Santi brings no festive cheer to Reading
Reading 2 Arsenal 5: After a wait of six years, there were rumours that Theo Walcott would finally be granted his heart’s desire: a place in the middle of Arsenal’s attack. And so it turned out. The thought occurred that Arsene Wenger, having resisted his player’s entreaties for so long, really must be desperate.
The memory of a hat-trick in the comeback from 4-0 down to a 7-5 win in the League Cup at the Madejski back in October may have tipped Wenger’s decision in Walcott’s favour.
The decision to omit Gervinho after last week’s dreadful performance against Bradford City was the easy part. But it seemed possible that, with Olivier Giroud also left on the bench, Lukas Podolski, an ineffective presence on the left flank in recent weeks, might be give an opportunity to move into the position where he made his name.
Playing to prove himself worthy of a new contract, Walcott certainly began as though auditioning for the part of a right-footed Robin van Persie.
He played a beautiful return pass to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that foundered on the 19-year-old’s heavy first touch, and took all the dead-ball kicks in enemy territory: the corners from both wings and a free-kick that curled a couple of feet past the far post from 28 yards.
Naturally, however, the laws of perversity ensured that it would be Podolski who opened the scoring with the sort of goal that would have warmed every fibre of Wenger’s tortured soul: Jack Wilshere spreading the ball wide from midfield, Podolski feeding Kieran Gibbs, a little dart down the left wing and a return pass to the German, who used one touch to control the ball and a second to send a left-foot volley past Adam Federici.
For a moment, Podolski looked worth the €13.5m it took to bring him from Cologne in the summer. Walcott failed to make the most of a one-on-one with Federici after 20 minutes, and he will have reflected on the irony that when the lead was doubled with a real centre-forward’s goal, it came from the diminutive Santi Cazorla.
The Spaniard stole into the goalmouth through a static line of tall defenders and bent almost double to apply his head to Podolski’s cross as it dropped to within three feet of the ground.
At least Walcott was able to play a significant role when Cazorla scored his second two minutes later. Oxlade-Chamberlain stroked the ball out to the right, where Walcott was given the luxury of weighing and measuring a lovely cross that Gibbs headed back from beyond the far post towards the goalscorer.
This was looking very much like a training-ground match, with Pavel Pogrebnyak’s occasional incursions through a clearly nervous Arsenal rearguard failing to attract much support from his colleagues, and Cazorla’s third goal coming at the end of a passage of interplay to which Reading offered only the most minimal opposition. Arsenal will need a lot of opponents with defences as brittle as Reading’s – and their own, come to that – if they are to revive their challenge for a place in the top four.
They showed their own shortcomings when letting in Adam Le Fondre and Jimmy Kebe for goals midway through the second period but regrouped from that uncertain spell to finish again in the ascendancy.
The greatest adulation for Walcott was saved for the 80th minute when he showed his finishing skills by converting a pass from Cazorla with his left foot to score Arsenal’s fifth, and final, goal of the night.