This was the game many Arsenal fans had already described as a foregone conclusion. The Premier League’s second-placed team on a run of seven unbeaten games against a relegation-threatened side who had just been knocked out of the FA Cup by League One opposition.
Most supporters understandably had one eye on Saturday’s crucial match with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but a dismal 2-1 defeat in rainy north London has surely now lessened the impact which Saturday’s game will have.
Arsene Wenger rightly boasted about Arsenal’s plethora of attacking options following the thrashing of Southampton on Saturday but in the first half at Emirates Stadium he witnessed his side fail to muster a shot on target for the third league game this season. The likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were back in the team, but struggled against Watford’s organised, solid defence which was even better protected by their midfield lynchpin Etienne Capoue.
In-form striker Olivier Giroud was another returnee to the starting XI who had a minimal impact and it’s ironic that he recently demanded his team-mates to be “stronger at the beginning of games because I'm not going to score goals in the last minute every week”. That advice clearly fell on deaf ears as the Gunners were stunned by Walter Mazzarri’s sucker-punches from Younes Kaboul and Troy Deeney.
Perhaps more worryingly is the inevitability of Arsenal’s annual injury crisis which seems to have taken its place just as everyone except Santi Cazorla was deemed fully fit.
Aaron Ramsey was forced off with an all-too familiar muscular problem in the first half and his replacement Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appeared to limp for periods of the second half. Wenger’s side are without Mohamed Elneny, who is at the African Cup of Nations, the aforementioned Cazorla and much-needed Jack Wilshere, who is flourishing in Bournemouth’s midfield during his season-long loan deal.
From potentially closing the gap on Chelsea ahead of Saturday’s game to looking dead and buried in the title race, the problems now appear to be mounting up for a manager who still has two games left of his touchline ban to serve in the Premier League.
For Arsenal and their players it must feel like deja vu - a title challenge slipping away before it’s even begun.