - questions ahead of ‘massive’ Reading clash
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Ipswich Town face a must-win game against fellow strugglers Reading this weekend. ANDY WARREN looks at the big questions heading into the game.
Can the Blues keep their hopes alive?
Ipswich Town have surely now arrived in the Last Chance Saloon.
They are nine points adrift of safety, have an inferior goal difference to their relegation rivals and are now facing the team sitting immediately above the drop zone.
Even a victory will leave Ipswich facing an uphill battle for survival, but defeat will leave Paul Lambert’s men 12 points adrift with just 11 games to go.
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Lambert, who has so regularly insisted every game is as important as the last (and indeed the next) has hailed this clash as ‘massive’.
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A win could cut the gap to ‘just’ six points (the gap hasn’t been less than six since before Christmas) and extend the Blues’ unbeaten run to four games. That would be the closest thing they’ve had to momentum all season.
Anything else and even the most optimistic will surely be accepting of the Blues’ fate.
Are diamonds forever?
Lambert deployed a diamond midfield in the defeat at Norwich and the draws with Derby and Stoke, with the switch in formation bringing improved displays and two good points.
However, after some of the formation’s weaknesses were highlighted in the Stoke game, Lambert switched things up to face a Wigan side who had combated the Potters’ own diamond well just a few days earlier.
Three central defenders and two marauding wing-backs were deployed at the DW Stadium, with the system working perfectly for 25 minutes before Jonas Knudsen’s red card. James Bree in particular was able to profit from the freedom to get forward from right full-back, adding a new dimension to the Ipswich attack.
The Dane’s suspension means it’s difficult for three centre backs to be used again, unless James Collins is fit or Toto Nsiala comes in to start, so will the diamond return?
Reading play a similar 4-2-3-1 system to the one used by both Wigan and Stoke, with the latter highlighting the narrow nature of the diamond and exposing the Ipswich full-backs for one-on-one battles.
A switch to wing-backs countered that at Wigan but it remains to be seen how Lambert sets up tactically for the visit of the Royals.
Will Keane be fit?
The biggest selection question mark going into this game relates to striker Will Keane, who left Saturday’s draw at Wigan with a hamstring injury.
The club have released an injury update stating they will do ‘everything they can’ to get him on the field as soon as possible, but hamstring injuries can be troublesome.
It’s not looking good, with former Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy stating that the striker, who is set to commit to playing for his Ireland side, is set for six weeks out.
There’s no doubting Ipswich are a better side when Keane is on the field. His touch is good, he’s physically strong enough to battle Championship defenders and he can bring others into the game. His three goals in eight games show he knows where the net is, too.
If, as is now expected, he’s unable to play then the burden will likely fall on Huddersfield loanee Collin Quaner.
The German hasn’t hit the heights hoped of him following his switch from the Terriers and his best football has come alongside Keane.
He doesn’t offer the same control as Keane as a lone striker but, if Ellis Harrison has recovered from his own hamstring injury, the Welshman would provide a good foil and allow Quaner to run the channels. That’s where he’s most dangerous.
Quaner and Kayden Jackson, the only other fit striker at the club currently, are not a natural pairing so, if Keane isn’t good to go, the Blues may have to switch to one up front and support from midfield.
A midfield reshuffle?
Aside from Keane, Lambert will have other selection decisions to make for this must-win game.
Alan Judge is arguably the first name on the Ipswich Town team-sheet at present but the other midfield roles are up in the air.
Cole Skuse, who returned from knee surgery in double quick time at the start of the year but has not been able to recapture his sparkling form of November, has been laid low by a virus and was only a substitute for the Stoke and Wigan games.
Teddy Bishop also missed the Wigan game through illness following two impressive performances against Derby and Stoke.
Both could be in line to return to the starting line-up.
If striker Keane is out, his absence could also mean a decision needs to be made at left-back.
Knudsen is suspended and Kenlock has had up-and-down games against Stoke and Wigan, so could Callum Elder come in from the cold?
The Australian has been the odd man out when Lambert has had to leave one of his six loanees on the sidelines, with only five able to be used each matchday, but he could come into consideration if Keane is removed from that equation.
Role of the crowd
The Blues have once again dropped ticket prices, meaning adults can watch this game for as little as £12.
Similar initiatives for the games with West Brom, Rotherham and Derby this season have helped generate a good atmosphere inside Portman Road, with another crowd approaching 20,000 expected for this game.
Lambert will be sat in the stands as he serves the second of his two-game ban following his red card at Norwich.
His touchline presence will be missed, both by his players and the supporters he so energetically tries to lift during games, but the home fans have a real role to play if their team are to secure just their fourth win of the season.