During the week, I received an email from a Watford friend who lives in one of the apartments at the old Highbury stadium inviting our party for a pre-match tour. As arranged, we met outside the main entrance which is part of the old East Stand facade and were taken into the marble hall to see the bust of Herbert Chapman and the Arsenal insignia that adorn the floors. Then out to “the pitch”, which is now a communal garden. We stood on the centre circle, noted the spot at which GT had his altercation with Steve Williams in 1987 and admired the memorial bench that has been added in memory of all the Arsenal fans who had had their ashes scattered at Highbury. It was all rather lovely, and pleasing that so much of the façade has been retained. Apparently, you don’t have to be an Arsenal fan to live there, but a couple of residents who turned up after a game wearing their West Ham shirts found that they could not get past security, so they do have some standards.
From there we made our way to one of the few pubs around the ground that allows away fans in. It wasn’t the most salubrious of venues and the selection of beer was limited and not particularly appealing, it certainly reminded me why we usually have our pre-match pint further afield.
As expected, team news was that Gracia would make his first change to the starting XI this season, with the enforced omission of the injured Janmaat who was replaced by Navarro. Thankfully, the red card shown to Kabasele during the week had been rescinded, so he was available for selection. So the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Navarro; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.
Watford started the game brightly, but had an early scare as Lacazette burst into the area, he was tripped by Kabasele but stayed on his feet and shot wide. I suspect that if the Arsenal man had gone to ground, the referee would have awarded a penalty, so we were grateful to him for his honesty. Watford then had a terrific chance to take the lead as Deeney headed a cross from Holebas back to Hughes but the shot was just wide of the target. The hosts then had a great chance as Lacazette robbed Cathcart in midfield and advanced towards Foster, he lifted the ball over the keeper, but it drifted just wide of the target, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets. At the other end, Deeney found Hughes whose shot was deflected over, but the flag was up for an infringement anyway. The first caution of the game went to Deeney for a foul on Monreal. A free kick from Holebas caused some concern in the Arsenal defence, but Cech was able to make the block as Kabasele challenged, before also blocking the follow-up from Deeney. At the other end, Xhaka tried a shot from the edge of the area, but Foster was down to gather. The first card for the home side went to Torreira, who was booked for a foul on Deeney. Arsenal were forced to make a substitution in time added on at the end of the first half, when Cech pulled a hamstring while taking a free kick and had to be replaced by Leno making his debut in the Arsenal goal.
I must admit that at the end of the half, I felt that Arsenal had more of the play, which may have been due to my position low down in the stand at the end which Arsenal were attacking. Although, I seemed to have been unduly intimidated by their attacking prowess as others around me were bemoaning us not taking our chances and feeling that we should have had the lead.
The first chance of the second half fell to the home side as a corner from Özil was headed over the bar by Holding. There was a much better chance for the Hornets as Deeney met a Holebas free kick with a shot that was heading for the bottom corner until Leno made a great save to put it out for a corner. At the other end, an Arsenal breakaway finished with Lacazette heading wide of the target. Mustafi was booked for a protest and then Emery made his first unforced substitution bringing Iwobi on for Ramsey. Watford threatened as Gray latched on to a through ball from Deeney, but Leno was out to block the shot. Leno was called into action again soon after, gathering a cross from Holebas. Then Pereyra had a terrific chance to open the scoring, cutting inside Torreira before shooting just wide of the far post. Gracia made his first change with 20 minutes to go, bringing Success on for Gray. The substitute made an immediate impact as he received a pass from Deeney and took a shot that was blocked by Holding. Watford threatened again as a Holebas free kick broke to Cathcart who poked the ball goalwards, it was blocked and his follow-up was caught by Leno. Success should have given Watford the lead when he broke into the box, but he aimed for the far corner and the shot bounced agonizingly off the post.
At this point the voice of Cassandra could be heard behind me, “We know what will happen now.” Arsenal’s final substitution came with quarter of an hour remaining as Aubameyang made way for Welbeck. Then the normally mild mannered Doucouré went into the book for a protest. With nine minutes to go, Cassandra’s prophesy came true as Iwobi crossed for Lacazette and Cathcart’s intervention only served to deflect the ball into the net. So irritating. Watford had had their best spell of the game and looked totally in control, but the home side were ahead. Watford had a chance to break back as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré who shot well over the bar. But it wasn’t to be and insult was added to injury as Arsenal scored a second two minutes later after another quick break as Lacazette exchanged passes with Iwobi before sliding the ball to Özil who side-footed home. Watford made a second change with Femenía coming on for Navarro. At this point, the Arsenal fans could be heard for pretty much the first time all afternoon with a chant of “Deeney, what’s the score?” The visitors had a couple of late chances to reduce the deficit. First, Pereyra went on a run before firing over the bar. Then Doucouré met a cross from Holebas with a header that flew over the bar. Into time added on and the final chance of the game fell to the home side, but the shot from
Lacazette was just wide of the far post.
It was a cruel finish to the game. Watford had been the better side for most of the second half and had considerably more shots on goal, but the hosts made the most of those that they had and it was the finishing that proved the difference between the teams.
Still, it was difficult to be too upset. It had been another terrific performance with the Hornets yet again showing themselves to be easily the match of one of the top six. On the evidence of the performances so far this season, we have little to fear when facing the majority of the teams in this division and I never thought that I would be saying that when we were first promoted.