After an excruciating two week hiatus imposed on us by meaningless international friendlies, normal service resumes today with the return of Premiership football.
With the Premier League kicking back into gear, we also have a chance for a little revenge as Watford visit The Emirates – the scene for the Hornets ending Arsenal’s long unbeaten run in the FA Cup last month with a 2-1 victory.
This match also sees some potential history that Gooners will be keen to avoid – a loss in this fixture will be the first time since 1959 that Arsenal will have lost four home fixtures in a row. With this and the FA Cup loss fresh in their minds – Arsenal should be more than motivated enough to perform on the pitch.
Eight games remain in this campaign, and with a slight chance still lingering to win the title from under the noses of Leicester City, this match is the first stepping stone to eight games in which maximum points must be gained.
Arsene Wenger can take heart from the welcome news of the return to training for erstwhile crock Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky – although neither can be called upon for this fixture. Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey remain injured.
The biggest boost however, comes in the form of Petr Cech, who may be recalled after missing the last month through injury. The giant Czech has been capably covered by David Ospina but a return to fitness for Cech would surely mean a recall to the side.
Gabriel also showed in the last game for Arsenal, that he is more than just a hatchet man. He ably deputised for Per Mertesacker and snuffed out the threat of lethal marksman Romelu Lukaku with a calm performance which was at odds with his recent games. He again looks likely to resume his partnership with Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal adding Spanish flair from the full-back slots.
Mohamed Elneny has certainly found his feet in an Arsenal jersey, and he will be alongside Francis Coquelin, in a midfield team that offers steel and effective distribution. Mesut Ozil is still agonisingly close to the assists record in the Premier League, and with a fully-firing Danny Welbeck providing the German with a target, the potential for the record to be his must be high.
The last fixture for the Gunners saw a welcome win at Goodison Park and a glimpse at how the team can perform. It was an assured display and an away day that could have proved to be sticky, but all over the park the eleven who took to the field answered the many critics who were hounding them after a torrid run of results. Has it come too late however?
Arsenal always finish strongly, but this familiar pattern of blips and runs of form has seen many fans exasperated – especially with this season seemingly one of the best opportunities in recent years to finally reclaim the League title. The win over Everton two weeks ago was only the second win in eleven games and has left the Gunners with a gap in points that may just be too much to overhaul with limited games that remain.
Troy Deeney and Odion Ighallo will again represent the chief concern for the Arsenal defence, and have contributed over three quarters of the Hornets goals over the season. The focus for Quique Sanchez Flores though, may have shifted from the League after safety from relegation was relatively dismissed a few games ago and a vital FA Cup semi-final on the horizon.
Arsenal however, have just eight games. Eight games to save their season. There may be ties that will test them, but all are more than winnable, and only eight victories will surely be enough to continue their presence in the title race. Returning players may provide a shot in the arm to the squad, but only a true fight to the end of the season will be enough to sate Gooners.
The bell for the first round rings today.