Reading appear destined for relegation after losing a must-win game at home to Southampton.
There was plenty of spirit shown by the Royals, as there has been all season, but Nigel Adkins' first game in charge at the Madejski Stadium ended in heartache as goals from Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana sealed a 2-0 victory for the visitors.
Eight points from safety with just six games to play, it is a cruel twist of fate for Adkins that the final nail in Reading's Premier League coffin appears to have been hammered in by his former club Southampton.
Both teams came up together from the Championship and have fought hard all season but, while Reading fans may now be contemplating a future back in the Championship, Southampton seem to be going from strength to strength under new boss Mauricio Pochettino.
Reading manager Adkins shuffled his pack for his first game in charge following a demoralising defeat at Arsenal last time out. Five changes were made in total, with Adam Federici returning in goal in place of Stuart Taylor, and Sean Morrison, Chris Gunter, Hope Akpan and Adam Le Fondre all being drafted in.
Saints boss Pochettino did not see the need to tinker too much with his side following a 2-1 victory over Chelsea, but did make one alteration at the Madejski Stadium as Gaston Ramirez came in for Jason Puncheon.
Adkins was in the unusual position before kick-off of knowing the opposition players better than his own, having only been sacked by Southampton in January, but it seemed initially as though he was using that to his advantage to nullify the visitors' attacking threat. He packed the Reading midfield, making for a game of few chances early on, but they could not sustain a strong start.
Southampton have earned rave reviews for their high-tempo pressing game since Pochettino took charge but they looked uncomfortable until Rodriguez broke the deadlock against the run of play. Once they were in front, everything clicked for Saints and they controlled the match with a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation. Rodriguez, Ramirez and Lambert linked up to great effect to provide a dynamic forward line full of clever passing and movement, while Morgan Schneiderlin again impressed in the heart of midfield.
Adkins tried to change the flow of the game with his substitutions, first replacing the ineffective Akpan with Mikele Leigertwood. Unfortunately, Southampton became increasingly dominant and the Reading manager was stuck with the problem of wanting to bring on attacking players to chase an equaliser whilst knowing he still needed some steel for the midfield battle. Garath McCleary and Noel Hunt came on for Danny Guthrie and Hal Robson-Kanu, but had little impact.
Pochettino took off the tiring Ramirez just after the hour mark and his replacement, Lallana, swiftly made an impact with a well-taken goal to put the result beyond doubt. Southampton only made one other change, and it was a late one, but Guly still should have got his name on the score sheet as he blazed a shot wildly off target.
There were a few tough calls for Mike Jones and his assistants to make which all come under the 'seen them given' category, but replays suggested the correct decisions were made in each case. Adkins felt a free-kick could have been awarded against Rodriguez for raising his feet as he scored, but really goalkeeper Federici should have been braver to get to the ball first and cut off his supply. Jones did well to spot that Jos Hooiveld had taken the ball when Hal Robson-Kanu went down under a challenge in the box, while goal-line technology would have been needed in the second half when Boruc came close to carrying the ball over from a Le Fondre header. In the absence of technology, the assistant wisely decided that it had not been a goal.
Rodriguez was a constant threat for Southampton with his passing and movement, while he scored the crucial opening goal which jolted Reading out of their stride and quietened the crowd. It may not have been the most attractive goal he will ever score as the ball ricocheted in but it did perfectly illustrate his desire to succeed. Skilful and speedy, the 23-year-old will be knocking on the door for England selection if he carries on this form.
Jobi McAnuff provided a lively outlet for Reading and posed one or two problems with his pace and crossing, but it was not a day when any of the home players stood out.
Reading have six games left to stage a great escape and, with their rivals picking up points, probably need five victories. It would appear to be a lost cause but Adkins will be targeting victory at home to Liverpool next weekend and, if that can be achieved, the following matches against Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers may be viewed with a touch more optimism.
Southampton look safe after stretching their lead over the drop zone to seven points and could even have their sights set on a top-half finish. West Ham United, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion are the next three opponents and, while there is a danger those games could have an end-of-season feeling about them, Saints will feel they are all very winnable. Looking beyond this season, Southampton will feel the future is bright and they can push on to greater things next term.