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Santi Cazorla helped himself to a hat-trick as Arsenal closed up on the top four of the Barclays Premier League with a 5-2 win at bottom club Reading.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had called for a response after last week's Capital One Cup penalty shoot-out defeat away to Bradford City and got it tonight as the visitors surged into a 3-0 half-time lead following Lukas Podolski's well-taken goal and a brace from Cazorla.
The Spaniard completed his treble on the hour, and although Reading rallied with goals from substitute Adam Le Fondre and Jimmy Kebe, Arsenal made sure there would be no late drama when Theo Walcott slotted in a fifth with 10 minutes left to close within two points of Tottenham Hotspur.
The visitors were quickly on the offensive as midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tested Royals keeper Adam Federici with a rasping drive. Walcott then tried his luck with a 25-yard free-kick that bent around the wall, but also wide of the far post.
Reading forced an opening on 12 minutes when Pavel Pogrebnyak broke down the right past Kieran Gibbs and pulled the ball back across the six-yard box, but Jobi McAnuff's shot was blocked. Noel Hunt then headed over from a corner as the hosts pressed again.
But Arsenal were ahead on 14 minutes. Gibbs pushed forwards down the left channel and clipped the ball through to Podolski, who expertly took the bounce in his stride to leave two defenders trailing in his wake before smashing a left-foot shot past the goalkeeper.
The away side were full of confidence, as midfielder Cazorla cracked a 20-yard effort just wide. Walcott sprinted clear on to a pass from the Spaniard, but Federici was out quickly to close down the angle and make a smart save with his legs. Jack Wilshere's shot into the ground was then pushed behind by the busy Reading goalkeeper.
However, it needed a clearing tackle by Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen to get the ball away from in front of his own goal after a break by Pogrebnyak down the left.
It was 2-0 on 32 minutes. This time Podolski turned provider as the German charged down the left channel before chipping the ball back through the six-yard box where Cazorla arrived to head past Federici. Before Reading could mount a fightback, Arsenal were 3-0 up on 35 minutes. Walcott's cross from the right was nodded back by Gibbs and Cazorla, with his back to goal, turned to hook the ball into the bottom corner.
Federici produced a brilliant save to palm away Walcott's flying header as Arsenal went close to further extending their lead before half-time.
Walcott split the Reading defence again with a burst of pace at the start of the second half, latching on to an angled ball into the right side of the penalty area from Wilshere, before cutting the ball back goalwards, from where Adrian Mariappa hacked off the line.
The Reading defence was breached again on the hour as Cazorla grabbed his hat-trick, drilling the ball in at the far post after Wilshere had released Podolski down the left.
The home fans at least had something to cheer on 66 minutes when Le Fondre pulled a goal back when he was played in by Jay Tabb after the midfielder had latched onto a stray pass from Gibbs. Le Fondre sprinted clear from Wilshere's slip to round Wojciech Szczesny and put the ball in the net. Reading closed in further with 20 minutes remaining when Kebe slotted home after beating the offside trap from a pass by Hal Robson-Kanu.
Hopes of a remarkable comeback were, however, dashed with 10 minutes left when Walcott was released into the right side of the penalty area by Cazorla, and the England forward stepped back inside to slot a curling effort into the far corner.
Substitute Olivier Giroud was denied a sixth for Arsenal in stoppage time when Federici made a smart block at the edge of his area.
Reading manager Brian McDermott: "That game won't shape our season. We've got a lot of home games to come which will be defining for us. We have to do better than we've done. We play Manchester City away, then we've got Swansea and West Ham at home, which we're looking forward to.
“But we can't look too far ahead, we've just got to keep going. We're doing everything in our power to make sure we're in this league next season. We'll see what January brings. We all know it's a tough window but we've been planning for some time now and that's what we'll be looking to try and do.
"They [Arsenal] played really well in the first half and we couldn't get close to them. Arsenal were at the top of their game tonight. The movement of their three midfield players was excellent and they played very well as a group.
"Once again the fans have seen seven goals at the Madejski Stadium. Obviously we want it to be more goals in our favour. But I thought our response in the second half was excellent and we gave something for our crowd to cheer about."
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger: "The target was to win and we won in a convincing way. You can only give one answer - on the pitch. Success came with the quality of our game.
"We focused on the quality of our game and played. It was in continuity of the game we played gainst West Brom. Santi Cazorla is a top-class player and he just illustrates that he’s a good buy.
“If you look at my statements two years ago, I said he [Theo Walcott] will play in the middle. Slowly it became his idea as well. I felt it was a good opportunity to do it tonight. The game is based on movement and technical quality and that demands freedom of initiative. When you’re in a crisis, of course that suffers a little bit sometimes. We have to go beyond that and focus on the way we want to play football. We need now to go from strength to strength."
|22 Dec 2012||v Man City (A)|
|26 Dec 2012||v Swansea (H)|
|29 Dec 2012||v West Ham (H)|
|01 Jan 2013||v Spurs (A)|
|12 Jan 2013||v West Brom (H)|
|19 Jan 2013||v Newcastle (A)|