LONDON • Arsene Wenger said Arsenal struggled "on the mental front" in the first half of their 2-1 Premier League defeat to Watford, echoing a familiar complaint from fans in recent years about the Gunners' title challenges which have so often flattered to deceive.
Arsenal next go to league leaders Chelsea on Saturday knowing that if they lose and Antonio Conte's side move 12 points clear of them, then Wenger's dream of his first title since 2004 will be all but dead and buried.
To make things worse, there is also a question mark over the fitness of midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who hobbled off in the first half with a calf injury.
Wenger said the severity of the Wales international's problem was not yet known.
Serving the second game of a four-match touchline ban following his sending off against Burnley, the Arsenal manager watched helplessly from the stands as Arsenal conceded two goals in 13 minutes to Younes Kaboul and Troy Deeney.
Number of years since Arsenal's first league defeat to Watford in 1988.
Before Tuesday, Arsenal had not conceded any league goals in the opening 15 minutes. Watford scored twice inside 13 minutes.
Former Tottenham defender Younes Kaboul has scored more Premier League goals against Arsenal than any other club.
Kaboul's deflected free-kick gave Watford a 10th-minute lead and the Hornets added a second when Deeney tucked in the rebound from Etienne Capoue's shot.
"We missed our first half, especially I feel that on the mental front we were not ready for the challenges and a bit in between and maybe we paid a heavy price for that," was Wenger's verdict on a game which the hosts mustered just three off-target efforts on goal in the first half.
"We were dominated in too many duels and we paid for it. I felt we didn't start sharp enough."
Wenger felt his side responded well after the break as Alex Iwobi pulled one back.
Lucas Perez struck the crossbar with a powerful drive, but could not stop Arsenal suffering their first home league defeat since they lost to Liverpool on the opening weekend of the season.
After Chelsea drew 1-1 at Liverpool on Tuesday to stretch their lead over the chasing pack to nine points, Arsenal's visit to Stamford Bridge has a potentially defining feel to it.
Wenger, though, was putting on a brave face.
"We want to respond to our disappointment tonight and produce a good performance," he said.
For Watford manager Walter Mazzarri, the result justified his decision to rest almost his entire first team for Sunday's FA Cup defeat by third-tier Millwall.
The Italian made a point of dedicating the victory to former Watford manager Graham Taylor, who passed away on January 12.
"My objective is for Watford to stay in the Premier League and to make my team grow game by game, week by week," said Mazzarri.
"Of course the players need this victory to work better with me and also to believe that they can achieve great things."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE