Arsenal show Adkins size of task ahead
Whenever Arsenal run onto the Emirates field they are preceded by a video of great moments from the club's past. There are a couple of goals and celebrations thrown in from their current squad but the images of Tony Adams, Thierry Henry and Charlie George remind fans what their club was once about - glory and trophies. A minute's applause in the seventh minute for the late David Rocastle, a wizard of a midfielder who won two league championships with the club, was further reminder of an era when they challenged for real honours.
Different times, different benchmarks. Finishing fourth is now Arsenal's gold standard. They are on course to achieve it. News from Swansea of Andre Villas-Boas' listing Tottenham ship was keenly awaited but the tidings were not good. Instead, Chelsea's defeat at Southampton opened another window of opportunity.
With the title race over and the relegation battle looking more like a skirmish, the leading narrative in the closing weeks of the season will be three London clubs trying to fit into two places. A glance at the fixture list suggests that Arsenal have the clearer run-in, with only Manchester United of the top teams to face. By then, United should be champions anyway.
Arsenal must hope that their seven remaining opponents are as unchallenging as Reading. With Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Abou Diaby all on the absentee list, the Royals were ideal opponents to begin a late-season charge. In three matches this season, Arsenal have now scored 16 goals against Reading.
One of English football's greatest conceits is that a player becomes more valuable in his absence. Wilshere, return date unknown, is the latest recipient of that label but undeservedly so. Any team would miss him. His excellence since coming back from 18 months out has led to his latest injury worry becoming of heart-stopping concern to Arsenal. Arsene Wenger admitted he will not return next week.
The same status is not extended to Abou Diaby, sadly. Arsenal are well used to doing without him now. Perhaps the luckless Frenchman's latest injury, a ruptured cruciate, might convince Wenger to spend on a hard-running midfielder. It is a tragic reality that Diaby cannot be relied on. "When you know what this guy has gone through to work back. It is just demoralising," Wenger said of his midfielder.
Whereas Brian McDermott was an unassuming leader, new Reading manager Nigel Adkins brings the approach of an apostle of unbending positivity in management. A negative is nothing if not something to be converted into a positive where he's concerned. Reading look sunk but that does not mean Adkins has accepted relegation. Nigel is not yet making plans for the Championship though perhaps he should be. Reading simply do not have the playing resources to get out of trouble.
Adkins is not thinking that far ahead. His post-match comments were delivered in the style of middle manager announcing unwelcome changes to his staff. "We'll analyse, debrief and get ready for the next game," he said, and he repeated that message many times in the ten minutes he spoke to the media. "The important thing is we analyse and keep together and sing from the same hymn sheet."
McDermott was named manager of the month for January but did not refresh his squad in the transfer window. According to owner Anton Zingarevich, it was this that cost the popular former manager his job. He may have a point. None of the Reading players drubbed at Arsenal look likely targets for next season's Premier League clubs. "We'll concentrate on one game at a time and work through the process of winning a game of football," continued Adkins, by now fully embracing David Brent territory. "It's a great challenge, and it's one we are relishing."
When Gervinho scored from an offside position under angry clouds, even Adkins might have felt an ill wind. Santi Cazorla, moved to the centre in Wilshere's absence, but coming in from the flank here, drilled a ball across goal and the Ivorian finished with ease. Reading's defenders had pushed up and were stood stock still.
Luck returned to Reading when Chris Foy somehow did not award a penalty for Stuart Taylor's clattering of Olivier Giroud after the striker had got his shot away beyond the former Arsenal keeper. Moments later, an unidentifiable Reading hand touched the ball, and Foy waved away protests, perhaps because he too did not know whose hand it was.
Reading rarely escaped their own half as Gervinho, Giroud and Cazorla all went close in the first half. It took until added time before the break for the Royals to have a first effort on goal, a looping nod from Pavel Pogrebnyak never likely to trouble the scorers. Reading's best work was done in defence, and last-ditch defence at that. They repeatedly had men back to block Arsenal shots, and the Gunners had 15 of those in the first half. Cross after cross was headed away, which bodes well for life in the Championship but it took until the 61st minute for Lukasz Fabianski to make a first save, a snap volley for Alex Pearce that went straight at the Pole.
It was a surprise when the second half began with Reading actually in Arsenal territory. The error of their ways was soon exposed when Cazorla had the space to curl in Arsenal's second goal on 48 minutes. The third came from a break straight from a Reading corner. For once, Gervinho kept his head, and waited for Giroud to arrive, and score under Taylor's rather flat dive. A goal and two assists led to the unlikely sight of Gervinho being given a standing ovation as he left the field to be substituted. "When he has his confidence back he is a very dangerous player," suggested Wenger.
When Hal Robson-Kanu scored at the back post to make it 3-1, hope perhaps only sprung in Adkins's world of optimism but Adrian Mariappa's thoughtless hack on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ended the chance of the new manager being moved to poetry. Mikel Arteta converted the penalty. Despite their manager congratulating every player as they left the field Reading looked doomed. Arsenal are very much in the hunt for an honour: that of representing England in the Champions League.