Monday 12 March 2018 06:23, UK
Arsenal geared up for their Europa League decider and halted a run of three straight Premier League defeats with a 3-0 win over Watford at the Emirates.
Shkodran Mustafi headed an eighth-minute opener and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang fired a belated second just before the hour-mark, before Henrikh Mkhitaryan added a third 13 minutes from time as Arsene Wenger's selection gamble with AC Milan in mind paid off.
The hosts had escaped punishment for a profligate first half and were indebted to Petr Cech for saving a Troy Deeney penalty just minutes after Aubameyang struck, the goalkeeper finally recording his 200th Premier League clean sheet.
Wenger's scrutinised side remain 10 points adrift of the top four, having played a game more, but victory at a stadium once again pockmarked by empty seats will at least help boost still-fragile confidence ahead of a Europa League last-16 showdown pivotal to their season.
Arsenal: Cech (8), Maitland Niles (6), Holding (6), Mustafi (7), Kolasinac (6), Elneny (7), Xhaka (7), Ozil (7), Iwobi (6), Mkhitaryan (7), Aubameyang (7).
Subs used: Chambers (6), Wilshere (6), Welbeck (6).
Watford: Karnezis (7), Femenia (6), Prodl (6), Mariappa (6), Holebas (6), Doucoure (7), Capoue (7), Janmaat (6), Pereyra (7), Richarlison (7), Deeney (6).
Subs: Britos (6), Hughes (6), Okaka (6).
Man of the Match: Petr Cech
Deeney had memorably accused Arsenal of lacking 'cojones' at Vicarage Road in October but after responding to their critics with a 2-0 win in Italy on Thursday, the Gunners set a brisk tempo despite six changes that saw Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey rested.
Ozil had slipped Aubameyang through with just two minutes on the clock, Hornets 'keeper Orestis Karnezis splayed to thwart him, but the German created the opener soon after with an inswinging free-kick that Mustafi rose between yellow shirts to meet.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returned to the starting line-up as one of six Arsenal changes, Petr Cech, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Rob Holding, Mohamed Elneny and Alex Iwobi given starts. Kiko Femenia replaced Andre Carrillo for Watford.
That milestone goal - Arsenal's 1,000th at home in the Premier League - might have been supplemented before the break but Sead Kolasinac's heavy centre just evaded Aubameyang's lunge (17) and after collecting Mohamed Elneny's ball on the run, Ozil lashed straight at the goalkeeper (28).
Abdoulaye Doucoure's driving run into the box had tested Cech's reactions, while Roberto Pereyra smashed a loose ball from close range over the crossbar (25) during a half where the visitors grew in confidence as their hosts failed to increase their lead.
Cech had pushed away a stoppage-time Richarlison header to preserve the slim advantage by the break and Rob Holding was forced into a smart block after the restart as Watford maintained momentum.
Danny Welbeck was stripped to enter the fray, home nerves lingering, but then Mkhitaryan pounced on a loose ball and drove goalwards, threading through a ball that Aubameyang tucked away before flipping backwards in celebration (59).
Arsenal breathed easier but Watford were gifted a lifeline when Ainsley Maitland-Niles tripped Pereyra, only for Deeney - booed lustily as he stepped up to the spot - to fire straight at Cech.
The Czech punched the air, landmark shut-out in sight, as the Emirates noise finally lifted, and having opened his Arsenal account in midweek, Mkhitaryan sealed the points when he latched onto Aubameyang's ball and slotted home.
Mohamed Elneny impressed and Mesut Ozil - who pulled up in the first half before playing on - was at the centre of Arsenal's best attacking play before the break but Petr Cech takes the prize on his milestone day.
Speaking on Super Sunday co-commentary, Alan Smith said: "He's not been flawless but he made four saves and got that 200th clean sheet. He deserves it."
Arsene Wenger: "I wanted to absolutely win this game, it was difficult, but it gets us out of that negative spirit that we were in. I don't know how much negativity is out there. I focus on my job; I have shown in 22 years that I can do that and that I respect everybody's opinion but I focus on my job with total commitment."
Javi Gracia: "I am disappointed because I can't believe that we didn't score a goal. Troy before the match was concentrating on playing well, to help the team. He had the chance to score the penalty, he didn't do it. I don't know what he is thinking about."
Arsenal are back at the Emirates on Thursday as they bid to make their first-leg advantage count and reach the Europa League quarter-finals. With Leicester in FA Cup action next weekend, they return to Premier League duties against Stoke on April 1. Watford travel to Liverpool on March 17.