By Chris Harris
The ingredients were there for a shock - but Arsenal served up a masterclass.
Reading have already stretched Manchester United and Chelsea to the limit this season. Arsène Wenger's side, on the back of a gruelling trip to Moscow, would surely face a similar test at the Madejski Stadium? Not a bit of it. Arsenal led inside a minute, they scored four, and they could have scored more. Far from fatigued, they were a joy to behold.
Thierry Henry claimed that early goal, timed at 58 seconds. He also completed the scoring with a second-half penalty after the excellent Cesc Fabregas had been brought down. In between Alexander Hleb rounded off one slick move in style before setting up the goal of the game for Robin van Persie.
The Belarussian was at his best, but then so were most of Arsenal's players. This fifth successive Premiership win lifts them to fourth in the table and provided Wenger with the perfect present on his 57th birthday. It's hard to believe his team were in the bottom three only last month.
Before kick-off, the Arsenal manager decided to stick with the team which lined up against CSKA on Tuesday night. That meant Gael Clichy stayed on the bench while William Gallas continued at left back. Philippe Senderos, fully fit after three Reserve games, will make his first-team return in the Carling Cup on Tuesday.
In many respects, this game looked every bit as tough as the visit to Moscow. As Wenger pointed out at his pre-match press conference, Reading won the Championship with something to spare last season. The home fans certainly scented blood; there was a sense that Arsenal might be there for the taking.
It took just 58 seconds to disprove that theory. Fabregas and Henry kicked off and, within a minute, they linked up again in Reading's penalty area to break the deadlock. The ball was worked to the young Spaniard, he tricked his way to the byline and cut the ball back for Henry to shoot unerringly into the bottom corner.
That knocked the stuffing out of Reading, on and off the pitch. While the home fans sat in silence, the players had to find a Plan B, and quickly. Reading wanted to close down the space in midfield and choke the supply to Henry; now they would need to commit men forward, a tactic which would suit Arsenal's counter-attacking style.
And so it proved. In the fourth minute, Fabregas led the first of countless Arsenal breakaways. The 19-year-old found Henry, the captain picked out Fabregas' continuing run and it needed a perfect block from Ibrahima Sonko to deny the Spaniard.
Van Persie was next to go close. He led a three-man burst with Henry and Rosicky in support but elected to shoot as the Reading defence backed off. Van Persie's effort fizzed a yard wide.
With Gilberto mopping up expertly in front of Arsenal's back four, the trend continued. Gallas and Justin Hoyte don't need much encouragement to bomb forward and both had chances. Gallas was picked out by - who else? - Fabregas after neat interplay with Henry, but Marcus Hahnemann rushed out to smother the Frenchman's effort. Hoyte was played in by Rosicky's clever flick but the right back rather snatched at his shot and dragged the ball wide of the far post.
Reading were struggling to get a foothold in the match but they did enjoy one spell of pressure. Seol, their lively summer signing from Wolves, tested Jens Lehmann's reflexes with a fearsome shot from the corner of the box. From the resulting corner Ivar Ingimarsson got on the end of a flick-on but diverted the ball wide of the post. Then Steven Sidwell's clipped cross was headed out of Nicky Shorey's path by Stephen Hunt's header.
An equaliser then could have made this a very different game but, seven minutes before half time, Arsenal snuffed out Reading's hopes of a renaissance. Once again it was easy on the eye. Fabregas found Hleb, he played a neat one-two with Rosicky and slammed a shot into the roof of the net, via the fingertips of Hahnemann.
Reading emerged from the interval with their sleeves rolled up and - no doubt - Coppell's instructions ringing in their ears. Their latest gameplan was in tatters within four minutes as Hleb orchestrated the third goal. The Belarussian collected Henry's pass, cut in from the right, played a one-two with his captain and, instead of shooting, squared for Van Persie to slide home the third. A picture-perfect goal.
The chances kept coming. Rosicky failed to get his head on Gallas' cross and then ballooned a glorious chance into the stand after Hahnemann had pushed aside Henry's low shot. At the other end Hunt fired wastefully over the bar after good work from Kevin Doyle, but it was a rare foray for what was by now an outclassed Reading side.
Henry doubled his own tally with 21 minutes left after carving apart the hosts' defence to pick out Fabregas' run. Hahnemann brought the Spaniard down and Henry beat the keeper from 12 yards, via the inside of the post. Within seconds, Rosicky raced through only to be denied - again - by the plunging Hahnemann.
Reading launched a late assault on the Arsenal goal in search of a consolation, but they couldn't find a way past Lehmann. Coppell's side clearly belong at this level but, today, Arsenal were just too good.
- Hleb 72 Goal!
- Rosicky 76
- Henry Goal! Goal!
- Persie 72 Goal!
- Song 76
- Walcott 72
- Adebayor 72
- Cruz 46
- Seol 76
- Long 72
- Little 72
- Gunnarsson 46
- Oster 76