It’s a return to away action as Alex Neil and his side travel down south to face former Premier League side, Watford. The Hornets are currently sitting 5th in the Championship table ahead of this weekend’s fixtures.
The game comes after a horrible defeat at home to rivals Blackburn Rovers, but I think enough has been said about that one, so we’ll give that game a miss. If you want to hear what the lads had to say about the defeat, listen to episode number 17 of the From the Finney podcast below. Before you dismiss it, yes, they do call out Alex Neil on this episode.
Away from home, North End have been pretty impressive, winning 4 of our 6 away games this season and losing just once in the disappointing game against Rotherham United. But don’t let that take anything away from the prospect of Watford who have won 4 out of their 5 home games this season, only dropping points in a score draw with Bournemouth.
With injuries seemingly never ending for North End and suspensions adding up too, this promises to be an uphill task from the first whistle for the Lilywhites. With Watford unbeaten in their last 4, it’s hard to see us getting anything out of the game in all honesty.
There a number of players I could’ve picked out for this section. The home side have just been relegated after a 5-year stint in the Premier League finishing as high as 11th just two years ago. So, in terms of the Hornets’ squad, it’s pretty strong.
The first player that I’d pick out is Ismaïla Sarr. The 22-year-old has been a key player for Watford over the last 18 months and was a bright prospect when he was signed from Stade Rennais for £27 million in August 2019.
In the summer he was linked to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United but after demanding a quite staggering fee a move never materialised. Many didn’t know what to expect from Sarr after dropping down a level but 5 goal contributions in 10 Championship appearances shows he’s clearly focused on getting the Hornets straight back into the Premier League.
He is a very fast-paced, tricky winger with an eye for goal, something I believe we are crying out for at North End but is hard to find with our budget. His goals this season have come against Championship new boys Wycombe Wanderers and in Watford’s last two home games against Stoke City and Coventry City.
Without a doubt, he is certainly someone we will need to keep an eye out for.
Secondly, we’ll need to be careful of attacking player João Pedro. He is Watford’s top scorer this season with 4 goals and an assist to his name.
Only 19 years of age, the Brazilian has become of the brightest prospects in the league with his goals to game ratio so far this campaign. I’ve no doubt that his first goal against local rivals Luton will have gone down a treat with the Watford fans, a good game for him to get off the mark for the Hornets.
Watford’s five consecutive seasons in the top flight came to a heartbreaking end on the final day of the 19/20 Premier League season as we were defeated by Arsenal.
With the effects on club finances as a result of the pandemic and our relegation from the Premier League, we knew we had a long summer ahead of us to prepare for our fight to get back into the top division. A number of players were expected to leave and most did with the likes of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Roberto Pereyra, Craig Dawson, and Gerard Delofeu all departing Vicarage Road. However, and to the surprise of some fans, we managed to retain a large portion of our squad, including the heavily linked Ismaïla Sarr.
Watford were expected by the mainstream media, and many opposition fans, to challenge for automatic promotion back to the Premier League this season as on paper we have one of the strongest squads in the division.
However, it’s not been smooth sailing so far. Mixed results and lack of clinical finishing up front has led to some fans already questioning Vladimir Ivic’s tactical approach with his reluctance to move away from his preferred formation of 5 at the back.
In terms of key players, there is no denying that Ismaïla Sarr has caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs with his scintillating performances last season. I’m sure you all remember his brace against Liverpool which ended their near record-breaking unbeaten run. Joao Pedro, who arrived in January, has been our breakthrough player this year. He’s only just turned 19 and has the world at his feet. Don’t be surprised to see him challenging for that top goalscorer award come the end of the season.
Of course, I have to expect Watford to beat Preston with the team that we have. However, I have underestimated our opponents numerous times this season only to be proven wrong!
To have success against us, you need to press us. We have become very sloppy in possession in recent matches and so I think if you are brave enough and are wary about our threat on the counter-attack, you may get something from the game.
My predicted XI is as follows: Ben Foster; Jeremy Ngakia, Craig Cathcart, Ben Wilmot, Kiko Femenia; Nathaniel Chalobah, James Garner, Domingos Quina; Joao Pedro, Ismaïla Sarr, Andre Gray. Score prediction – 2-1 Watford.
I’m afraid this isn’t a positive one. For this section, I think I’ve always tried being realistic whilst finding it hard to resist being optimistic, but for this, I couldn’t find any optimism. I think Watford are better than us in every department, and I cannot see us getting anything from the game.
Should we have had a fully fit squad, I’d confidently say we would go there and give the home side a game, especially with our away record. But with an injury list as long as the journey down south, it’s going to be a very difficult task. There is likely to be no Ben Pearson, Josh Earl, Josh Harrop, or Paul Gallagher. There will definitely be no Billy Bodin, Andrew Hughes, Alan Browne (suspended), Joe Rafferty (suspended), or Darnell Fisher who is banned for 3 games starting from Saturday.
All in all, we are incredibly short on numbers. I would expect to see Lewis Coulton and Jacob Holland-Wilkinson, two youth players to at least be in the matchday squad on Saturday, along with former youth team player, Adam O’Reilly.
For a starting XI prediction, I think we will line up with the following: Rudd; Storey, Bauer, Huntington; Barkhuizen (RWB), Ledson, Johnson, Potts, Sinclair(LWB); Riis, Stockley. I think Neil will be forced into going with 3 at the back, and I think we will see Barkhuizen and Sinclair operating as wing-backs in a 3-5-2 formation.
I hope to see good service into Riis which has certainly been lacking recently resulting in him being isolated and struggling to impact recent games. The 3 center-halves should make us a threat from set pieces and maybe if Paul Gallagher is passed fit to play, we could use his quality from dead-ball situations to our advantage.
But as for a scoreline, I’m going to have to go for a convincing 2-0 win for the home side. I think the quality of their squad will play a huge part and I think they will kill the game off early and will manage the game well, see it out, and secure the 3 points.
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