Arsenal 2 Reading 0: Reading in mire but Wenger's 'next season' is off to fine start

Fabregas kickstarts Arsenal recovery to leave Coppell staring at relegation
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The Independent Online

Arsenal's first response to the shattering of their season was as spirited as their manager, Arsène Wenger, could have hoped for – so much so that Wenger's counterpart, Steve Coppell, was moved to describe the team as "a joy to watch", before adding the characteristically mordant qualification that, on other occasions, he might have enjoyed it more.

The question of whether he was worried about his team's position after a defeat that left them perilously close to the relegation places provoked a snort of disbelieving laughter from the Reading manager. "I'm hardly insulated from the situation," he responded. "Managers get paid for results." But as Coppell went on to point out, a match from which his team were not expected to earn any tangible reward was never going to make or break Reading's season.

The match that could prove crucial for them, in Wenger's opinion, is their only remaining home fixture, against Tottenham. "If they don't win at home against Spurs they could be under threat," Wenger said.

The Arsenal manager admitted afterwards that he had been worried about how his young side would react after seeing their Champions' League and Premier League ambitions disappear in the space of five days. "We responded well after massive, massive, massive disappointment," he said. "It is very important for us, because the next season starts now."

The measure of that disappointment was evident, nevertheless, in the demeanour of Cesc Fabregas during a post-match interview in which he reacted strongly to the suggestion that Arsenal's performancesthis season boded well for the next one . "I think it is a mistake to say we will win next year, because we are young," Fabregas said. "We want to do it now."

While Fabregas has recently signed a seven-year contract with Arsenal, he will surely be anxious to see how the squad looks next season, with Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini, who has been given until the end of the month to decide on his new offer, yet to confirm their continuing involvement in Wenger's plans.

Hleb's importance to Arsenal was vividly illustrated as early as the ninth minute of yesterday's game when he curved a 40-yard pass into the stride of Fabregas, but the young Spaniard could not beat the Reading keeper, Marcus Hahnemann.

The centre-back Alex Song should have given the home side the lead after 29 minutes when Fabregas's cross following a corner gave him a clear header, but he put the ball wide.

Any thoughts that Reading's goal might be starting to bear a charmed life were dispelled within a minute, however. Theo Walcott made one of his supercharged skips down the right wing before passing inside to Kolo Touré, whose cross eludedthe rash challenge of Reading's Ibrahima Sonko and allowed Emmanuel Adebayor to control the ball on his thigh and prodit wide of the keeper for his21st Premier League goal ofthe season.

Seven minutes before the break Arsenal doubled their lead as Fabregas, having created more confusion in the Reading area, pulled the ball back for Gilbertoto score with a 20-yard drivethat deflected in off Andre Bikey's head.

It seemed only a matter of time before the home side's masterful passing and movement saw them add to their tally, but the visitors managed to revive the level of effort they had shown in the opening half-hour, with their indefatigable left-winger Bobby Convey and Bikey offering notable resistance.

Even so, Robin van Persie produced a free-kick that bounced away via the underside of the bar and a post, and then Walcott's cross-shot clipped the bar. A goal-line clearance from Ivar Ingimarsson denied Fabregas the goal he had sought all afternoon with seven minutes remaining, but Arsenal had already done enough to send the majority of the 60,109 crowd home for an early tea in good heart.

Coppell is now seeking two wins from his side's three remaining matches – at home to Spurs, away to Wigan and Derby. "Anything less than that and we will be looking to other teams to help us out," he said.