As we said before this game, it wasn't a must win but it almost certainly was a must not lose. Unfortunately for Brian McDermott his lack of midfield options once again cost him dearly as a goal ten minutes from time consigned us to back-to-back defeats against relegation rivals to leaves us struggling in the drop zone.
Reading: Federici: (7); Shorey (7), Morrison (6), Mariappa (7), Cummings (6); McAnuff (6), Tabb (6), Leigertwood (5), Robson-Kanu (6); Roberts (6), Le Fondre (6) Subs: Hunt (6), McCleary (6)
Going into the game the number one call from Royals fans was to see Kaspars Gorkss and Chris Gunter dropped and they were given their wish, with Gorkss just outright dropped and Gunter missing with a hamstring injury. In their place came Adrian Mariappa and Shaun Cummings in an otherwise unchanged side from the 3-2 defeat up at Wigan.
Reading started the game fairly well, getting a decent amount of territorial advantage and looking motivated following that last minute failure in the North West. Jobi McAnuff was looking particularly up for it and his drive down the right led to our first real chance as his cross was stabbed at the keeper who blocked it into the path of Le Fondre, only for Alfie to just steer his overhead wide from five yards. The only other opportunity coming when Sean Morrison nodded wide from a corner.
Villa's first chance fell to Benteke and it was a similar moment to Cisse's equaliser for QPR the other week as Morrison came and missed a ball across the face of the area that ended up to Benteke, only he failed to make it count.
A few minutes later and with around 10 yards of clear space either side of him and at least two men to pass too, Mikele Leigertwood decided it was a good idea to dally on the ball and turn into a tackle, setting up a breakaway that should have seen Weimann score, only for the Villa man to blaze over from 8 yards.
Barry Bannan's corners were creating plenty of problems for the Royals and Baker almost found the corner just minutes later only for it to drift just wide, though it was a warning shot that would come back to haunt us.
Into the second period and again nether side was dominating, with both feeding off scraps from set pieces. Le Fondre again had our best chance, but his header six yards out was poorly directed and didn't trouble Guzan when it should have ended up in the net.
With 20 minutes to go Stephen Ireland came on for the home side and his fresh legs seemed to be giving Villa a bit more drive but the Reading bench remained inactive, despite the general bluntness of the attack.
It took until the 79th minute for Reading to make a sub and mystifyingly it was Roberts who made way for Noel Hunt. I know Alfie has a knack of scoring late goals but this was a game where he'd fluffed his lines twice and generally not looked like making anything happen, so to sub off the always problematic Roberts was a bit of a mystery.
Still the sub didn't really matter as just over a minute later Villa took the lead.
Another teasing, troubling corner went deep and there was Benteke to get the better of a largely static Morrison to nod home the winning goal. Reading could have no real complaints, corners had been giving them issues all evening and it was only a matter of time before one found the net.
McCleary came on as a last ditch sub but didn't really have a chance to do anything as Villa comfortably held on for a win they just about deserved.
This was a dour, dour game and up there with Norwich as one of the lowest quality we're likely to see in the Premier League this season. Neither side showed they had a great amount of quality but it was better set pieces of Barry Bannan that proved the difference.
Performance wise and Adam Federici had a decent enough night, making one fairly good save down to his left and generally commanding the box pretty well. There was little he could do about the goal and he was probably one of our better performers.
Nicky Shorey was again solid and looked comfortable at this level. His set pieces weren't amazing but did cause a few problems and he's probably player of the season right now for me. Shaun Cummings looked OK but wasted a couple of good chances from the byline with loopy crosses that were no problem for Guzan in the Villa net.
Sean Morrison had perhaps his weakest game so far though that's not to say he was a liability. His missed interception gave Benteke a great goalscoring chance in the first half while it was Morro who was beaten in the air by the same man for the goal. He also wasted a good chance to score himself from a corner. Adrian Mariappa looked solid, if not a bit leggy by the final whistle.
Jobi McAnuff gave it all he had and nearly set up an opener but generally struggled to make an impact on the game. Hal Robson-Kanu was the same and neither winger covered themselves in glory really.
The central pairing worked hard as usual but this was the game when we emphatically saw that neither are truly Premier League quality. Leigertwood again gave the ball away in key positions while Jay Tabb's range of passing was about as extensive as the gourmet range at Poundland. I've got nothing against either man and they've been shown at times that they can compete and at times hold their own in this league, but neither is going to help create chances and neither has the quality to do the defensive work we need over 90 minutes. If Tabb and Leigertwood play every game for the rest of the season we will get relegated it's as simple as that.
Up front and Alfie won't remember this night fondly as he fluffed our two best chances to score. His overhead effort was decent but he perhaps should have left it, while his missed header in the second will trouble him I'd expect. Roberts was again a handful but didn't have too many sights of goal.
Subs wise and Hunt and McCleary ran around... that's about it.
The reaction from Royals fans, myself included was one of general depression and frustration. Few were angry in the same way that we were after the Wigan game, instead there was just a growing sense of accepting that we're probably not quite good enough to stay up in this league and that any survival would be a bonus now rather than an expectation. Of course some fans remained positive and it's true that once again we were competing away from home and lost to a late goal but at some point all of this competing needs to turn into hard points or we'll not survive.
For me the problems begin and end in the midfield.
As mentioned a combination of Tabb and Leigertwood won't keep you up but it's not their fault they are playing every game, that fault lies with Brian McDermott, Nicky Hammond and Anton Zingarevich. Now who's fault exactly it is we'll never know but if we believe the public statements then it's McDermott who must take the bulk of this blame as he said he got every target he wanted this summer.
That means that Brian felt that Tabb and Ledge plus an already injury plagued Karacan and a new signing in Guthrie would get us through until at least January. Within 2 months Guthrie had fallen out after not fitting in with our style on or off the pitch while Jem was once again crocked. I'm sorry but this is why we might be going down more than any other reason. You cannot, cannot go in so lightweight. If Jay Tabb wasn't good enough for our first XI in the Championship over three years, he is not going to suddenly become Premier League quality. He can do a job, and has done a decent job, but his limitations are going to get exposed and they have been last night. Leigertwood is again looking woefully out of his depth and you can see now why he's been part of two previous relegated sides and binned off from another that was looking Premier League bound.
So is there any cause for optimism? Well yes, in so much as McCarthy, Karacan, Guthrie and Kebe are all to come back from injury while we've still got a January transfer window to try and get in some more quality. We've also still got to play Wigan, Villa, Swansea, Southampton, QPR, West Ham and Sunderland at the Madejski so there's the chance to get some more points there.
Do I think we'll stay up?
I think the needle has very much swung in the probable direction, if not set firmly to inevitable. There's still reasons to hope, we're not adrift and as mentioned we've got the chance to reinforce, but with our December schedule including both Manchester clubs and Arsenal, it's tough to see us finishing 2012 with any more than maybe 15 points. It's vital we do get a couple of wins, not just for our general survival prospects but to encourage belief in the players and fans as well as giving perspective signings the belief that we might stay up.
Whatever happens the club is still in good shape and for now I still think Brian deserves our backing. Yes he's made mistakes and he'll keep making them but he needs every chance to prove he can get something out of this squad and can make the signings we need to keep us moving forward in the long term, even if we do take a step back down first. I really don't think Jose Mourinho or SIr Alex would get much out of a team where your midfield options are Tabb, Ledge or a 37 year-old Bryn so sacking him now makes no sense.
So while it's looking grim lets cling onto a bit of hope and try and get behind the boys. The passion is still there and as teams like Wigan, Pompey and West Brom have all shown, it's not over until it's over. Maybe like last year we're just setting ourselves up for a most unlikely run......