There's only so many times you can lose a game that's billed as a 'must not lose' before you begin to realise the writing's on the wall. While relegation is far from a mathematical certainty, you'd be a brave man to back Reading to survive based on yesterday's pitiful performance down at St Mary's. On Saturday, the stadium that had been the scene of one of our greatest triumphs instead hosted a Premier League nightmare.
Reading: Federici (7); Shorey (6), Mariappa (5), Morrison (6), Cummings (7); McAnuff (6), Tabb (6), Leigertwood (6), Robson-Kanu (6); Roberts (5), Le Fondre (5) Subs: Hunt (5), Pearce (6), McCleary (6)
With the generally accepted Premier League survival mark between 38 and 40 points, Reading must now take 29-31 points from their remaining 23 games to survive. Seven of those games will come against Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and the Manchester Clubs, so realistically it'll be 29 points from 16 games. Yeah good luck Brian.
Following last week's gallant defeat to Manchester United there were reasons for cautious optimism heading to St Mary's and the pre-match news that Saint's record signing Gaston Ramirez would be on the bench further boosted morale. Reading went with the same XI that had played United but there was a first bench spot for young striker Dominic Samuel, who replaced the injured Pogrebnyak on the bench.
Last week Reading became the first team to score three goals inside the first 23 minutes of a Premier League game against Manchester United. This week we returned to the timid goal shy outfit we've sadly become used to seeing in crunch games this season. We've now drawn blanks in games with Norwich, Villa and Southampton and it's not good enough breaking down United and Chelsea five times if you can't grab a goal when it matters.
Southampton made all of the running in the first half and Adam Federici had to be alert to save from Lallana and Lambert. Reading had a couple of half chances, the best of them coming through Jay Tabb who tried to score his first goal in nearly four years at the club, but couldn't beat Kelvin Davis.
Reading's management have bemoaned their luck at times this season but for the second game runing we received a huge let off as Puncheon's header beat Federici, only to have the goal chalked off for a foul on the 'keeper by Yoshida. Having seen the replay there's really not a lot in it and it was a real let off. Shortly after and Reading were given another boost before the break when Southampton skipper Lallana was forced off with an injury to be replaced by Ramirez.
Reading's best chance of the game came just before the half time whistle as Morrison's flick-on found Robson-Kanu seven yards out, only for the winger to send his header straight onto the post with Davis struggling.
Into the second half and again it was Southampton making all the chances, with Federici alert early on to deny Puncheon down to the 'keeper's left.
The Royals suffered an injury blow minutes later when Sean Morrison went down with an ankle injury. The defender managed to hobble back on for a few minutes but was helpless as Puncheon opened the scoring just after the hour. Mariappa came a long way out of position to track Lambert but the Southampton striker controlled the ball excellently to release the overlapping Clyne who had escaped Shorey's watch. Before our left-back had the chance to close him down, Clyne played an excellent ball across the box to Puncheon who nipped in between Tabb and Morrison to finish well past Federici. It's hard to know who to blame for the goal as so many Reading defenders wanted to contribute to the failure. Tabb should have tracked Puncheon, Shorey should have been more watchful of Clyne and Morrison was once again miles away from his man in the area, though admittedly injured. Mariappa came far too deep to stop Lambert in an area that you'd have though Leigertwood or Tabb should be controlling and well... it was just a mess.
Morrison was off soon after for Alex Pearce, with the defender making his first appearance since the 1-0 defeat up at West Brom. Morro was apparently on crutches after the game so it could well give Pearce a chance at Sunderland but given his ongoing contract squabbles you can't rule out Gorkss coming back in either.
As for the rest of the game and Reading barely mustered a threat in the remaining half hour despite the introductions of Noel Hunt and Garath McCleary. Jobi and Alfie both had minor half chances but a final tally of just six shots, two on target against a team who been conceding at two goals a game is pretty pathetic.
Individually Reading were lacklustre though goalkeeper Adam Federici can be happy with a solid performance in goal, keeping us in the game with a couple of decent saves and generally good command.
Shaun Cummings was another of the better performers, clearing one off the line and generally playing well to mark the signing of his new deal. Nicky Shorey was solid again, though didn't cover himself in too much glory for the goal. His set pieces were fairly decent but didn't quite have the potency shown against United.
Mariappa and Morrison looked pretty weak together as a combination for the third game running, both unsure positionally and composure wise. It's a bit easier to see now why Brian persisted with the experienced head of Gorkss for so long, but sadly his form wasn't good enough to justify keeping his organisational skills in the team. Whether Alex Pearce is the answer isn't clear but he's got more experience than Morrison and considering every other combination has failed we might as well give Pearce & Mapps a chance on Tuesday, it can't get any worse.
Jobi McAnuff was largely anonymous, wasting a good chance to be put through 1-on-1 in the first half when he needlessly strayed offside on a breakaway. Hal Robson-Kanu missed a chance that was five-times easier than the one he scored against United and otherwise didn't feature much.
Leigertwood and Tabb tried... and generally failed again. Tabb reminds me more and more of Phil Parkinson which is good, but like Parky when Reading were at a higher level, he struggles to make any impact on a game technically despite unquestionable effort and enthusiasm. To be fair to Leigertwood he was better than at Villa or Wigan but again couldn't control the game and struggled at the top level. A pass completion rate of 78% by Ledge is encouraging but our lack of impact in the middle is highlighted by the fact that our midfield four made just 80 passes between the four of them, while Jack Cork had 60 just by himself.
Again you have to ask why Danny Guthrie didn't start or at least come on when it became apparent that our system just wasn't working. The ultimate insult for the lad had to be seeing Jay Tabb replaced by Noel Hunt with Jobi moving into the middle. Has Jobi moving into the middle ever worked? There were reports post game that Guthrie had changed his bio from Reading footballer to just footballer and even if that wasn't the case, it's hard to see much of a future for him here.
Up front and Roberts had perhaps his worst game for Reading. The striker was too preoccupied trying to win fouls rather than challenge for the ball and his most notable contribution was rowing with the ref and even his own player Alex Pearce, over what I've got no idea. Adam Le Fondre did little and when we're not creating chances it's hard to justify his inclusion. For a finisher it's worth noting that Alfie hasn't scored an open play goal with his feet this season and at least the Hunt/Roberts combo seemed to flourish when we were playing hoofball. Still it's sadly much of a muchness especially with Pogrebnyak injured and unlikely to return until Arsenal at the earliest.
Subs wise and Pearce was solid enough, with a 30 minute clean sheet. McCleary and Hunt didn't really have much of an impact though and neither are really forcing a selection issue right now.
So what do we take from that? Sadly little but negatives.
This was as timid and limp as we've seen this year, probably even more so than Villa or Tottenham which before today had stood out as particularly poor. You can understand a team like Reading getting outplayed by Manchester United or beaten by bad luck at Chelsea, but to lose in this manor was just unacceptable and took us back to the dark days of Brian's early reign when the team capitulated at places like Plymouth. Those performances had become less and less frequent but they seem to be increasing as of late and questions need to be asked if the current backroom staff really are getting every drop out of these players. Perhaps it's time for a defensive coach to come in, or maybe just a different voice and perspective than Brian and Nigel Gibbs who've been pretty much running things by themselves for three years now.
That brings us to the main issue on the lips and keyboards of Reading fans last night, is Brian McDermott the right man for the job or has he lost the battle? That question deserves more than a postscript at the end of a match report and it's one I'll tackle later today but for the meantime it's certainly fair to say that fans, Anton Zingarevich and even Brian himself won't be shying away from asking what seemed an unthinkable question just six months ago.
So we head on to Sunderland with more questions than answers. With a six point gap to safety it's certainly looking grim but win that game in hand and being just three points away from three different teams suddenly looks a lot more paletable. Sadly it's tough to see Reading getting a win right now and even if we do win in the North East, we could soon be cut adrift again due to back-to-back games with Arsenal and Manchester City.
Reading are 4/9 with the bookies to go down and while the fat lady isn't singing, she's certainly booked a taxi....