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.
Reading - LeFondre (66), Kebe (71)
Arsenal - Podolski (14), Cazorla (32, 34, 60), Walcott (80)
Referee: A Taylor
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger had called for a response following last week’s shock Capital One Cup penalty shoot-out defeat at Bradford – 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 by Cazorla.
The Spaniard completed his treble on the hour, and although the Royals rallied with goals by substitute Adam Le Fondre and Jimmy Kebe, Arsenal made sure there would be no late drama when contract rebel Theo Walcott slotted in a fifth with ten minutes left to close within two points of Tottenham.
In a sign of what was to come, 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 which 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.
Royals striker Noel Hunt then headed over from a corner as the hosts pressed again.
Arsenal went ahead on 14 minutes when Gibbs pushed 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 keeper.
The Gunners were now full of confidence, as midfielder Cazorla cracked a 20-yard effort just wide.
Walcott sprinted clear onto 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 keeper.
However, it needed a superb 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, acharging down the left channel before chipping the ball back through the six-yard box where Cazorla arrived to head past Federici.
Before the Royals could mount any sort of 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.
There was, though, some concern for Arsenal when Wilshere was left in a heap after being caught in the groin by McAnuff’s boot, which saw the Reading captain cautioned by referee Anthony Taylor.
The Gunners midfielder was able to continue, however.
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 onto an angled ball into the right side of the penalty area from Wilshere, before cutting the ball back goalwards, which Adrian Mariappa hacked off the line. The Royals 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 by Gibbs. Le Fondre sprinted clear following Wilshere’s slip to round Wojciech Szczesny and net.
Reading closed further with 20 minutes left when Kebe slotted home after beating the offside trap, but hopes of a remarkable comeback to rival the one the Gunners pulled off in the incredible Capital One Cup clash at the same venue in October, which ended 7-5 to Arsenal, were dashed with ten minutes left when Walcott was released into the right side of the penalty area by Cazorla, and the England forward stepped back inside before slotting a curling effort into the far corner.
Reading: Federici, Shorey, Mariappa, Gorkss, Cummings, Leigertwood, McAnuff, Kebe, Tabb, Pogrebnyak, Hunt.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Arteta, Wilshere, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski.