Aston Villa face Watford on Saturday afternoon in a match that could have massive ramifications on the respective season’s of both clubs. A proper relegation six-pointer in every sense, this match could be a tense one which will go down to the wire.
Both sides will head into this fixture relatively confident after they both picked up solid points in their last outings. Villa, although poor in large chunks, showed more fight and determination to edge Norwich City 1-0 in what is hopefully a massive confidence-booster. Meanwhile, the Hornets drew 1-1 at high-flying Sheffield United and are illustrating more signs of improvement under new boss Nigel Pearson.
How exactly Villa will take the field is up for discussion. Dean Smith will not want to make drastic changes to a side that picked up the three points in its last outing, but given the short two-day turnaround, he may opt for some changes. Boxing Day hero Conor Hourihane will be in contention to start, as his introduction off the bench was the game-changer.
The Irishman carries a huge goal scoring threat and is a dead-ball specialist, something that Villa lacks. His goal in front of the Holte End, minutes after coming on, proved was the difference against the Canaries. On top of this, he adds bite and dynamism to a casual and lightweight Villa midfield. Marvelous Nakamba is out of form so he could be the one to make way.
Both fullback spots could up for grabs due to the short turnaround, and the fact that Matt Targett has struggled at left back in recent weeks. There are alternatives, as Neil Taylor and Kortney Hause could slot in. However, Hause and Ezri Konsa played well together against the Canaries in the heart of defence, although there were a few edgy moments.
Jack Grealish continues to lead by example and showcase his talents each match. The captain flourished when reverted back to a central role, and set up the winner for Hourihane with fantastic link-up play and came close himself with a long-range effort.
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Teams in a relegation fight need players to stand up and be counted, rather than go hiding. Tom Heaton is another who continues to shine in his first season at the club, making huge saves and offering much-needed experience.
Even though the hosts sit one place below Villa in the table, Nigel Pearson’s appointment appears to have revitalised an experienced side. The Hornets moved off the bottom courtesy of their hard-fought point at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day. The Hornets had goalkeeper Ben Foster to thank as his heroics produced a stunning save to deny the Blades a winner.
Watford are on a strong run of form of late, having picked up a win in their last home game at Vicarage Road, defeating Manchester United two goals to nil. The Hornets boast an array of exciting attacking options that could hurt a shaky Villa back line, if they are not on their game.
Troy Deeney, Ismaila Sarr, Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra are the main threats.
Watford have been handed a major boost as Sarr and Abdoulaye Doucoure are fit to participate and available for selection. However, they are still without both full backs – Jose Holebas and Daryl Janmaat. Furthermore, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck remain long-term absentees due to injury.
Craig Dawson pulled up fine after his appearance at Brammall Lane and will also be available for selection. Pearson emphasised the importance of “keeping players as fresh as possible” over the fixture congestion at this point in the season.
Overall, Villa have a positive record against the Hornets but lost their last two matches against them last time they were in the top flight. Both matches ended 3-2 in Watford’s favour.
The first meeting at Villa Park put a huge doubt over Villa’s top flight status in the 2015-16 season, and then in the return match at Vicarage Road, Jordan Ayew had Villa ahead for most of the second half after a great goal, but Deeney scored twice in the dying minutes to snatch a win.
What the Gaffer Said
Villa boss Dean Smith believes his team are “finishing the year off with another tough game”, as they fight to pull themselves out of the bottom three.
Smith heaped praise on Nigel Pearson’s side by stating “We have seen a good performance at Liverpool, a great win over Manchester United, then a draw. They are on the up at the moment”.
Smith also believes it was “really important to get that win against Norwich, heading into this match against Watford and it gives the players a good opportunity to play themselves into form”.
Jed Steer and Keinan Davis are still sidelined, as they work their way back to full fitness. John McGinn is a huge loss in the middle of the park and will also miss this match. However, in positive news, Tyrone Mings is back to training as per normal, and could be in contention to start but it is feared this match may come too soon for the English international centre back.
It will be interesting to see what Smith does with the defence. Villa kept a clean sheet against the Canaries, but owed a great deal of that to Heaton’s massive saves and a goal-line clearance from Douglas Luiz. In saying that, Hause and Konsa appeared to work better than Hause and Bjorn Engels.
Hourihane staked his claim for a starting spot and could come into the starting XI for Nakamba or Luiz. Grealish will lead from the middle, while Wesley is expected to keep his spot up top.
It will be very hard-fought game as Watford have stabilised themselves under Pearson, and are looking up the ladder. They will look to play on the front foot at home, but Villa should look to do the same. More is needed from the wingers Anwar El Ghazi and Trezeguet, and this offers a great opportunity.
In Jack Grealish, Villa have a quality player that no other relegation rivals possess. A Grealish-inspired Villa will snatch it from a moment of brilliance from the captain, after withstanding an early onslaught from the hosts. 2-1 Aston Villa.