The League Cup may not be a priority for Arsenal but dignity obviously is. After a humiliating opening 37 minutes in which they allowed Reading to canter into a 4-0 lead, Arsène Wenger's team mounted a phenomenal fightback to turn a night of ignominy into one of glory. And absurdity.
The improbability of what unfolded at the Madjeski Stadium was underlined by the fact that the goal that crowned Arsenal's 7-5 victory was scored the much-mocked Marouane Chamakh. The striker, among Arsenal's worst performers in their calamitous first period, netted twice in extra-time, after goals from Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud and a hat-trick from Theo Walcott erased a Reading lead that had looked insurmountable.
In the end it was Brian McDermott, whose side were so rampant early on, who was left to wonder what ramifications the result may have for confidence. Arsenal, booed off at half-time, emerged buoyed. Neutral fans, meanwhile, savoured a staggering helter-skelter match.
Wenger made it clear beforehand that he remains unimpressed with the League Cup and his line-up reflected that as he omitted all 11 of the players who started Saturday's league win against QPR. In came the 17-year-old midfielder Serge Gnabry for his senior debut and the goalkeeper Damián Martinez for a second appearance, but Arsenal still fielded plenty of presumed quality, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny and Andrey Arshavin representing nearly £30m worth of investment by Wenger.
Historians might have ventured that Arsenal were the least desirable opposition for a Reading team who cannot be high on confidence after a winless start to their league campaign — for they are the only one of the 103 league clubs that Reading have faced since their formation to have won every meeting against them. Yet there was cause for the home side to be optimistic. Not merely because McDermott maintains his team have been playing well regardless of results, but also because of the ominous clouds over Arsenal.
Arsenal arrived ill at ease and their condition rapidly deteriorated. After three minutes Reading's centre-back Sean Morrison headed a corner against a post. Haplessness has been a hallmark of Arsenal goalkeepers for a while now, but on this occasion fortune favoured Martínez as the ball rebounded off his back and clear.
His luck would not last, even if the 20-year-old made a solid save from Jay Tabb moments later, when Reading pierced his ramshackle defence anew. After 12 minutes that defence was in disarray again as Noel Hunt, fending off a flimsy challenge in midfield, flipped the ball to Hal Robson-Kau on the left. Koscielny did not appear to know where Jason Roberts was as the striker slammed the winger's cross into the net from six yards.
Where Reading were vibrant and fluent, Arsenal were plain feeble. The home team cut through them again in the 18th minute before Chris Gunter fired in a low cross from the right and Koscielny shanked it into his own goal. Two minutes later Arsenal staggered further into farce as they lost the ball at the edge of their area and then watched as Mikele Leigertwood cantered into the box and let fly. Martínez made a spectacular attempt to palm the shot away but his technique failed him and he slapped the ball into the net.
Since Arsenal put up scant resistance, Reading helped themselves to a fourth goal in the 37th minute, Hunt sending a fine header in off a post after an equally fine cross from Gareth McCleary. That was the cue for dozens of Arsenal fans to leave their seats and head beneath the stands. Those who remained struck up a chorus of "We want our Arsenal back".
Walcott temporarily cheered them up on the stroke of half-time by racing on to a pass from Arshavin and lifting the ball over Adam Federici and into the net. If the home fans feared that his smart finish might stimulate a fightback, their concerns must have receded at the start of the second period when a Reading pass triggered more chaos in their box and Robson-Kanu found himself with a free header from eight yards. This time Martínez pushed it wide – and then attempted to make sense of his team's incompetent defending of a series of corners.
Arsenal did at least perk up to threaten at the other end, especially through Walcott, who thrived on through-balls through the middle. But it was his exquisite delivery from a corner that led to them cutting the deficit further in the 65th minute, when Olivier Giroud headed his delivery into the net from eight yards. Reading started to look rattled and Giroud forced an awkward save from Federici five minutes later.
Two minutes from time Koscielny, the worst performer in the first half, encapsulated Arsenal's improvement by heading a corner into the net at the right end. And in the fifth minute of stoppage time – one more than the referee had indicated – a punt into the box resulted in Walcott sending a shot fractionally over the line.
The mayhem did not relent in extra-time as play hurtled from one end to the other. Jobi McAnuff would have put the home team back in front if not for a fine save by Martínez, then Walcott tore through the Reading defence with another searing run before Arshavin stabbed wide. As the first half of extra-time neared its end, Chamakh made his first contribution. No one was ruling out a further twist, least of all Pavel Pogrebnyak who headed an equaliser in the 115th minute. Then Arsenal edged back in front as Walcott lashed in his third after an Arshavin shot was cleared off the line. Then Chamakh lobbed an astonishing seventh before the entertainment ended.