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Watford

Can Javi Gracia succeed at Watford where so many have previously failed?

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Javi Gracia
Photo: Reuters

There were mixed reactions on Sunday morning when Watford announced the sudden departure of popular manager Marco Silva from the club.

In the early part of the season, Silva transformed the Hornets from relegation battlers to European candidates with a mixture of positive attacking football and shrewd signings.

The club’s away form was particularly impressive, with convincing wins over Southampton, Newcastle United and Swansea, as well as defeating Arsenal at home.

Richarlison arrived from Fluminense and immediately set the Premier League alight, with Kiko Femenia, Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah also enjoying strong starts.

If it wasn’t for a serious knee injury suffered in September, Chalobah would surely have gone on to be one of the stars of Watford’s season, with the ex-Chelsea midfielder already having achieved England honours.

Former Derby midfielder Hughes also impressed before he suffered injury, having scored in consecutive games against West Ham and Newcastle.

Watford conceded plenty, though, and defence has been an issue all season. Nonetheless, the huge number of goals scored meant that Watford looked set to establish themselves as a secure top half outfit.

That all changed in October, when Everton sacked Ronald Koeman and quickly identified Silva as their replacement.

The Portuguese remained quiet on rumours linking him away from the club although, crucially, he never made a concrete statement that he wanted to stay.

One of the reasons Watford gave for Silva’s sacking was “the unwarranted approach by a Premier League rival”, which they clearly believed was a major factor in the club’s downturn in form – they have only won three games in 13 since that approach in mid-November.

After Silva’s sacking, Watford quickly acted, bringing in former Malaga coach Javi Gracia as his replacement.

The Spaniard, who signed a 18 month contract, has gained a reputation for taking points off big teams, with one of his most famous results being a win over Barcelona at the Nou Camp.

Gracia’s Malaga went unbeaten against Real Madrid home and away in the 2015/16 season, and also beat Atletico, recording consecutive top ten finishes from 2014/15.

When Malaga were struggling at the foot of La Liga earlier this season, many fans were calling for Gracia to return to the post he held until May 2016, before he joined Russian giants Rubin Kazan.

His defensive coaching is sound, a quality which he will need to employ on a Watford side who have shipped plenty of goals this season.

Only Stoke in 17th have conceded more goals than the Hornets.

He also speaks good English, meaning he will not need a translator – something which Walter Mazzarri consistently used when talking to his players and the press, to the disappointment of the Watford board.

Gracia is entering a club which is not known for sticking with managers, and he has never stayed at a club longer than two years, but his track record in terms of results is positive and if he can get off to a good start, Watford could finally be set for a spell of managerial stability in the Premier League.

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Stoke City

Stoke 0-0 Watford: Three talking points from the Bet365

Martyn Cooke

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There were plenty of fresh faces in the dugout at the Bet365 Stadium on Wednesday evening as Stoke City and Watford played out an uninspiring goalless draw.

Paul Lambert was taking charge of his second game for the hosts, looking to build on the victory against Huddersfield Town ten days earlier, whilst Javi Gracia made his second managerial appearance for the visitors.

However, there was little for either manager to get too excited about during the ninety minutes with the game fizzling out to become a poor spectacle.

The point keeps Stoke and Watford clear of the relegation zone, for now, but both teams will need to improve in the coming weeks if they are to secure survival.

Here we look at three talking points from Stoke City versus Watford…

This relegation scrap isn’t going to be pretty

With Manchester City currently waltzing their way to the Premier League title the attention of football fans and the media has now been refocused on battle for survival.

The bottom half of the table is so tight that only five points separate Swansea City in 19th place from Bournemouth in 10th and almost a dozen clubs are nervously looking over their shoulders.

However, if this contest is anything to go by, it is clear that this relegation scrap is not going to be pretty.

The game was a dour spectacle with plenty of effort but a total lack of quality. At times it felt like you were watching a match in the park on a Sunday morning with neither side able to string together two passes or build any sort of momentum.

Clear goal scoring opportunities were few and far between and there was a absence of creativity, composure or innovation from both teams.
The Premier League likes to proclaim that it is the ‘best league in the world’, but there will be plenty more games like this in the battle for survival as clubs desperately scramble for points.

Lambert needs to find a balance between attack and defence

Under the management of Mark Hughes, Stoke City had the worst defensive record of any top-flight team in Europe and were conceding an average of two goals per game.

Paul Lambert has moved quickly to address these defensive frailties and be will be delighted that the team have kept two clean sheets in his first two games in charge of the Potters.

Under the Scotsman, Stoke are now more organised, harder to beat and have a new found resilience that bodes well for their battle for survival.

However, on Wednesday evening this defensive solidarity was undermined by a lack of quality in the final third.

Goals win games and Stoke simply were not able to create enough chances to secure the three points, much to the frustration of the home supporters. Barring Xherdan Shaqiri’s second half strike, Watford goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis had little to do.

Lambert should take the plaudits for finding an immediate solution to Stoke’s defensive issues but he needs to get the right balance between attack and defence if he is to successfully guide the club to safety.

A solid start for Javi Gracia

The managerial merry-go-round has been in full flow at Watford this month with Marco Silva dismissed and replaced by the little-known figure of Javi Gracia.

The 47-year-old was handed a trip to The Potteries for his second game in charge of The Hornets and he will have been relatively content with a draw to start his reign.

Gracia made only two notable changes to the team, recalling Troy Deeney to the starting line-up and handing Gerard Deulofeu his debut, whilst setting up his side to stifle the hosts.

In fact, the visitors were arguably the better team on the night but struggled to create clear cut goal scoring opportunities.

Watford have struggled to pick up points on their travels this season so a draw at the Bet365 Stadium, regardless of how dour the contest, is a good result.

Only time will tell whether Gracia is the right man to guide The Hornets to safety, but this was certainly a positive result and something that he can build on in the coming weeks.

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Leicester City

Leicester City 2-0 Watford: Three talking points from the King Power

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Leicester City
Photo: Reuters

Leicester City moved up to seventh in the Premier League table as goals in either half from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez earnt a comfortable win over struggling Watford on Saturday afternoon.

It was a far from fluid encounter between two sides looking to turn around some below par recent form, but it was the hosts who went closest early on when Vardy’s low drive was parried away by incoming goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis.

Troy Deeney found the net for Watford only to see it chalked off for offside before Vardy did open the scoring, being hauled down by Molla Wague’s late challenge before coolly sending Karnezis the wrong way with the spot-kick.

Watford made some attacking substitutions after the break as they went in search of an equaliser and Andre Gray went closest when his effort was pushed aside, but by committing men into the attack they were always vulnerable to the counter and Mahrez tucked home to secure all the points.

The result sees the Foxes earn just their second win in seven league matches, lifting them above Burnley into seventh, whilst Watford remain in 10th with just the solitary win in their past 11 games.

Defeat proves the final straw as Silva sacked

What a difference a few months can make.

At the end of September, Watford were within touching distance of the Champions League spots after a blistering start to the season, losing just one out of eight matches.

There were genuine talks that the Hornets could be the team to try and muscle their way into the top six such was the way they ground out results and it was testament to some expansive football.

But a wretched run of form since a 3-0 away win at Newcastle in late November has ended those lofty ambitions and sent Watford – and boss Marco Silva – crashing back down to earth with an unwanted reality check, and defeat at Leicester means it’s now just the solitary win in 11 league outings.

It also signalled the end of Silva’s time in charge after just a matter of months, with the Club releasing a statement on Sunday morning announcing that they have parted company with the Portuguese tactician.

It may not come as a surprise considering their recent run of form but it’s a decision that has a feeling of haste about it, as Silva’s rejuvenation of Watford at the start of the season was unlike anything seen at Vicarage Road for a number of years.

Yet ultimately football is a results driven business and this – allied with an underlying message about Everton’s approach before Christmas – has resulted in his swift dismissal.

As for Watford’s demise, it’s hard to pinpoint an area as to why this has happened.

Over the course of these games they’ve conceded 23 times and only scored 11 – the same amount they managed in their opening seven games of the year – and there’s evidently glaring problems at both ends of the pitch.

Constant injuries to first-team players has hampered any hopes of progress but there’s still more than enough quality in the Watford squad, and whoever the new man in is they will need to find a way to get them firing again.

Record-signing Gray draws blank again

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Watford’s decline in form has come at the same time as a dry patch from young Brazilian Richarlison, who had proven to be a revelation in the Premier League since his summer move.

The 20-year-old has failed to find the net since the 2-0 win over West Ham in mid-November – 12 matches ago – and in the same period of time he’s only managed to create nine chances for his side.

For a point of comparison, he managed to score five goals and craft 14 opportunities in his opening 12 games when Watford were firing on all fronts. This will no doubt worry whoever Silva’s successor is as, whenever Richarlison isn’t impacting matches, it seems that there’s no-one else who will pick up the goal-scoring burden.

And one of the biggest disappointments of the season to date for the Hornets has been the patchy form of club-record signing Andre Gray.

At £18.5million there was a lot of hope and expectation on the shoulders of the former Burnley man but, with just four goals from 23 outings, he hasn’t quite had the desired impact since arriving at Vicarage Road.

It was a match where clear chances were few and far between but Watford’s best chance of an equaliser fell to Gray in the second-half, where his shot from inside the area was pushed away by Kasper Schmeichel. It was a smart stop but, on another day and with an in-form striker, it should have been buried and Gray will be kicking himself over it.

The players will know that they need to just grind out a result and their form could turn around again, and they will hope to get a second wind under a new manager and return to winning ways when they visit relegation-threatened Stoke City in a fortnight’s time.

Vardy and Mahrez run Watford ragged

Leicester City supporters can be forgiven for thinking that it’s the 2015-16 Premier League season once again as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez ran the show to earn a convincing win over Watford.

The duo have both endured some testing spells since the euphoric title-winning year but under Claude Puel they seem to be thriving, and the way they ran the show on Saturday was merely indicative of the confidence that is flowing through their veins again.

Watford will no doubt be sick of the sight of Mahrez after he notched his fifth goal in his last five appearances against the Hornets, rounding things off in injury-time with a composed finish.

There seems to be far less speculation over the Algerian’s future in this January transfer window compared to last year and it’s arguably this that allows him to focus on his football and nothing else.

And he was well accompanied by Vardy on the day, who caused constant problems for an under-strength Watford back-line. Their centre-back pairing of Molla Wague – who brought him down for the penalty – and Christian Kabasele just couldn’t contain his pace nor keep track of his late runs.

If both Vardy and Mahrez can sustain this sort of form long into the season then it’s anyone’s guess as to where Leicester may finish – and who knows, seventh might be a more than realistic target.

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Leicester City

Watford 2-1 Leicester City: Three talking points from Vicarage Road

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Watford recorded their first victory in seven Premier League matches as they recovered from going behind to beat Leicester City and claim a much-needed three points at Vicarage Road on Boxing Day.

It’s easy to forget that the Hornets were just three points off the Champions League places back in October and it seemed like their rotten recent run of form would extend to seven league games without a win when Riyad Mahrez found space at the back-post to head home a deserved opener.

But within eight minutes – and on the stroke of half-time – the hosts responded, with defender Molla Wague being left unmarked to prod home an equaliser and leave things level at the break.

Watford started the second-half in the ascendency just as they had finished the first and they got their reward in fortunate circumstances when the ever-influential Abdoulaye Doucoure’s shot somehow found its way into the back of the net from on the by-line off ‘keeper Kasper Schmeichel.

Leicester pushed for a late equaliser only for Wes Morgan and Leonardo Ulloa to be denied by Heurelho Gomes, and Watford managed to hold out for a precious and richly-needed three points.

The result sees Watford move to within two points of Leicester in tenth place, now eight points adrift of Burnley in seventh place, whilst Claude Puel’s side remain in eight spot on goal difference.

Job done for Silva’s side

Watford’s early season momentum has slightly stalled somewhat in the past few weeks, and whilst there was nothing vintage about their win yesterday it will come as a relief to manager Marco Silva.

The Hornets hadn’t tasted victory in the league since the 3-0 win away at Newcastle in late November, going on a run of five defeats and one draw in the six matches prior to Boxing Day.

Tuesday’s win was also only their third in the previous 12 Premier League outings, picking up just ten points from a possible 36 since mid-October, and Silva will be hoping that getting three points against the Foxes can bring an end to a barren run that’s seen Watford drop down the table quickly.

It is perhaps the manner of victory that will have pleased the Watford boss more than anything, falling behind before half-time to a rare Riyad Mahrez header, and his decision to bring on Stefano Okaka and move Richarlison back onto the left-wing was one that ultimately turned things around.

Within moments Molla Wague – the centre-back making his first Watford start since arriving from Italian side Udinese on deadline day – levelled things up on the stroke of half-time, and from that moment on the hosts seemed to have a spring in their step.

Their winner came in fortunate circumstances but the Hornets won’t care how it went in, nor care that they scored twice from just one shot on target all game, and it’s now about backing this win up with another one against bottom side Swansea City this coming Saturday.

Another miserable Boxing Day for the Foxes

Leicester City supporters will be sick of the sight of Boxing Day soon as, for the 11th time in their previous 12 games played on December 26, they failed to win.

It’s a miserable record that has stretched throughout the club’s Premier League history and yet another Boxing Day defeat, this time at Watford, means the Foxes have now lost in their last four league outings on this particular day.

Claude Puel’s side will be left to rue their wastefulness in front of goal in a match where they would have been favourites prior to kick-off, and had Jamie Vardy not uncharacteristically missed when through on goal early on or had Wes Morgan’s late effort found the net it could have been different.

But instead they fell short against a team that possessed little attacking intent on the day, and the defeat means that Leicester have now gone four games without a win having lost just one of Puel’s first eight games in charge.

The ex-Southampton man claimed post-match that a draw would have been a fair result, and arguably so, but his side will have to pick themselves back up for a tough trip to Liverpool next up.

Doucoure’s return leads Watford to win

One of the main architects of Watford’s early season form, along with the irrepressible young Brazilian Richarlison, was Abdoulaye Doucoure.

And whilst Watford’s form has gradually derailed over the past months one man who hasn’t dropped his own performance levels is the Frenchman, and he was superb again against Leicester.

The 24-year-old central midfielder has been a revelation after an underwhelming first season at Vicarage Road last time out, spear-heading the Watford midfield in the long-term absence of Nathaniel Chalobah, and it was little surprise that he had the final say once against on Boxing Day.

He was a huge miss for Marco Silva in Saturday’s disappointing defeat away at Brighton & Hove Albion and it was clear to see how much his return buoyed his side, being the glue that holds this Watford side together, and he single-handedly created the winning goal from out of nowhere.

Whilst it went down as a Kasper Schmeichel own goal it once again highlighted the impact he has been having in front of goal for a central midfielder – after half of the season he’s already scored some six times – and it wouldn’t be surprising if there was heightened interest in him in the upcoming January transfer window.

But his impact runs deeper than his goal tally and he’s forged an identity for himself this season leading by example, being the driving force for a team that are a shadow of their 2015/16 selves.

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