By Richard Clarke at Madejski Stadium
Santi Cazorla grabbed his first hat-trick in English football as Arsenal pulled off a handsome 5-2 win at Reading on Monday night.
After Lukas Podolski thumped home the opener inside the first 15 minutes, this game belonged to the impish Spanish midfielder.
The diminuitive playmaker might have known it was his night when he plundered a diving header from close range on the half-hour.
A couple of minutes later he swiveled home his second and, on the hour, converted his hat-trick strike from close range.
Reading rallied briefly when Adam Le Fondre and Jimmy Kebe struck midway through the second half but the last word would belong to Cazorla who set up Walcott for the fifth.
The Englishman had played as a central striker this evening and was one of many notable contributors in red and white.
This was a highly recuperative win for Arsène Wenger’s side, who rose to fifth as a result.
Despite their recent travails, Arsenal will be seriously attacking the top four if they can win at relegation-threatened Wigan this weekend.
Tonight does not solve everything but it was a heartening start to the festive period.
Wenger made three changes from the team knocked out of the Capital One Cup at Bradford last week.
Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey respectively.
Meanwhile Walcott returned after a calf problem at the expense of Gervinho.
Of course, Arsenal had got the better of Reading in a 12-goal thriller a round earlier. But their form had been patchy since. For their part, Reading had gone bottom of the table over the weekend thanks to QPR’s win over Fulham.
Both teams needed victory this evening for very different reasons.
The start was open and even but, by half-time, Arsenal had a stranglehold.
In the opening two minutes, Oxlade-Chamberlain stole the ball off the foot of Cazorla and forced Adam Federici into a fine low save.
However Reading would respond. Pavel Pogrebnyak fooled Kieran Gibbs to go in behind on the right before cutting the ball back to Jay Tabb who scuffed an effort wide.
Later on Noel Hunt flicked a header over the bar from Nicky Shorey’s corner.
Still Arsenal were more incisive side and, on the quarter-hour, they took the lead.
Gibbs crossed to the near post where Podolski killed the ball with his right foot before burying it with his left. A clinical finish.
Midway through the half it should have been 2-0. Cazorla’s clever ball split the Reading defence to find Gibbs on the left of the area. He was clear momentarily but his shot was blocked.
Then Cazorla sent Walcott sprinting through but Federici stood up well to block.
It was an entertaining game. Wilshere’s volley was batted away by an increasingly overworked keeper. Then Gibbs and Podolski saw efforts blocked.
At the other end, Thomas Vermaelen’s swift interception denied an unmarked Kebe eight yards out.
However just past the half-hour, Arsenal did double their lead when Podolski clipped the ball into the six-yard box for Cazorla to finish with a diving header. The Spaniard’s incredulous smile suggest that this type of goal was a rarity for someone of his size.
Two minutes later he grabbed another via a much more familiar route. Gibbs nodded the ball down in the area and Cazorla swivelled to send a bobbling shot past Federici.
The double salvo seemed to send confidence coursing through the veins of the visitors. They started to knock the ball about with familiar aplomb, one passage of keep-ball went on for minutes.
The Reading fans voiced their displeasure at the break. Arsenal had been superior in every sense during the first half. It continued after the restart.
Adrian Mariappa almost turned Walcott’s low cross into his own net. Then the Englishman fired a shot wide from range.
Arsenal were looking for more goals and they would find one on the hour. Podolski escaped on the left and unselfishly squared the ball for Cazorla to slot home his hat-trick.
The visitors were starting to cruise. But they would be pegged back twice in quick succession.
Le Fondre darted through, rounded Wojciech Szczesny and slipped home what looked like a consolation goal.
With 20 minutes left, quick feet from Hal Robson-Kanu put Kebe clear and he found the corner.
Suddenly we had a game.
However Reading’s response blew itself almost before it had begun.
Cazorla’s long range shot was batted aside by Federici and then the splendid Spaniard set up Walcott for a well-taken fifth.
That was the end of this evening’s activities, as Arsenal eased home.
But one can only hope the benefits of this heartening victory will be seen for much, much longer than just this evening.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
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