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Watford-Arsenal Preview

(Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

A trip to Italy can do many things for the body, mind or soul.

In the case of Arsenal, it could have provided the potential to galvanise them for the Premier League stretch run.

Having avoided a fifth consecutive loss in all competitions with their most complete effort in months, the Gunners look to build on that much-needed victory Sunday in a tricky home match versus Watford at the Emirates.

The crescendo of noise surrounding Arsenal (13-6-10) and manager Arsene Wenger had reached a fever pitch in the last week, with a pair of humbling 3-0 losses to Manchester City - in the League Cup final and a chastening at the Emirates that left the Gunners 30 points adrift of the champions-elect - followed by a 2-1 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion. The latter dropped them further back of derby rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the fourth and final Champions League spot.

Wenger's future was called into question for the umpteenth time over the past few seasons, with many pundits wondering if the game has passed the Frenchman by and whether the foundation he has painstakingly built over the previous 20 seasons is crumbling around him in north London.

Yet for 90 glorious minutes in one of football's most storied stadiums, Arsenal put together a complete effort Thursday in a 2-0 first-leg victory over AC Milan at the San Siro in Italy, defeating another fabled giant who has fallen on hard times. The result gives the Gunners a commanding advantage in their bid to reach the Europa League quarterfinals in a fortnight at the Emirates, with this same path Manchester United navigated last season now likely their only avenue to return to the Champions League after missing out this season.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jack Wilshire both scored in the first half, with Mesut Ozil masterfully pulling the strings in the midfield as Arsenal looked the first-rate side many wished and believed them to be. Ozil assisted on both goals as he, Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey controlled the pace of the match, and a back four anchored by Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi snuffed out most every chance AC Milan tried to create as David Ospina needed to make only one save.

"At some stage you need to respond and respond together with a good performance," Wenger told Arsenal's official website. "When you lose three games in six days, it's always very difficult. The result will lift the belief in the team again … we have to finish the job at home. Overall, nothing is (finished) at the moment."

Mkhitaryan continued his stellar play in the Europa League, netting his 12th goal in the competition as he has now scored in the tournament with four different sides. He was a vital cog in United's run last season and also had scored with Borussia Dortmund and FK Metalurh before beating Gianluigi Donnarumma on the quarter-hour to open his account with Arsenal.

"It was very important that we didn't concede a goal and we scored two in an away game," the Armenia international said. "Now we have to be ready for the next game against Watford and then again, against Milan. Now we know that it won't be easy in the second leg but we are going to give everything to go through."

Wenger likely will turn back to Petr Cech between the sticks as he tries once more to become the first keeper with 200 clean sheets in Premier League play. This quest has now taken almost three months as Arsenal have not posted a shutout in 11 league matches since blanking Newcastle 1-0 on Dec. 16.

Before their 3-0 loss to City on March 1, Arsenal had bagged 15 goals while going 3-2-0 in their previous five league contests at the Emirates.

Yet there is no longer an aura to Arsenal, especially for a Watford side on the verge of reaching the 40-point mark that almost always ensures safety in the top flight. The Hornets (10-6-13) enter this contest ninth in the table on 36 points and are seeking their first double over Arsenal since the days of the First Division in 1987-88.

Watford are seeking their third win on the bounce after 1-0 home victories over Everton and West Bromwich Albion, with Troy Deeney's goal on 77 minutes sending the Baggies one step closer to the drop. The Golden Boys are 3-1-2 since Javi Garcia took over, posting three clean sheets and walloping reigning title-holders Chelsea 4-1 last month.

The foundation that appears to be settling at Vicarage Road prompted midfielder Etienne Capoue to extend his deal with Watford through 2022, with the Frenchman hoping he is the first domino of a promising nucleus that includes Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucoure.

"(At first) I was scared to sign here, because Watford were just promoted, but I felt straight away with (owner) Gino Pozzo that I can sign here very easily, and the structure of the club would be very strong and we were going to stay in the Premier League. We've done very well since then, our club is moving forward every season so it was an easy decision for me (to stay)." Capoue told the team's official website.

The Hornets have won two of their last three matches at the Emirates, most notably their 2-1 upset in the 2016 FA Cup quarterfinals that gave them a taste of life at Wembley. Last season, they got goals from Deeney and Younes Kaboul inside the first 13 minutes and held out for a 2-1 victory.

In the reverse fixture Oct. 14, Watford stole a late march at Vicarage Road for a 2-1 victory as Deeney equalised from the spot in the 71st minute and Tom Cleverley smashed home a late winner in stoppage time, getting to the rebound of a save by Cech on Deeney first.

After the win, Deeney told BT Sport that Arsenal lost because they lacked "cojones" and said that he bullied the back line of the Gunners to turn the match on its head.

Updated March 9, 2018

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