By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Our Premier League title hopes suffered a big blow as we were beaten by Watford on a disappointing night in north London.
With Chelsea travelling to Liverpool, it had felt prior kick off like there might be an opportunity to make up ground on the leaders.
But those thoughts were quickly dispelled when Watford scored twice in the opening 13 minutes through Younes Kaboul and Troy Deeney.
The Gunners just could not get going in the first half, and were indebted to Petr Cech as he made saves to deny Sebastian Prodl and then Daryl Janmaat.
Arsene Wenger’s side were much improved after the interval, and pulled themselves back into the game when Alex Iwobi slotted home after good work by Alexis.
But despite going close through Nacho Monreal and Lucas in the closing stages, we could not find a way back into the game, slipping to a damaging defeat.
It makes a positive result in Saturday’s trip to Stamford Bridge even more important as we seek to haul in the west Londoners.
SETTING THE SCENE
It felt like it could be an important night in the Premier League title race, with the Gunners playing at the same time as Chelsea visited Anfield - and just four days before the top two met at Stamford Bridge.
Having beaten Southampton so convincingly three days earlier and with just Santi Cazorla and the suspended Granit Xhaka sidelined, Arsene Wenger was spoilt for choice when it came to his team selection.
Danny Welbeck - who scored twice at St Mary’s to mark his successful return to the fold after injury - was rested and not in the matchday squad, while Theo Walcott had to make do with a place on the bench.
The Arsenal manager named pretty much an unchanged side to the one that beat Burnley so dramatically last time out in the Premier League - the only change seeing Francis Coquelin replace Xhaka.
It meant that Gabriel continued at right back, while Shkodran Mustafi looked to extend his unbeaten run as an Arsenal player to 23 games against a Watford side that had lost their last seven league games against us.
The visitors included new loan signing M’Baye Niang, the French forward who Wenger revealed had spent some time on trial at Arsenal earlier in his career.
The Gunners got off to a sluggish start to the game, struggling to get their passing game going - and they were made to pay in the 10th minute as Watford took the lead.
It came after the visitors were awarded a free kick for what seemed an innocuous challenge by Mustafi on Deeney. Kaboul took aim from 25 yards out, with his free kick taking a deflection to wrongfoot Cech and fly into the net.
If that was a blow, things were about to get worse when, three minutes later, Etienne Capoue pounced on a loose throw in and raced upfield and into the box.
The midfielder’s shot was saved by Cech, but it ran into the path of Deeney five yards out and the Watford captain made no mistake to put Wenger’s side in real trouble.
With Aaron Ramsey soon hobbling off clutching his leg, replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the problems were mounting up.
One penalty shout aside, when Monreal went down in the area only to be booked himself, the Gunners struggled to mount a response against the Hornets, who were packing men behind the ball.
In fact, it was the visitors who would go closest to extending their lead when Prodl sent a looping header towards goal that Cech had to push over the bar.
The Arsenal goalkeeper was then forced into another smart save to push away Janmaat’s strike from the edge of the area as the Hornets threatened to make life even more difficult for the hosts.
As expected, the Gunners came out with renewed vigour after the interval and Theo Walcott - on at the break for Olivier Giroud - had an early chance, only for Heurelho Gomes to deny him.
It was one-way traffic in the early stages, with the increasingly influential Iwobi next to have a go after weaving his way into the area, but once again Gomes was equal to it.
Finally, just before the hour mark, Wenger’s side pulled themselves back into the game as Alexis wriggled free on the right touchline and sent over a teasing cross that Iwobi stroked back across goal and into the far corner.
Now we had a game, now we had a lifeline.
Lucas was soon thrown into the fray in place of Coquelin as Wenger made his final throw of the dice with a little more than 20 minutes remaining.
But while his side remained on the front foot, the momentum they had built up stalled slightly and the chances they had been making at the start of the half dried up.
It looked as though another late show would be needed, and Monreal came close to setting up a grandstand finish with a fierce volley that flew just wide.
Lucas then hit the bar with a fierce drive from inside the area, but this time there was to be no late goal as the final whistle blew to end a frustrating evening.
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