By Richard Clarke
A well-crafted 83rd minute goal from Robin van Persie gave Arsenal all three points at Watford on Boxing Day - but Arsène Wenger's side were made to work all the way.
Gilberto nodded the visitors in front after 19 minutes however the lead lasted only four minutes as Tommy Smith swept home from close range.
Both sides had chances after that but by far the greater quality came from Arsenal. Watford keeper Ben Foster added to his blossoming reputation on one of his busier afternoons.
Desperation was just starting to take hold when Theo Walcott sent Van Persie sprinting through on the right. He cut inside Jay DeMerit and curled a left-foot effort into the far corner. It is fast becoming his trademark strike.
It certainly extracted Arsenal from a difficult situation this afternoon. This was a forget-the-performance and look-at-the-result kind of game. They move back up to third in the Premiership table.
Arsenal were unchanged from the side that had beaten Blackburn so handsomely at Emirates Stadium on Saturday. The retention of Alex Hleb and Tomas Rosicky for an away game suggested Wenger intended to 'outpass' the Premiership's bottom side.
Vicarage Road is a tight, traditional football stadium. Its devotees expected maximum effort and energy from the side, even though it had brought them precious few points until now.
Watford are favourites to go down this season while Wenger claims Arsenal are still gunning for the title. Throw in the traditional fervour of a Boxing Day fixture and you had the recipe for a bit of a Christmas cracker. And that is the way it turned out.
After three minutes Hameur Bouazza stormed down the left, cut inside Johan Djourou and forced an early save. By way of reply Van Persie forced a fine shot from Foster at the near post.
Dan Shittu nodded wide from a corner but, midway through the half, Arsenal had taken control of the game and, with it, the lead.
They created a gaggle of chances. Foster made a replica save, only this time from Fabregas. Watford could not clear the ball and Van Persie rifled a shot beyond the far post. The Dutchman then volleyed viciously at Foster and the on-loan Manchester United keeper made a fine low save. However Van Persie had tugged Jay DeMerit in order to get the shot away.
In the 18th minute Djourou erred and Ashley Young slipped through. Fortunately, Gilberto was on sentry duty and slid in to smother the shot at source. Seconds later the Brazilian put Arsenal ahead.
Rosicky flung a corner to the near post, Toure touched it on and the unmarked midfielder hammered home a header from close range.
It seemed that Arsenal would kick on from here. However, almost immediately, Young's optimistic yet well-flighted flick forced the backtracking Lehmann to palm the ball aside.
Then in the 23rd minute Bouazza fled down the left and another Toure touch diverted the ball to Smith eight-yards out. The former England Under-21 striker swept the ball past Lehmann with gusto.
Understandably the home fans were buoyed by the goal but the visitors came back strong before the break. They never broke through the home defence but their constant probing stretched their every sinew.
In the 33rd minute Toure clipped the ball through and the leaping Adebayor sent a swivelling shot high over the bar.
Then Van Persie powered through on the right but Foster cut out his low cross in the six-yard box. In the dying seconds Fabregas drove forward on left but slashed his shot well wide.
However the final chance fell to Alhassan Bangura who thumped a snapshot just past Lehmann's left-hand upright.
Senderos replaced Djourou at the break and Arsenal re-doubled their efforts after the re-start. Rosicky outpaced his marker on the left and forced a flying save from Foster at the near post.
The Czech midfielder then tried to feed the galloping Adebayor but Shittu slid in expertly on the edge of the area and managed to clear the danger.
However the impetus was soon lost. Watford had been dangerous from set-pieces through the game and forced a flurry of corners around the hour.
But Arsenal weathered the storm and in the 64th minute Fabregas sent Adebayor clear. He beat his marker and his low shot hit Foster's legs. The Watford keeper knew little about that save however his stop from Justin Hoyte's left-foot drive was excellent.
Arsenal were going for the win. Clichy dribbled through and fired over just after Theo Walcott came on. Then Julio Baptista trickled an effort inches beyond the far post a minute after his arrival.
The goal finally came seven minutes from time. Adebayor hacked an effort wide then, after Gilberto cleared a corner, Walcott found Van Persie wonderfully. The Dutchman found the far corner in a similar manner. Baptista nearly gave Walcott his first Arsenal goal on a plate at the death but it wasn't to be.
Nonetheless, a little bit of quality, along with a whole heap of grit, had been just enough to take all three points.
- Djourou 46
- Silva Goal!
- Rosicky 79
- Hleb 71
- van Persie Goal!
- Senderos 46
- Walcott 71
- Julio Baptista 79
- Shittu 90
- McNamee 77
- Bouazza 69
- Smith Goal!
- Doyley Yellow Card
- Francis 69 Yellow Card
- Henderson 77
- Priskin 90