Delight for Cech as Arsenal show their 'cojones'
Arsenal 3 Watford 0
"A bit of cojones, is what I'll say. Whenever I play against Arsenal, I'll go up and think, 'Let me whack the first one and see who wants it'. That's my strength. I know I'm not technically gifted like they are, not as quick, but if you want to fight with me, I'm gonna beat you all day."
The words of Troy Deeney five months ago loomed large over this game.
By full-time, to the delight of their own fans, Arsenal had made him eat them.
It was not just the superior technical quality that secured them three goals and three points, but the physical resilience they displayed against a club that have become something of a bellwether opponent of late, a yardstick, a barometer of their essential footballing manliness.
Just two-and-a-half days on from their draining win in the San Siro last Thursday night, Arsenal did not shirk from the fight.
As predicted, Watford tried to get into their heads by getting at their bodies.
As not predicted, Arsenal stood firm, taking the blows and trusting their gilt-edged front four to make the difference.
Shkodran Mustafi won the aerial challenge to score their opening goal and his defensive partner Rob Holding was at least his equal, holding his own against the physical test of Deeney and Stefano Okaka, while Granit Xhaka hurled himself around with intent in midfield.
Petr Cech made a number of crucial saves on the way to his 200th Premier League clean sheet - none more crucial than the second-half penalty that would have reduced their lead to 2-1 and given Watford a foothold in the game.
There was a certain gleeful irony in the fact that it was Deeney whose kick was saved.
And so ahead of the return game against Milan on Thursday night, Arsenal have a chance to restore a certain sanity going into the international break, perhaps even salvage something from their season.
We have long since given up on extrapolating anything at this club from a single result. But after a chastening week, things could certainly have been worse than this.
Mustafi's early goal, supplemented by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the second half, seemed to set them at ease.
It was an early statement of intent that Arsenal were not here to be bullied: Adrian Mariappa lost his man, Jose Holebas was simply outmuscled, and Mustafi's header was hard and summary.
It was a reminder, too, of Arsenal's underrated threat from these situations, a team that have won more aerial duels and scored more goals from set-pieces than any other team in the top six.
Still, Watford responded well. Roberto Pereyra sliced the ball over from six yards after Richarlison's saved free-kick and Cech made another good save from Abdoulaye Doucoure.
And, while they still looked comfortable enough, Arsenal had retained their arresting habit of putting their fans through the wringer, too easily giving the ball away in their own half, allowing Watford a spell of pressure that not even the half-time break could arrest.
The third quarter of the game, then, felt like it would be the pivotal period.
Watford turned up the heat, bringing on the brusque Okaka to partner Deeney up front.
And yet as Mkhitaryan drove at the heart of the Watford defence on the hour, it was Watford who looked denuded, reticent in the challenge.
Aubameyang made the smart diagonal run, rounded Orestis Karnezis, and tucked the ball into an empty net.
Almost immediately, Watford were handed a lifeline when Pereyra knocked the ball passed Ainsley Maitland-Niles and tumbled over.
However, Cech saved the penalty, raising a pair of strong forearms as he dived away to his right to provoke the biggest cheer of the afternoon.
It was a poor kick by Deeney, lacking direction, lacking conviction, lacked, dare we say it… actually, let's not go there.
But Cech didn't care. It was the first time, at the 16th attempt, that he had saved a penalty in Arsenal colours and it also helped him - finally - to collect a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League.
The 35-year-old therefore became the first goalkeeper to reach that mark, having been stuck on 199 since mid-December.
With 13 minutes left Mkhitaryan provided the flourish, Mesut Ozil breaking the offside trap, Aubameyang laying the ball off and Mkhitaryan curling the ball past Karnezis with his last touch of the game before earning a well-earned break.
So, from front to back, Arsenal had truly earned their massages and ice baths.
Watford had come to hustle, and Arsenal had hustled them harder.
It is the difference, I suppose, between being merely prepared for a physical battle, and relishing it: wanting it, craving it, prodding tenderly at your bruises in the bathroom the next morning and feeling a warm, stupid pride.
The light may be dimming. But Arsenal are still fighting. (© Independent News Service)