By Richard Clarke
Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League with a 3-1 win at Reading on Monday night.
After a tepid first half, Mathieu Flamini scrambled home the opening goal a minute before half-time. Six minutes after it, Emmanuel Adebayor added a coolly-taken second.
That strike was notable for three reasons. It was the forward's first for eight games, Arsenal's 1000th in Premiership football and it broke the resistance of Reading this evening.
Thirteen minutes from time, Alex Hleb rounded the keeper Marcus Hahnemann to hammer in a third.
Although Nicky Shorey slotted into an empty net in the 87th minute, the two-goal win was enough to overhaul Manchester United on goals scored.
Arsenal are getting used to being top of the pile. By the time the Premier League resumes, they will have been leading for 10 weeks. On the strength of this efficient, clinical performance the Gunners could be set to there to stay.
Wenger reverted to the side that had drawn 2-2 with Manchester United nine days earlier. That meant all eight of the players changed for the trip to Slavia Prague in midweek were brought back.
It was a statement of intent by the Arsenal manager. Manchester United had taken top spot from Wenger's men over the weekend. You sensed it was a mantle he wanted back.
Arsenal might have taken the lead in the fourth minute. James Harper was robbed in midfield and Tomas Rosicky sent Adebayor clear. The tall Togolese striker outpaced Ibrahima Sonko, drew the keeper but planted a trickling shot against the post.
Harper hammered a harmless long-range effort into the chest of Almunia but Arsenal were soon passing the ball in ominous fashion.
Fabregas had a shot saved, Clichy thieved the ball in the area and nearly set-up the Spaniard. But, despite their fancy footwork, the visitors were having trouble breaking through a packed home defence.
Reading breakaways were rare and, when they did occur, wasted. Dave Kitson's woeful effort ended a promising attack but, on the half-hour, Almunia had to rush out to the feet of Harper.
Two minutes later, Brynjar Gunnarsson hammered in a drive from 30 yards. Almunia threw himself to his left to palm the ball aside. It was the best effort of the half for either side.
Toure hacked a free-kick well wide after Fabregas was hauled down on the edge of the Reading area but, by this time, the game was going off the boil. Emmanuel Eboue arrowed a shot over the bar as half-time approached and one sensed the visitors needed to re-assess their game at the interval.
However Arsenal are never more dangerous than when they are defending a corner. After Arsenal cleared Shorey's effort, Flamini won the ball in midfield and eventually it found its way out to Adebayor who fed Hleb in the right-hand channel. He drew out Marcus Hahnemann and passed square to Flamini, who lifted his effort over the covering defender and into the net.
The second half started at a much faster pace. In the opening minutes Adebayor nutmegged Kevin Doyle and then cracked his effort over. Then, in the 51st minute, the Arsenal frontman went even better.
Rosicky cut the ball back from the left and Fabregas set up Adebayor to almost casually sidefoot the ball into the far corner of the net.
It was the 23-year-old's first goal since his hat-trick against Derby on September 22. The following few minutes suggested it was a weight of the striker's mind.
First he danced through and planted the ball home only to be flagged for offside. Replays suggested he was unlucky. Then he thundered an effort over the bar after bundling into the area.
Arsenal now had everything in their favour and, despite their endeavour, Reading did not seem to have enough about them to grab a hold on the game once more.
With 13 minutes left, the visitors finally put the game to rest. Hleb emerged on the right, evaded the sweeping challenge of Ivar Ingimarsson skipped past Hahnemann and rammed his shot past two defenders on the line.
In the closing stages, Wenger made changes and Shorey curled a free-kick against the base of Almunia's post. Three minutes from time the England full back slotted home from close-range after a goal-mouth scramble.
However by then the three points - and with it top spot - were safely en route to North London.
- Hleb 79 Goal!
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- Rosicky 83
- Flamini Goal!
- Adebayor 83 Goal!
- Diarra 79
- Walcott 83
- Bendtner 83
- Shorey Goal!
- Gunnarsson Yellow Card
- Harper 59
- Convey 70
- Doyle 83
- Fae 59
- Oster 70
- Long 83