By Richard Clarke
Sometimes the simple things in life are the most satisfying.
After a week scattered with red cards, rash words and the bitterness of defeat, Arsène Wenger would have paid handsomely for a straightforward, controversy-free victory this afternoon.
And that is exactly what he got.
The victory came courtesy Gilberto's penalty and Julio Baptista's opportunistic strike at the start of the second half. An own goal from Cesc Fabregas made a nervous few minutes at the end and the Arsenal manager was thankful to Jens Lehmann for his low save from Steven Sidwell at the near post. But the home side held on - and deservedly so.
This was the perfect fillip ahead of the vital Champions League tie with PSV at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday and the perfect response to three successive defeats.
Wenger had proclaimed he had only 14 fit players for this game. In the end his 16 only had two players who had not tasted Premiership action this season - substitutes Armand Troare and Abou Diaby.
The Arsenal manager made five changes from the side beaten at Blackburn on midweek. Troare, Manuel Almunia, Jeremie Aliadiere and Philippe Senderos all dropped to the bench while Emmanuel Eboue was suspended.
Gilberto came in at centre half and Johan Djourou flanked him at right back. Theo Walcott joined Julio Baptista up front while Cesc Fabregas slotted in alongside Denilson in central midfield.
It was a patched-up, makeshift kind of side but with the current injury list - Emmanuel Adebayor, Eboue, Kolo Toure (all suspended), Thierry Henry (foot), Tomas Rosicky (groin), Justin Hoyte (hamstring), Mathieu Flamini (foot) and Robin van Persie (foot) - there were precious few options.
Arsenal began the game as though they had something to prove. Walcott wriggled through after only 40 seconds but Marcus Hahnemann rushed out to block his effort. The youngster would go on to have an eye-catching first half.
Baptista thumped an effort wide then in the 13th minute the Brazilian latched onto Alex Hleb's breakaway to send Freddie Ljungberg through. The Swede's rasping shot was parried by Hahnemann and the ball was cleared.
Of course, Reading are a team without real stars. In fact the only major names in their camp this afternoon were television personalities Chris Tarrant and Cilla Black who were sitting alongside chairman John Madjeski in the Directors' Box.
Humility had been their team's strength this season and they came into this game with genuine hopes of qualifying for Europe. Therefore it was no surprise to see the visitors haul themselves back into the game with simple pass-and-move football. But despite significant pressure the best they could muster was half-chances from David Kitson and Sidwell.
It did little to alter the overall direction of the game. Arsenal had the whip hand and, just before the half-hour, spurned one of the clearest opportunities you will ever see.
Baptista bulldozered his way into the area and, after James Harper's mistake, found the ball at his feet eight yards out with only the keeper to beat. The Brazilian decided against shooting and instead tapped the ball to Fabregas in front of the unguarded goal. Inexplicably the Spaniard completely miscued his shot and the chance went begging.
It was the classic example of missing an open goal.
Arsenal would pepper the Reading goal in the build-up to half time yet never really tested Hahnemann again. There was much to admire in the approach work of Hleb, Ljungberg, Walcott and Baptista but, as so often in recent games, the problem was finishing it off.
In fact the goal would arrive five minutes after the restart. Fabregas had already indicated Arsenal's attacking intentions with a spectacular 25-yard drive that was expertly tipped around the post by the flying Hahnemann.
A couple of minutes later Clichy shuffled into the area and Andre Bikey clipped his heels as the French full back threatened to go clear. Referee Chris Foy pointed to the spot and Gilberto calmly slotted the ball into the corner of the net.
The intensity of the celebrations - on and the off the pitch - illustrated the importance of the game. In football, winning can solve almost every problem.
Reading were suddenly ragged. Walcott and Denilson let fly with pot-shots. The former then raced through and forced another fine save from Hahnemann. The American keeper could have justified a claim for overtime this afternoon.
Ironically Arsenal's second goal came as a result of the visitors' first attack since falling behind. Djourou picked up the ball on the right and broke quickly. He fed Denilson in the centre circle who in turn saw Baptista sprinting clear. The Brazilian collected up the ball outside the area, walked through the challenge of Graeme Murty and poked home at the near post.
It gave Arsenal something they had been lacking on and off the pitch recently - the ability to relax a little.
However Reading nearly responded immediately when Sidwell powered a header over the bar from Stephen Hunt's corner.
The former Arsenal midfielder was the most likely scorer for the visitors all afternoon and, in the 69th minute, he popped up unmarked in the area to power a low shot just wide. Twelve minutes from time, Leroy Lita went clear on the left but clipped the ball harmlessly into the arms of Lehmann when he should have done better.
The revival seemed to have all but subsided when Reading won a corner three minutes from the end. However John Oster took it, Ivar Ingimarsoon flicked on and Fabregas diverted the ball into his own net.
It made a frantic final few minutes and Lehmann made a super save from Sidwell at the near post to preserve Arsenal's three points.
- Hleb 86
- Silva Goal!
- Walcott 71
- Ljungberg 70
- Baptista Goal!
- Senderos 86 Yellow Card
- Diaby 70
- Aliadiere 71
- Hunt 65
- Little 80
- Harper 71
- Kitson Yellow Card
- Gunnarsson 71
- Oster 65
- Doyle 80