Reading 1 Arsenal 3: Hleb pulls strings as graceful Gunners brush Reading aside

Click to follow
The Independent Football

After the briefest of interludes Arsenal reacquainted themselves with the leadership of the Premier League last night, brushing aside Reading with elegant disdain, and assuming the mantle as if of right. It was a brutal but beautiful dissection and another affirmation that Arsène Wenger's side are playing a brand of football that almost all of this division simply cannot live with. At the home of the Royals it was a regal procession.

It is now 27 games, in all competitions, since they were beaten and what price another season, another tilt at being The Invincibles? That honour is beyond Arsenal's nearest challengers, Manchester United, but they are extremely serious candidates also, of course, in what is turning into a deliciously epic campaign at the top.

"It was the best test today that we had the nerve to deal with the pressure coming out and playing last when people expect us to drop points," Wenger said afterwards. Expect? Probably not. Their rivals live only in hope but once ahead, as Wenger added, there was never really any doubt. The only irritation was a fifth booking for Cesc Fabregas which rules him out of the next game. Given that it is at home to Wigan Athletic, it may prove a small mercy.

Arsenal are ahead of United on goals scored only – and the beautifully-constructed second last night was their 1,000th since the Premier League's incarnation – although they also hold a game in hand. They had far too much in hand for Reading whose manager Steve Coppell had described the match as a "no-lose fixture". No one expected his team to win. Those expectations were met.

They worked hard enough, and showed enough to suggest they will survive, but it amounted to nothing more than damage-limitation against an opposition operating on a different plane. Or, as Coppell put it, a foreign plane. "I'm always very complimentary about the way they play because it's a style of football that's not English really," he said. "Hence there are very few Englishmen in the team."

There were only three in Coppell's own team and one of them, Nicky Shorey, did score. But it was only the latest of consolations even if the full-back, before eventually turning the ball in after Shane Long had hit the post with a header, had also earlier struck the base of the other post with a free-kick.

That showed their fight and for tracts of the first-half their resilience and organisation, also, thwarted Arsenal. "Do you go gung-ho and try and force them into submission with a power play or are you more selective?" asked Coppell and he made his players pose questions also. They defended deep, ceded possession and made Arsenal break them down. It resembled one of those training ground exercises of defence versus attack.

That could have all been made redundant in the opening minutes as Emmanuel Adebayor – one of eight players restored after last week's Champions League jaunt to Prague – was released by Fabregas. Through on goal, his side-footed shot kissed the outside of the post. If he had scored then Reading would have had little hope but, instead, they almost went ahead when Brynjar Gunnarsson chested down Gaël Clichy's headed clearance and shot from 25 yards. Manuel Almunia – watched from the bench by Jens Lehmann who has now stated his desire to leave in January – palmed the ball away.

Gunnarsson's next involvement proved crucial as he was caught in possession by Mathieu Flamini. Suddenly the danger signs were there. Arsenal broke, Fabregas found Adebayor and he delayed before releasing Alexander Hleb down the right. Hleb then pulled a low cross back into the path of Flamini whose shot clipped off Ibrahima Sonko – who endured a miserable evening – and looped into the net for his first goal of the season. It came on the stroke of half-time. "It was critical because there were just a few signs that they were getting frustrated," Coppell said while Wenger's own take was: "After the first goal we were never really in danger of dropping the points."

That control asserted itself again with a sumptuous goal again born of quick movement and even quicker passing as Flamini sent Adebayor sprinting. He moved the ball to Tomas Rosicky, who found Fabregas. Cleverly he laid it off to Adebayor and this time the striker's side-foot arced around Marcus Hahnemann. "A great goal," said Wenger. "A goal that is the way we play with possession, passing, movement."

There was another as the hapless Gunnarsson, as he tackled Emmanuel Eboué, diverted the ball to Hleb who shimmied into the area, cut inside Hahnemann to pick his spot. Reading rallied, Shorey scored – although substitute Theo Walcott should have added another for Arsenal. "Let us see how far we can go," said Wenger when asked about the season's aspirations. At this rate it's a journey to the moon.

Reading (4-3-2-1): Hahnemann; Murty, Sonko, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Harper (Fae, 59), Gunnarsson, Hunt; Convey (Oster, 70), Kitson; Doyle (Long, 83). Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Bikey.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué, Flamini, Fabregas, Rosicky (Walcott, 82); Hleb (Diarra, 79); Adebayor (Bendtner, 82). Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Gilberto.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire)