By Kevin Affleck
Football is a funny old game sometimes.
From seeing stars last week, the Hornets were left seeing red in their homecoming as FA Cup finalists, firstly through slight embarrassment after Ben Foster made the most uncharacteristic of errors, and then through anger after Troy Deeney was shown a straight red card. This all happened in under 90 madcap first-half seconds and decided the match. It was quite a way to come crashing back down to earth after the high of Wembley.
Fired by a sense of injustice, the Hornets had a right good go at the Gunners for the next 79 minutes in what was a crackling atmosphere under the lights at Vicarage Road. They showed all the qualities that have carried to the final of the most famous cup competition in the world and left them right in the mix to finish in seventh. The Golden Boys were full of running, full of character and really took the game to Arsenal without their talisman, the man who so often gets them going and makes them tick.
The Gunners knew they had been in a game and the fact Unai Emery made two defensive substitutions midway through the second half told you all you needed to know about who was on the front foot for most of this one. It was a real spirited effort from Javi Gracia’s side. You just wish it had been a fair fight and they’d be allowed to have a real crack at the Gunners with 11 men.
It was full-blooded from the off, from the moment Andre Gray charged down Bernd Leno inside a minute in front of the Rookery End. It was a challenge that got the crowd going and neither team took a backward step thereafter.
It was all bubbling up nicely and we looked to be in for a cracking game when Foster gave the Gunners a head start. He took too long to clear a pass back from Daryl Janmaat and was changed down by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the ball ricocheting in off the Gabon striker who knew little about it.
If that wasn’t bad enough, things got even worse less than two minutes later when Deeney, to his utter disbelief, was given his marching orders on the say-so of one of the assistant referees for a challenge with his arm on Lucas Torreira. The crowd were furious and so was Deeney. Talk about puncturing the mood.
It would have been easy for Watford to fold, easy to go under and feel sorry for themselves and that the world was against them, but back they came.
Craig Cathcart hit the post, Nacho Monreal had to clear a cut back from Gray away from the waiting Abdoulaye Doucouré and then Kiko Femenía put one on the roof of the net. Étienne Capoue came closest of all, forcing Leno to dive full length to his left to keep out a curling free-kick. The Hornets were making more than a decent fist of playing ten men.
At the other end, there was a save from Foster to deny Alex Iwobi but that was about it. You really couldn’t tell who had ten men at times.
Arsenal sought to gain a real grip on possession by introducing Mesut Özil, who is a master at linking the play and recycling the ball, at half-time. With the German schemer to the fore, Arsenal threw the first punch of the second half when Iwobi almost bent one into the far corner. The Nigerian was at it again minutes later when he teed up Henrikh Mkhitaryan with a ball to the far post only for the Armenian to be denied by a reactionary save from Foster, who atoned for his earlier error in one fell swoop. It had looked a certain goal for the visitors and that would have been it, game over.
Then came a substitution that summed up the contrasting ambition of the two coaches. Emery sent for Mattéo Guendouzi to stiffen the midfield while Gracia went for broke and threw on a forward for a right-back, bringing on Isaac Success for Femenía. The all-out message filtered through to the players and soon after you had Adam Masina arrowing a long-range missile onto the bar and Gray coming within a whisker of being in on goal from a Janmaat pass. Had his touch been better, the hero of the previous four home games would only have had Leno to beat.
Emery was so concerned at this point that he sent for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, sacrificing Aaron Ramsey and asking the England Under-21 to play right-back. Andhe needed the substitute to have be at his defensive best to smother a chance for Gray who had gone round Leno and was about to have a crack at the unguarded net.
The Hornets kept plugging away until the end, they kept carrying the fight to the Gunners on the wave of a wall of noise from the Rookery End, but they’d used up their get-out-jail chips at Wembley last week and had to resign themselves to the fact that this just wasn’t their night.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina (Sema 86); Femenía (Success 59), Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deeney (C), Gray. Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Britos, Chalobah, Navarro and Mariappa.