13:30 GMT, Sunday 11th March, Emirates Stadium (London, England) Sky Sports
Arsène Wenger’s side ended their worst run of results since 2002 with an impressive win away in Milan, however, they return to face their domestic problems this weekend. Having lost 5 of their previous 7 Premier League matches, the bottom has fallen out of the Gunners season to leave them trailing 5th-placed Chelsea by 11 points. Home form has partially masked this, however, winning 10 of their 14 games at the Emirates where only the Manchester sides have beaten them there this season.
After suffering their own depressing run, Watford are slowly finding their feet again. Back up to 9th in the league following 3 wins from their previous 4 games, results have been more positive for the Hornets of late despite not being accompanied by wholly convincing performances. With a record showing they’ve lost 6 of their last 7 away fixtures in the league and 7 of their 9 previous meetings with the Gunners, they will hope to have turned a corner having beaten the Gunners in both of their most recent encounters and with new manager, Javi Gracia, slowly restoring confidence and structure to the club.
Last Time Out
AC Milan 0-2 Arsenal (Europa League)
A terrible two weeks finally finished on a high note as the Gunners gave themselves every opportunity of progressing to the quarter-finals in the return leg next week. The Gunners played with a confidence and control which belied their recent form, attacking the Milanese side straight from kick-off.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan opened the scoring in the 15th minute with his first goal for the club and it was no more than the Gunners deserved for their early endeavours. It was the second of three good chances for Mkhitaryan during the first half, the latter of which hit the woodwork just before half-time.
With Danny Welbeck chosen to lead the frontline, Arsenal played free-flowing and attractive football in their build-up to supplying him chances as he tirelessly ran the Milan defenders into the ground. With Aaron Ramsey doubling his side’s lead during injury time of the first half, the Gunners played a professional and mature game after the break to ensure they kept a clean sheet to add to their two away goals which they will now take into the return fixture.
Watford 1-0 West Bromwich Albion (Premier League)
The Hornets squeezed to victory through a gritty performance against a Baggies side who made them earn their win. It was West Brom who took the early initiative in the match with Watford struggling to contain the Baggies during the opening half hour.
While the Hornets grew stronger as the half wore on, it was again West Brom who made the early running after the break. With Orestis Karnezis and Adrian Mariappa, who was making his 250th start for the club, both in commanding form, West Brom could not break through the Hornets resistance.
At the opposite end of the pitch, the Hornets were less productive and often frustrated Gracia by losing possession cheaply. The winning goal finally arrived with little more than 10 minutes remaining, Troy Deeney scoring in his 300th league appearance after being played through on goal by Will Hughes. While there was a frantic end to the game, neither side could create any clear-cut opportunities, and the Hornets secured their second successive win in the league.
Santi Cazorla (Achilles) and Alexandre Lacazette (knee) are joined on the sidelines by Sead Kolasinac (ankle) Nacho Monreal (back) and Héctor Bellerín (knee) to leave Wenger short of defensive options. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will make a return to the starting eleven for this game having been ineligible to play in the Europa League while Wenger may opt to rest Jack Wilshere ahead of Thursday’s important match against Milan.
Molla Wagué (hamstring) Younes Kaboul (fitness) Gerard Deulofeu (foot) Craig Cathcart (knee) Christian Kabasele (hamstring) Tom Cleverley (hamstring) and Nathaniel Chalobah (knee) all miss out once more for Gracia’s team. There is a return expected for Kiko Femenía at right-back which could convince the manager to once again operate a 3-4-3 system which he did before the loss of several key defenders for recent matches.
Key Battle: Shkodran Mustafi (Arsenal) vs Troy Deeney (Watford)
Arsenal’s biggest problem for some time now has been the frail nature of their defence. Whether this is due to the defenders, the anchoring midfield player, their manager’s tactics or a combination of all three, they’re unable to produce the 1-0 wins George Graham once made them famous for. Mustafi must put his own inconsistent form to one side this weekend and lead his defence if the Gunners are to rectify this troubled area in the team.
Having disrespected the Gunners resilience and mental attitude after the two clubs last met, Deeney will be a central focal point in this weekend’s clash. The Watford captain has now scored in both of Watford’s previous games and appears to have the confidence of Gracia, starting each of the 5 league games the Spaniard has been in charge of the Hornets. Having rekindled his form in recent weeks, he could well be in line to bully the Arsenal defence once more.
Playing for pride
Inconsistencies have been the bane of Arsenal’s season so far as they’ve flip-flopped through their current campaign. While they’ve recently been through one of the lowest ebbs seen in Islington for several years, they’ve also interspersed their season with some glimpses of sparkling performances.
This has led to Arsenal’s current position being 13 points behind 4th-placed Tottenham and with a goal difference 20 short of their North London rivals. With the loss of anything significant to play for in the league this season, Wenger will have to fight hard to maintain a high standard with no compelling motivation for his side. Arsenal’s performance against Milan was that of a team who knew they were at the last-chance saloon regarding silverware this season but now they must achieve a similar intensity for 9 games that are practically dead-rubbers games in the league.
Weight of expectation
The sparkling form of Richarlison during the early stages of this season has left a huge amount of expectation on the 20-year-old Brazilian’s shoulders. Having made an assist from the bench in Watford’s opening match and then scored in the following game which he was in the starting lineup for, his impact at Vicarage Road was as quick as it was dramatic.
Beyond the 5 goals and 8 assists he now has in the league, it was the energy and creativity which has marked him out as a special talent. Often looking like the only player capable of opening up the opposition in the Watford team, the decline in form of Richarlison has, therefore, been visible and now stretches to 18 games without a goal for the winger. It is easy to forget that he is still so young, however, the pressure’s of a barren spell for an £11.5m player at Watford will be negligible to what he will face if he ever secures one of the many mooted transfers which he has been linked with over the past few months.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 Watford
The Gunners proved against Milan that they will do the hard work required to build a platform to work from. As well as producing fluid attacks, they also prevented the Italians space and time to operate, resulting in a deserved win.
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