In successive home fixtures, Reading have met Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. They might thus be regarded as an early-season litmus test of championship credentials. United rescued a deserved draw, Chelsea scrapped their way to a narrow win with a fortuitous goal, but yesterday Arsenal cruised to a victory so comprehensive the scoreline flattered Reading.
This does not mean Arsène Wenger will reclaim the Premiership trophy; but it was a further indication that while his latest creation may still be a work in progress the architect is ahead of schedule and building something beautiful.
Bouyed by a first-minute goal from Thierry Henry, Arsenal swept Reading aside. With Cesc Fabregas conducting, Alexander Hleb, Robin van Persie and Henry again, scored as Arsenal moved within five points of the leaders with a game in hand. Their football was glorious to behold. "Have you ever seen Chelsea play like this," sang the travelling supporters.
It probably helped that Arsenal met Reading after a week in which the club has been engulfed in a media storm following Jose Mourinho's claim that Stephen Hunt's challenge on Petr Cech was deliberate. Though Steve Coppell, Reading's manager, denied this was a factor the tackles did, perhaps, have less bite in them than usual. One exception was Hunt. The Irishman's first involvement was to lunge into Hleb. He then went close enough to Jens Lehmann as the goalkeeper gathered a loose ball to be admonished by the German. Later Hunt put one of Reading's better chances over but by then all eyes were on Arsenal's luxurious football.
Perhaps Reading should not have tempted fate. The programme, noting that no opponent had scored a league goal at one particular end of the ground since Andrew Johnson for Crystal Palace in September 2005 suggested Henry would "have a hard task scoring in front of the North Stand". It added 1,051 playing minutes had elapsed since. The 1,052nd minute had two seconds remaining when Henry side-footed the ball into the net at that end after Hleb found Fabregas breaking into the inside-right channel, the young Spaniard shrugged off Jamie Harper then picked out Henry who made the finish look much easier than it was and has now scored against every club in the current Premiership.
The goal winded Reading. They had hoped their hustling would knock Arsenal off their game but after the early blow they were tentative, not a good tactic against Arsenal. Van Persie, twice, William Gallas and Justin Hoyte all had chances to increase the score before Reading settled. Midway through the half Reading managed a spell of pressure and Seol Ki-Hyeon thought he had levelled with a fierce volley after Lehmann fluffed a punch. The goalkeeper rose from the turf to save superbly.
Seven minutes from the break Tomas Rosicky burst from midfield, exchanged passes with Hleb who drove past Marcus Hahnemann. The next goal came soon after the restart, Fabregas, Henry and Hleb combining fluently to set up Van Persie. Fabregas should then have had the goal he deserved as he ran on to Henry's pass and skipped by Hahnemann but the keeper felled him. Henry converted the penalty.
"They were fabulous," Coppell said, who said as much to Henry at the end. "If we play like that I don't think a lot of teams will be able to do much about it," Fabregas said. It was the perfect way to mark Wenger's 57th birthday. He celebrated by watching Real Madrid v Barcelona and a round-up of goals in Europe.
Goals: Henry (1) 0-1; Hleb (38) 0-2; Van Persie (49) 0-3; Henry, pen (70) 0-4.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; De la Cruz (Gunnarsson, h-t), Sonko, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Ki-Hyeon (Oster, 76), Sidwell, Harper, Hunt; Long (Little, 72), Doyle. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Lita.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Lehmann; Hoyte, Touré, Djourou, Gallas; Gilberto Silva; Hleb (Adebayor, 73), Fabregas, Rosicky (Song, 77), Van Persie (Walcott, 73); Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Clichy.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffs)
Man of the match: Fabregas.