Reading's survival hopes are on life support after going down to a 2-1 defeat at home to fellow strugglers Aston Villa. Brian McDermott's team gave it a good go but two sloppy mistakes at the back coupled with a poor show in front of goal helped make it no wins from six against the bottom five and almost certainly seals a return to the Championship.
After defeats to Stoke, Wigan and Everton, Reading came into this game desperately needing all three points to give them something to hold on to ahead of trips to Manchester United and Arsenal. Sadly despite one of the better performances we've seen this season, the quality was lacking in the key moments and once again Reading fans have to face up to a season in the Championship.
With Jimmy Kebe injured, Hal Robson-Kanu earned a rare start in an otherwise unchanged lineup as Brian stuck to 4-4-2 rather than revert back to a 4-5-1.
Unlike the 3-0 humilation against Wigan, Reading gave this one a good go and Adam Le Fondre nearly gave Reading the perfect start with a header that seemed goalbound, only to be clawed away by Villa 'keeper Brad Guzan. Reading continued to press and could have had a penalty after Hunt was pushed by Guzan but the referee didn't blow up. Jobi McAnuff and Hal Robson-Kanu were also getting into some good positions but both were guilty of poor decision making and neither really troubled the Villa defence from the byline.
Villa did look threatening on the break and Weimann should have scored when put through, while Benteke hit the bar, though Taylor may just have got a touch. The visitors looked solid on the ball, passing it around well but lacked composure in key moments and gifted Reading the possession that they had been denied by the more clinical Everton or Wigan.
Reading probably just about deserved the first goal and got it in the most fortunate of circumstances as Baker sliced a clearance into his own net after Akpan had flicked on McAnuff's low cross.
1-0 up and with just over 10 minutes to go, all you wanted to see was Reading see out the half but this is a Reading team who have now conceded goals in the last 15 minutes of the first half in the last four home games. Just as in the Wigan game it was two quick strikes that stunned the Reading crowd. First came Benteke whose deflected shot beat Taylor after some fine work by Weimann down the right. Then for the second a sliced clearance from Kelly span back towards Taylor's goal, Harte couldn't clear and Bannan turned it onto the post. Reading couldn't clear and the ball fell to Agbonlahor who finished well from eight yards right into the top corner.
Looking at the goals deeper and on both occassions you have to ask why Ian Harte has been left so isolated. Harte has been described as a 'quarterback' after the NFL player who pings the ball around. But like a QB who get's 'sacked' you have to ask questions of the men who are supposed to be supporting him as much wondering about the mobility of our left-back. To give Weimann so much time to pick his crosses was just poor and Jobi McAnuff will be very disappointed to leave Harte so exposed.
Reading were booed off at the break and came out two or three minutes early for the second half but the nerves were apparent and it was Villa who were looking the more likely to score.
All that changed just before the hour when McAnuff had a rare positive moment and lashed a cross across the box, which found Noel Hunt who finished from close range. Sadly the linesman flagged for offside, a decision which according to the radio commentary and Brian McDermott, was a poor one.
McDermott immediately made a double sub, with Hope Akpan off for Garath McCleary and Hunt subbed for Nick Blackman. Both subs were loudly booed by the home fans as Brian once again sacrificed a natural central midfielder to put Jobi in the centre. I understand the method behind this madness but surely if you want creativity in the middle you put on Danny Guthrie, especially when the man you've decided to put in that role is having an absolute shocker....
Reading huffed and puffed and almost immediately Blackman had a chance to score but put his header straight at Guzan. It was a chance you'd probably would have expected Hunt to do more with I might add. Robson-Kanu was also in the thick of it, twice flashing shots inches past the post with the keeper stranded.
Villa continued to look threatening on the break and only a great challenge by Alex Pearce kept it 2-1, while Villa sub N'Zogbia had chances around the box from open play and a dead ball that you would have expected him to do better with.
Leigertwood was subbed for Guthrie late on and the former Sheffield United man was given plenty of ironic cheers as he walked off, as well as a few boos from a clearly frustrated home side.
Sadly nothing came off for Reading, who again had a late penalty shout turned down but results are results and this one just wasn't good enough.
Before the negatives, I'll just put on record that I thought this was one of our better home performances of the season. Rarely do you see a match where Reading had quite so many chances but when I'm saying that this game was one of our better ones... it tells you just about all you need to know about our season.
Player ratings will be up very shortly so I won't dwell on individual performances here, but once again it was obvious where the failings lie with this team and Brian McDermott now faces up to the biggest call of his Reading career, whether to drop his captain.
In his post match interview Brian was very supportive of Jobi McAnuff and while I don't agree with all the stick he gets this was probably as bad as it gets for the winger, who just looked utterly devoid of quality. He works hard, he gives 100% and he clearly cares but there's a reason Jobi McAnuff is enjoying his first Premier League season at 31 years of age. He remains a good option but there remains very little justification for him to start ahead of the likes of Blackman, McCleary, Robson-Kanu and of course Jimmy Kebe. He's got something left to offer this club but for the sake of both player and the team, it might be worth getting him out of the firing line for the next couple of games.
With regards to the booing, every fan has the right to express how they feel but you almost get the sense that fans are waiting for mistakes with Jobi and Ledge rather than helping to get them through bad times. Players should be giving the fans something to sing about but after a bad run or a mistake I can't help but believe singing the players name will help him far more than jumping up and slagging him off, though that's said with the benefit of hindsight and I'm the first to admit I've vented frustations more than once this season.
To finish summing up the game and I thought that Villa were good but lacked composure at key times and looked very nervy at others. I suppose that's what you expect from a young side but the difference between these two sides was that Villa had the quality of Weimann and Benteke where it matters the most, while Reading were forced to rely on the hard working but sadly lacking in quality group of Le Fondre, Hunt, McAnuff and Robson-Kanu.
As for the referee, well it wasn't his fault the linesman flagged and generally he had a good game. As for the two penalty shouts and you never see the 'keeper penalised when he's claimed the ball in the box and I would have to see the second one again later. Whatever the case, I think it's safe to say we've not had a lot of help from the officials in recent weeks.
So where do we go from here? Right now it's hard to see anything other than a return to the Championship.
Reading are now four points from safety and with their next two games at Old Trafford and the Emirates, it's likely they'll be at least four away with just seven to play, including games with Liverpool and Manchester City. As much as you look at games against Fulham, Norwich, Southampton, QPR and West Ham as winnable, if they can't beat Wigan or Aston Villa, what hope do you hold for winning the four out of those five you'd probably need just to stand a chance.
The mood around the club right now has the same atmosphere as the last days of the Coppell era. Fans are accusing McDermott of over loyalty and the tactics and team selections are based on an era that's passed us by. Brian is right to point out how far we've come and how many good days the likes of Jobi and Ledge have given us in the past but that's what those days are, the past.
Sadly we'll have to look back on two transfer windows and worry about what might have been. A combined spend of around £6 million and the continued recruitment of lower league potential over proven quality was questioned at the time and now seems to have been our downfall. You just have to look down the M4 where QPR beat Sunderland through goals from three January signings, Remy, Jenas and Townsend to show the differing financial commitments between two of the bottom three. Likewise, Villa's opening goalscorer cost more than our entire starting lineup. Spending doesn't equal points but it stinks of opportunity lost on Reading's point of view.
That's how I'm going to look back on this when it's all said and done. When you look at those who played you'll probably said they did just about all they could given their quality levels but what will hurt long beyond this is the feeling that just one or two more signings could have made such a big, big difference.
There will be plenty more days to dissect and analyse this season in the coming months so I won't continue to babble on right now. Overall it's just a bad day, a very bad day and one that the fans, players and staff will just want to forget....
Reading: Taylor; Harte, Mariappa, Pearce, Kelly; McAnuff, Akpan (McCleary), Leigertwood (Guthrie), Robson-Kanu; Hunt (Blackman), Le Fondre