Santi Cazorla scored a hat-trick to lift Arsenal’s spirits as the Gunners bounced back from their League Cup humiliation with an emphatic 5-2 victory at Reading on Monday.
The Spanish midfielder struck twice in the first half after Lukas Podolski’s opener and completed his treble after the break to shatter Reading’s hopes of inflicting more misery on Arsene Wenger’s spluttering side.
Adam le Fondre and Jimmy Kebe reduced the deficit for Reading, but Theo Walcott’s late strike confirmed Arsenal’s rise to fifth place, two points behind Chelsea and Tottenham, and left the hosts bottom of the table and six points adrift of safety.
It also gave Wenger and his players some much needed breathing space after heavy criticism following last week’s shock League Cup quarter-final defeat at League Two minnows Bradford.
“It was important to stay strong and play football,” Wenger said. “Success comes with playing [good] football. And it was a very convincing win tonight.”
Gunners midfielder Jack Wilshere hailed Cazorla’s contribution, saying: “His all-round play is great. It’s tough for anyone to come from Spain into the Premier League, but he makes it look so easy.”
Inevitably, Wenger made changes from the side that had flopped so badly against Bradford.
Ivory Coast forward Gervinho was dropped to the bench as Wenger opted for an attacking formation featuring Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Podolski.
Walcott’s return to fitness following a calf injury was particularly well-timed because the England international had scored a hat-trick at Reading in October in the League Cup when the Gunners recovered from being 4-0 down to win 7-5 in extra time.
Walcott began as the central attacker, the position he says he prefers, with Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right and Podolski on the left.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was quickly into the action, exchanging passes with Cazorla, before forcing Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici into a diving parry.
Reading’s Noel Hunt headed over from a corner, but Arsenal’s reply was a 14th-minute opener from Podolski, who took Kieran Gibbs’ cross from the left down with one touch and rammed the ball past Federici with his next.
Reading were rocking and Podolski created the next Arsenal chance with a cut back from the left and although Gibbs’ initial effort was blocked, Wilshere’s follow-up forced Federici into another save.
Arsenal doubled their lead when Podolski’s cross from the left was nodded in by the smallest man on the pitch, Cazorla, in the 32nd minute.
And the Gunners needed only 2 minutes, 41 seconds to extend their lead, with Cazorla again the man on target.
Gibbs headed down Walcott’s cross from the right and the Spaniard swiveled to beat Federici.
Walcott fired wide from outside the box early in the second-half as the away fans chanted “Wenger, sign him up” — a reference to the fact his contract is due to expire in the summer.
However, Cazorla completed his hat-trick on the hour mark with a tap-in after Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Podolski exchanged passes to leave Reading’s defenders chasing shadows.
Le Fondre pulled one back for Reading after Wilshere stumbled as Gibbs passed to him, allowing Jay Tabb to intercept and send the substitute away to round Wojciech Szczesny and find the net.
Reading scored again five minutes later through Kebe after another substitute, Hal Robson-Kanu, had put him through.
However, Walcott made sure of an Arsenal victory in the 80th minute when he accepted a pass from Cazorla, skipped past Kaspars Gorkss and slotted calmly past Federici.