After an untimely two-week layoff, Arsenal will look to pick up where they left off before the international break when traveling to face Watford on Saturday. Arsenal secured their best result of the season with a 3-0 victory over Manchester United at the start of the month to go second in the Premier League, two points behind Manchester City. And manager Arsene Wenger is now eager for his team to back up that display on Saturday as they chase a first Premier League title in 12 years.
“You can fight for the championship if you turn up with the performances in every single game, and I believe that we’ve just come out of a very strong performance,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “What is at stake is the opportunity to show the same quality in our performance. That means show that you can focus in every single game and turn up with the same commitment in every single game.”
Wenger hopes not to be hampered in that objective by a fitness doubt over Alexis Sánchez. The crafty forward scored twice against Manchester United to take his tally to six goals in three games. But he was taken off with a hip problem last time out and then went away to play two World Cup qualifiers with Chile. And Wenger admitted on Thursday, before the player had arrived back at the club, that he was unsure whether Sánchez would be able to feature fully at Vicarage Road on Saturday.
“It is always a tricky situation, because they are playing official qualifiers for the World Cup, he’s an important player for them, and you know that they will use them if they can,” he said. “And he’s a guy that always wants to play. We have to see if we have to protect him in our next game or not.”
It will be a short trip for Arsenal to Hertfordshire, but on paper a more testing one than what might have been envisaged at the start of the season. Although they have taken just one point from their last two matches, Watford have been far from pushovers in the Premier League since gaining promotion last season.
With a drastically overhauled squad, new manager Quique Sánchez Flores has put the focus on defense. And their record of seven goals conceded in their first eight games is the joint best in the Premier League. The Spaniard, formerly coach of Atlético Madrid, has stressed that his team must follow a strict plan again on Saturday.
“We will play a smart match, this is the most important thing,” he told Watford’s official website. “They have a lot of quality, but for us the most important thing is to choose well in what part of the pitch we want to play.
“They have a lot of variants, they have very good players and they can change their shape depending on the score of the match, but it is important that we think about us. If we do what we are preparing to do, we will have the chance to take a positive result.”
Watford have had fitness concerns over Allan Nyom, Valon Behrami and Ikechi Anya, but all look set to be involved. José Manuel Jurado and Joel Ekstrand remain sidelined.
For Arsenal, Laurent Koscielny faces a late test to see if he can return from a hamstring injury, but midfielders Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini have been declared fit.
Prediction: Particularly after the international break, it could take Arsenal some time to get going on Saturday against what is a well-drilled Watford side. There is the potential for it to turn into more than that, with Arsenal getting frustrated and Watford catching them on the break. Yet the balance of probability rests with Arsenal, especially if Sánchez continues his recent form, eventually getting the breakthrough.
Predicted score: Watford 0-1 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 12:30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra