The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.
This was a match that defies analysis. I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain quite how bad Arsenal were in the first half, nor what inspired the change that formed the basis of that incredible turnaround. In that first 45, every time Reading went forward they looked like scoring. We simply could not deal with their crosses. Ignasi Miquel and Carl Jenkinson looked exposed and awkward at full-back, whilst Koscielny and Djourou looked anything but international class defenders in the centre.
First Jason Roberts outwitted Koscielny to dart to the back post and prod home. Then, just minutes later, Koscielny’s nightmare half continued as his outstretched leg diverted the ball past Martinez and in to his own net. The Argentine keeper wasn’t helping affairs; his inexperience was clear to see as he flapped at cross after cross. It was his criminal error which led to the third goal. Mikele Leigertwood fired a fairly simple shot at goal; Martinez could probably have caught it where he stood, but instead threw himself up and back in an acrobatic arc, playing for the cameras. How humiliating then that his palm only pushed the ball lamely up in to the air, allowing it to drop in to the net behind him. Twenty minutes gone; three nil to Reading.
Incredibly, it got worse. Another cross drifted in, from the right this time, and Noel Hunt climbed highest to power home. Arsenal were dreadful all over the pitch. In the build up to the game the manager had made it very public just where this competition lies in his list of priorities. Unfortunately, it seems the players took that as their cue to put in an entirely listless display. We were second to every ball, and for the most part you felt glad that the majority of these players are nowhere near the first team.
And then, just before half-time, Arsenal were handed a glimmer of hope. Andrey Arshavin split the defence with a cute through ball which Theo Walcott raced on to before clipping delightfully over the advancing Adam Federici. Ah, Federici: with him, you always have a chance.
From the interviews with the players after the match, we can gleam that Arsene’s half-time team talk pulled no punches: this wasn’t good enough. This was not Arsenal. In the first half, the fans had been chanting “we want our Arsenal back”. In the second, they got it.
The game hinged on the double substitution in the 62nd minute. Olivier Giroud and Thomas Eisfeld were introduced for Gnabry and Frimpong, and suddenly Arsenal came to life. Within two minutes of coming on to the field of play, Giroud had got on to the end of a Walcott corner and thumped a brilliant header beyond Federici. Arsenal fans dared to hope.
There then followed a succession of near-misses which I couldn’t help but feel we needed to score to have any chance. If we could get a third before the 80th minute, I reasoned, then we could have a real go at grabbing an equaliser. But the clock ticked on, and no goal came.
Fair play to Arsenal; they kept going. And, in the 89th minute, another Walcott corner found Koscielny, who’s eventful night continued with his second goal of the season.
The board went up, and the situation crystallised: Arsenal had four minutes to score an equaliser. Reading did everything right. They kept the ball in the corners, far away up the other end of the pitch. The four minutes expired. And yet, the whistle didn’t come. Arsenal suddenly found themselves with one last tantalising chance. Eisfeld thumped the ball fifty yards in to the area. Giroud did incredibly well to nod it down towards Theo Walcott, and he stabbed an effort towards goal. And then, panic. Replays showed the ball had crossed the line, but the referee didn’t spot it, instead not blowing his whistle until Carl Jenkinson of all people popped up to make sure and hammer the ball back in to the net. Whoever scored, it didn’t matter. Arsenal had done it: 4-4, in the 96th minute.
Some players thought their work for the night was done. Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin threw their shirts in to the crowd, only to hurriedly retrieve them when they discovered they had to play extra-time. Arsenal had the momentum now, and goal their fifth successive goal to put them ahead when Chamakh played a neat one-two with Giroud and fired low in to the corner from outside the box. I wasn’t sure he had it in him, to be honest.
That, of course, should have been that. This, however, was no ordinary game, and with just four minutes remaining on the clock a deflect cross found it’s way to Pavel Pogrebnyak,who levelled things up at 5-5.
With Martinez in such worrying form, Arsenal didn’t fancy penalties, but time was and tiring legs were against them. That’s why I was so shocked when it was a 120th minute forty yard sprint from Andrey Arshavin that proved the difference. He scooted in to the box and ignored options in the middle to slip the ball under the keeper. This time, Reading did manage to get the ball off the line, but only as far as Walcott, who smashed it in to give us the crucial lead. Alongside Walcott was Laurent Koscielny, who had won the ball at the back and sprinted the length of the pitch in the search for the winner.
There was time for one more. A glacé cherry on this delicious cake of a game. Arsene Wenger was still admonishing Martinez for failing to run down the clock when Walcott launched a long ball forward. Chamakh chased it down and lobbed over the keeper (again from outside the box) to set the seal on the game and make it 7-5.
Yes, 7-5. I’m going for another lie down.