By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s long unbeaten streak in the FA Cup came to an end after they lost 2-1 in the quarter-finals to Watford.
Having won the competition in the past two seasons, the Gunners had racked up 15 consecutive round victories before coming unstuck against the Hornets.
Arsene Wenger’s side dominated the first half, having the lion’s share of possession and creating the best chances of the opening period.
Mohamed Elneny twice fired over the bar during a lively performance, while Joel Campbell volleyed just wide right on the stroke of half-time.
But Watford were revitalised after the interval, and took a shock lead when Odion Ighalo beat David Ospina from close range.
Ighalo twice went close in quick succession as the visitors continued to threaten, and they doubled their advantage when Adlene Guedioura drilled a fierce shot into the top corner.
Substitute Danny Welbeck added some late drama as he reduced the arrears two minutes from the end, before slicing over the bar moments later after Alex Iwobi had hit the post.
It was a disappointing end to an FA Cup campaign that had promised much, but with a trip to Barcelona coming up in a matter of days, an instant response will be needed.
SETTING THE SCENE
With confidence levels back on the rise after the midweek victory at Hull City, there was a buzz around a sun-drenched Emirates Stadium prior to kick off.
After all, the prospect of becoming the first club since Blackburn Rovers in the mid-1880s to win the FA Cup three times in a row was certainly an enticing one.
Much of the pre-match chatter centred around the level of rotation that would take place for this match, considering Wednesday’s visit to Barcelona and the crucial Premier League clash at Everton less than 72 hours later.
But those expecting a much-changed side would have been surprised, as Wenger named close to his strongest available XI, with Mesut Ozil, Francis Coquelin and Alexis all restored to the team.
Watford, meanwhile, came into this quarter-final as one of the season’s surprise packages. Not only have they apparently preserved their Premier League status with serene ease, but in Troy Deeney and Ighalo they have one of the best strikeforces in the top flight.
The pair had scored 24 of the Hornets’ 28 goals in all competitions prior to kick off at Emirates Stadium, and Wenger admitted that keeping them quiet would be crucial if Arsenal were to progress.
With the Emirates bathed in spring sunshine, the hosts made a really bright start as they set about their training-ground neighbours, zipping into tackles and passing it about slickly.
There was little more than two minutes on the clock when Calum Chambers was inches away from finding Alexis in the six-yard box, but it set the tone for a really energetic opening spell from Wenger’s side.
Olivier Giroud soon had the ball in the net, only for it to be ruled out for offside, but still the Gunners kept on coming as they sought to make their early dominance count.
While Watford soon grew into the game, the partnership between Joel Campbell and Chambers on the right flank was looking particularly positive.
Midway through the half they combined superbly, with the former releasing Chambers into space with a cute ball, but the right back’s teasing low cross was snaffled by Costel Pantilimon off the feet of Olivier Giroud.
Deeney and Ighalo had been isolated until this point, but they wasted a great chance to put the visitors in front on the counter when the latter raced into the area but chose to pass to his partner rather than shoot, only to roll the ball behind him.
However, the home side remained on the front foot, and had a good opportunity to open the scoring on the half-hour mark as Chambers picked out Elneny in the area with a fiercely-struck pass. The Egyptian did well to control it but, as Pantilimon raced out to close the angle, he snatched at his shot and lashed it over the bar.
Elneny had enjoyed an encouraging first half, and he had a great chance in the 41st minute as Ozil found space in the area with a delicious bit of trickery. The German then looked up and rolled the ball back to the midfielder on the edge of the area, but his first-time shot flew over.
Sixty seconds later, the Gunners came again as Ozil looked to pick out Campbell in the area with a firmly-weighted pass. The ball took a deflection off Nathan Ake on its way through, meaning it bounced up in front of the Costa Rican and his volley on the stretch flew just wide.
Having been frustrated by the visitors in the first half, Arsenal wasted little time in setting about them after the interval with Giroud heading a corner inches over within 45 seconds of the restart.
But the game soon took a twist when Watford sent a hopeful throw in into the box, which Deeney glanced on to the waiting Ighalo. The Nigerian forward did well to roll Gabriel, before firing beyond Ospina into the bottom corner.
It was a shock to the system for the hosts, and it could have been even worse minutes later when Ighalo sliced over the bar when well placed inside the area.
Arsenal needed to mount a response, but it was the visitors who threatened again when Ake curled a ball in from the left towards Igahlo, who got a foot to it but diverted it wide of the far post.
But things would go from bad to worse as Watford doubled their advantage, with Deeney holding off Mertesacker in the area, before finding the onrushing Guedioura, who smashed the ball into the top corner.
If the Gunners were going to defend their crown, they were going to have to do it the hard way and with just over 20 minutes remaining, Wenger sent on Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi on a rescue mission.
While Arsenal piled on the pressure, they struggled to find a way to breach the visitors’ defence and when a chance did arrive nine minutes from the end, Kieran Gibbs directed his header straight at Pantilimon.
Chambers then curled a shot wide of the far post after industrious work from Alexis,but finally with minutes remaining, Ozil found Welbeck in the area and he crashed it low into the far corner.
It set up a grandstand finish and Welbeck could have levelled it up as the ball fell to him in the area after Iwobi hit the post, but he sliced over from eight yards out.
That proved to be the final twist, and the final whistle signalled the end of the Gunners’ FA Cup hopes for another season.
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