London, United Kingdom, Mar 11 – Arsene Wenger claimed Arsenal’s spirit has carried them through a traumatic period after Sunday’s 3-0 win over Watford eased a little of the pressure on the beleaguered boss.
Wenger is fighting to save his job and a 2-0 win at AC Milan in the Europa League on Thursday offered the Frenchman temporary respite from the torrent of abuse he has endured this season.
Maintaining the momentum from that last-16 victory in the San Siro, Wenger’s side ended a run of three successive Premier League defeats with a solid display at the Emirates Stadium.
Shkodran Mustafi’s early opener and a cool finish from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put them in control.
In a moment of sweet vindication, Watford captain Troy Deeney, who had questioned Arsenal’s spirit earlier this season, had a second-half penalty saved by Petr Cech.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s strike wrapped up the points, but there was concern for Wenger ahead of Thursday’s second leg against Milan as Mustafi limped off with a groin injury in the closing stages.
Arsenal remain in sixth place and still look unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League via a top-four finish.
Winning the Europa League would also achieve that goal and, with that in mind, Wenger was impressed with the way his players have stayed united despite their recent problems.
“The spirit and desire was good. That kept us out of trouble. You have to give credit to the players, they stuck together,” he said.
“I believe it was important to continue after Milan to show that consistency. Overall it was a convincing win and an important one.
“We have had a disappointing period and our supporters suffered like we suffered. But our job is to perform and stick together in important moment and get the fans back on side.”
Wenger also saluted Cech, who became the first goalkeeper to keep 200 clean sheets in the Premier League.
“The record is absolutely remarkable. Fantastic motivation, fantastic desire and remarkable intelligence,” he said.
Cech, who earned many of those clean sheets with former club Chelsea added: “It is an unbelievable personal milestone, but the most important thing is to win and so it was defeats that were more frustrating.”
For the second successive home game, a significant amount of seats were empty as fans stayed away in protest at Wenger’s woes.
The subdued atmosphere lent an ‘end of an era’ feel to the match, but it didn’t bother Arsenal, who had a point to prove to Watford captain Deeney.
Deeney had infuriated Arsenal by accusing them of a lack of “cojones” after Watford beat Wenger’s men in October.
Fuelled by that jibe, Arsenal took the lead in the eighth minute.
When Ozil swung a deep free-kick towards the far post, Mustafi punished slack marking by Jose Holebas and Adrian Mariappa as the German defender powered a close-range header past Orestis Karnezis.
– Rare smile –
Watford weren’t fazed and Abdoulaye Doucoure’s low strike deflected off Mustafi to force a good save from Cech.
Cech alertly kept out Richarlison’s dipping free-kick, but Roberto Pereyra should have done better than blaze the rebound over.
There was less assurance about Arsenal towards the end of the half and Cech had to plunge to his left to save Richarlison’s header.
But Watford couldn’t take advantage and Granit Xhaka’s 20-yard blast after the interval almost deceived Karnezis before he grabbed the ball just before it crossed the line.
With the momentum back in their favour, Aubameyang doubled Arsenal’s lead in the 59th minute.
Mkhitaryan was the catalyst, slipping a pass to Aubameyang, who beat the Watford offside trap and rounded Karnezis before slotting in his third goal since his club-record move from Borussia Dortmund in January.
There was more cause for Wenger to wear a rare smile a few minutes later.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles conceded a penalty with a foul on Pereyra, but when Deeney stepped up to take the spot-kick, Cech made a fine save.
Mkhitaryan bagged his second goal in successive matches with a low strike that crept under Karnezis in the 77th minute.