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May 2, 2015 at 12.15pm UK at ​Pride Park
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Preview: Derby County vs. Reading

Sports Mole previews Saturday's final-day meeting between Derby County and Reading as the Rams go in search of the point they need to finish in the Championship playoffs.

All eyes will be on Derby County when they host out-of-form Reading on the final day of the Championship season this weekend.

The Rams possess the key to late drama in the playoff battle, with a slip-up required from Steve McClaren's side if the chasing duo of Brentford and Wolverhampton Wanderers are to stand any chance of sneaking into the top six.

Derby County

Derby County's English manager Steve McClaren stands on the sideline during the English Championship Play Off final football match between Derby County and Queens Park Rangers at Wembley Stadium in London on May 24, 2014© Getty Images

It may not be the battle Derby wanted, or indeed expected, to be in on the final day of the season, but McClaren will at least be thankful that their fate rests firmly in their own hands.

The playoffs may still hold bitter memories for the Rams after last season's heartbreaking defeat to Queens Park Rangers in the final at Wembley, but it is now their only route back into the top flight following a severe dip in form.

Derby were amongst the frontrunners for much of the campaign, but a run of just two wins from their last 12 outings - and both of those coming against the league's bottom two clubs - has seen them plunge from many people's title favourites to hanging on to their top-six status.

Their position is still relatively strong, however. Only a defeat on the final day would realistically open the door for Brentford or Wolves, with the Rams currently holding a two-point lead over both clubs in addition to a significantly superior goal difference.

A win would guarantee their place in the playoffs again, while a draw would require one of the chasing pair to win and at least a 16-goal swing in the process for Derby to drop out.

Brentford and Wolves both face home matches against already-relegated Wigan Athletic and Millwall respectively, however, so Derby do have the pressure of knowing that any defeat is highly likely to be capitalised on.

They are unbeaten in six games, however, and while they have only won two of those, they will be confident that they have enough goals in them to at least force a third consecutive draw. They have scored 11 in their last three and 16 in their last six, showing exactly why only the top two have scored more than them this season.

Three of those goals came at The Den on Saturday, and they could prove to be some of their most important yet. Millwall looked on course for a priceless win in their own survival bid, but Chris Martin came off the bench to pull one back before Jeff Hendrick's 85th-minute equaliser rescued a point for his side.

Injuries to Martin and Darren Bent were a major reason behind their dip in form but, with those two returning to fitness just in time, a full-strength Derby would be confident of beating any other team on their day.

Plenty is still to be decided within the playoff places themselves, with Middlesbrough and Norwich being Derby's potential suitors in the semi-finals, neither of whom they have beaten this season.

Indeed, Boro are the only team to beat Derby at home in the league in their last nine matches at the iPro, and one of only three teams to manage it all season.

Recent form: DWDWDD


Reading manager Steve Clarke during the Sky Bet Championship match between Brighton and Hove Albion and Reading at The Amex Stadium on December 26, 2014© Getty Images

In contrast to Derby, there is nothing but pride on the line for Reading now.

Their Championship status has been assured, and Steve Clarke will be eager to get what has been a thoroughly disappointing season over and done with.

While Derby are aiming to get to Wembley again, Reading have already been there this season for an FA Cup semi-final that at least provided one highlight for the Royals, despite their defeat.

They more than held their own against the might of Arsenal on that occasion, but their extra-time loss is ultimately just another part of an ongoing nine-match winless streak, the last five of which have all been defeats.

It has been a dreadful end to the campaign, and their current position of 19th in the table is the highest finish they can now achieve. Should they lose and the two teams below them win, they would end the season in 21st.

That is a far cry from the playoff push that was anticipated by many at the start of the season, and Clarke will know that he has plenty of work to do during the summer if he is to launch a push for the top six next term.

Defeat at Rotherham United last time out - a result that secured the Millers' place in the second tier for another season - extended their winless run on the road to seven matches in all competitions, with only two points from a possible 18 being picked up in the league during that time.

Indeed, only three teams have managed fewer points away from home than the Royals this season, while only Blackpool have conceded more goals.

Recent form: DDLLLL
Recent form (all competitions): DLLLLL

Team News

Darren Bent of Derby County celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Blackpool at iPro Stadium on April 14, 2015© Getty Images

The hosts have Bent back available after he missed the Millwall thriller through illness, with the loanee striker having scored or assisted 13 goals in 14 games for the club.

He could start up front alongside Martin for just the second time; the duo have scored 28 league goals between them for the Rams this season.

Tom Ince is also likely to find a place in the bustling Derby attack having scored four goals and assisted another in his last three games for the club.

Jake Buxton, George Thorne and Zak Whitbread all remain injury concerns, but Craig Bryson is pushing for a recall.

Reading, meanwhile, made six changes last time out, and more could come this weekend. Adam Federici will be hoping for a return between the sticks, while Jamie Mackie and Garath McCleary are also in contention.

Pavel Pogrebnyak is expected to lead the line again after being recalled last time out, while Jem Karacan will be hoping to keep his place in midfield.

Derby possible starting lineup:
Grant; Christie, Shotton, Keogh, Forsyth; Hendrick, Bryson, Hughes; Bent, Martin, Ince

Reading possible starting lineup:
Federici; Gunter, Pearce, Hector, Obita; McCleary, Norwood, Williams, Robson-Kanu; Mackie, Pogrebnyak

Head To Head

This will be the fourth meeting between these two sides this season, with the reverse league fixture being coupled with clashes in both cup competitions.

Reading came out on top at the iPro in the FA Cup, but it was Derby who prevailed in both the league and League Cup, winning the reverse Championship fixture 3-0 in October.

That was their first league win in eight attempts against the Royals, however, while Reading have also won five of their last six visits to Derby, including each of their last three.

Video Preview

Hit play below to see what the Sports Mole Sofa had to say about this encounter:

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We say: Derby 2-0 Reading

Reading appear to have been on their summer holidays for a while now and, with just one match of a disappointing season remaining, don't expect them to suddenly burst into life in this one. Derby have it all to play for and, while a draw would be enough to seal their playoff spot, a win would also give them a better chance of a more favourable semi-final tie.

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Who will win Saturday's Championship clash between Derby and Reading?

Neil Harris during the Sky Bet Championship match between Millwall and Leeds United at The Den on September 28, 2013
Read Next:
Preview: Millwall vs. Derby

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