By ANTONY KASTRINAKIS
REPORTS of boss Arsene Wenger’s demise have been grossly exaggerated then.
Unfair for hat-trick hero Santi Cazorla, sure, but the spotlight will remain firmly on Arsenal’s legendary boss until the end of the season.
At least this WAS Arsenal.
But beating bottom club Reading cannot paper over the cracks.
Brian McDermott’s Royals struck two late goals to briefly turn a rout into a nail-biting affair before Theo Walcott’s late strike clinched it for Wenger.
Arsenal shot up to fifth spot and just two points behind Chelsea and Tottenham. So not all doom and gloom.
But fans did not sing Wenger’s praises all game. Silence speaks volumes sometimes.
The last time these two met here we witnessed the greatest game in League Cup history.
But Gunners’ sensational 7-5 win in extra-time merely masked their problems.
The visiting fans kicked off proceedings with “4-0 and you f****d it up”.
They got a Royals response: “Bradford and you f****d it up” and “oh ah Phil Parkinson” — hailing the Bantams boss and former Reading star after he toppled Arsenal in the Capital One Cup quarter-final last week.
This time the stakes were a bit higher. It was not just about pride. It was about credibility.
Both teams needed to show their fans that they could still believe, for different reasons.
Arsenal delivered, Reading merely confirmed survival will take a miracle.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s early 20-yarder forced a brilliant save from Adam Federici.
And it took a simple attack down the left for Arsenal to go in front after 14 minutes.
Lukas Podolski released Kieran Gibbs down the left flank and he crossed back to the German who controlled well and buried a close-range effort.
After 21 minutes, Podolski won the header from Federici’s clearance and Cazorla released Walcott who raced clear but could not beat the Reading keeper. Federici’s acrobatic save turned Jack Wilshere’s close-range volley away moments later.
But after 32 minutes we remembered what Arsenal were like when they were truly great.
Mikel Arteta pinged a 60-yard cross-field pass to Podolski who ran down the channel and crossed for Cazorla to bury a diving header home. Magic.
Just four minutes later, it was three for Arsenal.
Walcott crossed, Gibbs headed down to Cazorla who had time to take a touch and swivel just outside the six-yard box before burying his shot past Federici.
Jobi McAnuff was lucky to stay on the pitch shortly after as he sank his studs high into Wilshere’s delicate area — but referee Anthony Taylor let him off with a booking.
Just before the interval, Federici took off again to turn Oxlade-Chamberlain’s bullet header away.
Six minutes into the restart Walcott went close and Adrian Mariappa looked like he had turned into his own net but somehow Federici saved.
It was the first time the visiting fans sang Wenger’s name — but it was to deliver a message: “Wenger sign him up.” They meant Walcott, of course, not Federici. Though come to think of it…
But back to Walcott. After 57 minutes he picked up Cazorla’s pass and let fly from 20 yards, narrowly missing the target.
Cue the same chant from the fans. On the hour, Arsenal produced one of the moves of the season.
The Ox fed Wilshere who found Podolski on the overlap and the German delivered the perfect centre for Cazorla to get his hat-trick.
As if Arsenal needed a reminder of how they constantly flirt with disaster, along came a comical goal for Reading sub Adam Le Fondre.
Gibbs, who played really well otherwise, passed to… Jay Tabb, he skipped past Wilshere and fed Le Fondre who rounded Wojciech Szczesny to give Reading a first consolation.
And with 19 minutes left, McDermott’s other sub Hal Robson-Kanu fed Jimmy Kebe — played on by the slack Podolski — and he beat Szczesny.
Surely not a reverse comeback to mirror the League Cup a few weeks back…
Federici did well to parry Cazorla’s blast with 17 minutes left as the Spaniard continued to torment Reading.
And with 10 minutes to play, Cazorla fed Walcott who skipped past Kaspars Gorkss and buried the clincher.
“Wenger, Wenger sign him up.”