Barnsley v Reading - Valerien Ismael happy to play pressure game

BARNSLEY head coach Valerien Ismael’s opposite number tonight in Reading rival Veljko Paunovic has not tried to disguise the importance of this fixture.

Quite the opposite in fact.

Ahead of a high-stakes televised meeting of play-off rivals, the Serbian candidly acknowledged that it is the Royals’ biggest game of the season so far – and by definition, he alluded to a fair degree of pressure in the process.

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While naturally anxious to secure a key result for his own side, the load on Ismael’s own back is not as heavy.

Barnsley boss Valerien Ismael. Picture: PA

Reading head into the game on the back of a return of two points from the last nine available. If Bournemouth beat Middlesbrough this afternoon, the Cherries will leapfrog the Berkshire club into the final play-off spot ahead of kick-off at 5.30pm.

A victory for Cardiff against Nottingham Forest would also cut the gap between themselves and Reading to a single point.

For Barnsley, two points and one place above sixth-placed Reading, the table could also significantly tighten if Bournemouth and Cardiff both win.

But with the Reds having overachieved in a major way this season, Ismael is quick to stress that expectation is on the shoulders of others including Reading. He is not just saying it for effect either.

This week’s list of agents fees published is perhaps another little indicator of that fact.

The Football Association’s annual figures of agent and intermediary fees paid by Championship clubs, covering the period of February 1, 2020 to February 1, 2021, showed that Barnsley paid £515,162 to intermediaries – the fifth lowest total in the division.

By contrast, Reading paid £2,688,492 – the fourth highest Championship amount. Bournemouth’s was the second highest figure at a cool £5,653,160.

It gives credence to Ismael’s observations about notions of pressure ahead of the run-in.

Ismael said: “The most important thing is we play without pressure. It will be a tough game, but there is big pressure on Reading and we have to find the solutions.

“We are motivated and determined to get the points, but both teams are the same and we need to stay focused on our philosophy and this is what counts.

“We are here and want to stay where we are. We will enjoy it and are in a great position and you feel it in the team. We have had a reward for our efforts this season, but the job is not done.”

Casting aside any notion that ‘scoreboard pressure’ from top-six rivals would raise the stakes before kick-off, the Frenchman is equally unequivocal.

The Reds chief, whose side have lost just once in 13 matches, added: “It does not matter if we play before (3pm) or after. You have seen this season that we have reacted very well to the situation over time.

“The only thing I know is that the break was really good for the guys and we will have all the energy. What people have seen with Barnsley will be exactly the same (again) – a lot of energy, motivation and desire from the guys.”

A little bit of merited kudos has been afforded Barnsley of late by way of another international player on their alumni in the shape of Michal Helik, who earned his first two senior caps for Poland in the recent league hiatus.

That included a start in his country’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley on Wednesday, with the 25-year-old ‘really motivated’ ahead of his return to club duties according to Ismael, who received texts from the centre-half after Poland’s game with England.

Ismael commented: “It has to be an inspiration and motivation for all the players and it is a big achievement for him (Helik). But this season is not finished and we need the best finish we can have to take the next step with him.

“I am proud of him, but of (also) all the guys in terms of what they have achieved so far. We want to continue and are looking forward with a good feeling.”

Meanwhile, Helik’s defensive colleague Toby Sibbick could add to the club’s international contingent in the near future, with Ugandan officials having been in touch regarding representing the African nation.

After returning to the club after a loan spell at Belgian outfit KV Oostende in the first half of the season, Sibbick is making the most of his return to favour under Ismael after being frozen out under his predecessor Gerhard Struber. He has quickly become a valued part of Ismael’s line-up.

Sibbick, 21, said: “The Uganda national team coach has contacted me a few times now. But it is a long process and my mum has to get her Ugandan passport approved and it has got to go back and forth for quite a while.

“We will see where that takes us. I have been there a few times and know a few of the lads whom play for the national team.

“They have played a few times and say they like it and it is enjoyable, so it does look promising.”

Last six games: Barnsley WWDWWL; Reading WWWDLD.

Referee: G Eltringham (Tyne and Wear).

Last time: Barnsley 1 Reading 1, December 11, 2019; Championship.

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