Watford inflict agony on Arsenal to leave further questions over Wenger
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Arsenal 1-2 Watford in the FA Cup quarterfinals on Sunday.
Woe for Arsenal as FA Cup reign is over
Arsenal's season has entered crisis mode. Watford ended the Gunners' hopes of a third straight FA Cup and left Arsene Wenger staring at the increasing likelihood of ending the campaign without silverware.
Odion Ighalo's opening goal and a stunning strike by Adlene Guedioura condemned Arsenal to their first FA Cup loss in three years, but it was one that felt depressingly familiar in a season that has been full of let-downs.
They dominated possession throughout the game but failed to capitalise before showing defensive vulnerabilities, a script that is repeating itself increasingly often at the Emirates.
Watford took advantage in the most impressive manner possible. Ighalo showed strength to hold off Gabriel Paulista in the area before swivelling and firing into a shot into the corner of the net in the 50th minute. Guedioura's second was one of the best goals scored at the Emirates all season, as he collected the ball on the edge of the area and sent an unstoppable shot into the top corner. It was an empathic way of ending Arsenal's run of winning 15 straight matches in the FA Cup, falling one short of equalling their own post-war record.
Both goals came against the run of play but also felt quite predictable in a season in which Arsenal continue to throw away great opportunities. Quique Sanchez Flores' tactics worked to perfection as Watford sat back to soak up Arsenal's pressure throughout the game and threatened repeatedly on the counterattack.
Danny Welbeck gave his team some hope by pulling a late goal back, but this was ultimately another example of Arsenal failing to reach their potential.
For Wenger's men, it was the worst possible start to a seven-day span that could decide their fate in three competitions. A trip to Barcelona awaits in the Champions League on Wednesday before an away game at Everton, where Arsenal must win to avoid falling further behind in the Premier League title race.
This, though, was by far Wenger's best chance at silencing his critics with another trophy. But instead of a trip to Wembley, they now face ever-increasing scrutiny and the prospect of seeing their season crumbling even further in the coming week.
More questions for Wenger
Wenger was already under heavy pressure before this game, and Sunday's result is only likely to ramp up the questions about the Frenchman's future. For all of his insistence that he hasn't given up on either the Champions League or Premier League, his team selection here indicated otherwise -- at least as far as the Barcelona game is concerned.
Having rotated heavily in previous FA Cup games this season, Wenger fielded a near-full-strength side. That decision backfired as Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud were all ineffective. A triple substitution to bring on Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck finally gave the team a spark, but by the time they started showing real fight, it was too late. Welbeck had a glorious chance for an equaliser after Iwobi hit the post, but he fired wide.
Wenger keeps insisting that his job isn't under threat, but if this season ends with another fight for a top-four finish, the calls for his resignation will only increase.
Deeney and Ighalo win the battle
Wenger had identified the duel between Watford strikers Ighalo and Troy Deeney and his two centre-backs as one of the key matchups to this game.
That certainly proved the case, and Ighalo finally made sure they got the better of Per Mertesacker and Gabriel.
The Arsenal defenders had stifled the strike duo until Ighalo's opener, when he held off Gabriel in the area to create space for a shot.
Ighalo and Deeney had combined for 20 league goals by the end of 2015, but had just five goals between them across all competitions in 2016 before this game. They found their sharpness again at the perfect moment as Watford ended a three-game run without a goal.
The two forwards were again Watford's main outlet throughout the game as the visitors sat back to defend while focusing on counterattacks. Twice in the first half, they found themselves two-on-two with Mertesacker and Gabriel but couldn't capitalise. Both times it was Ighalo who ran on to long through balls but couldn't pick out his partner in the area.
But they couldn't be contained until the end, and a trip to Wembley seems the perfect reward for a Watford team that has already exceeded expectations this season.
And with the Premier League newcomers safe from relegation, Flores' team now has a real chance to make this campaign even more memorable.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him @MattiasKaren.