Manchester United take their final bow of the 2017/18 Premier League season on Sunday at Old Trafford. The match against Watford serves mostly as a tune-up for next weekend’s FA Cup final, as the Reds clinched second place with the 0-0 draw at West Ham and the visitors sit safely mid-table.
The last time these sides met — back in late November — much of the pre-match chatter centered on Marco Silva vs. Jose Mourinho. Here was the young upstart coming for the Portuguese legend’s throne. The 40-year-old Silva earned a ton of credit for his work with Hull City last season (albeit ending in relegation) and the strong start at Watford only burnished his growing reputation.
Well... life comes at you fast.
United thrashed Watford 4-2 at Vicarage Road that day, sending the Hornets into a tailspin. Silva then flirted with the open Everton job, poisoning his relationship with both the board and supporters. It all ended in an ugly January divorce.
What seemed to be the latest step in Marco Silva’s journey to the top instead ended in disaster. After less than eight months on the job — and in the throes of a one win in eleven slump — Silva got the boot in favor of Javi Gracia.
The new manager righted the ship and steered Watford to Premier League safety. In their last match, the Hornets defeated Newcastle 2-1 behind goals by Roberto Pereyra and Andre Gray. Now they have their sights set on a statement win at Old Trafford to end the season.
“We have one more important game against a very good team,” Gracia said after the Newcastle win. “We will try to enjoy it and I would like to finish the season with a win.”
So would Jose Mourinho.
With second place already locked up and the all-important FA Cup final a week from Saturday, the boss must strike a balance between building momentum for Wembley and keeping his squad fresh and healthy.
Mourinho made eight changes at West Ham and has helpfully already announced four more for Sunday. Sergio Romero comes in for Golden Glove-winner David De Gea, who racked up his 18th clean sheet of the season against the Hammers.
There will also be changes aplenty up front, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford rejoining the attack. Romelu Lukaku remains out for Sunday and questionable for the FA Cup final next weekend.
The most sentimental move, though, is Michael Carrick starting in midfield. The 36-year-old captain suffered a health scare in September and missed most of the season after undergoing a cardiac ablation procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat. Carrick is calling it a career after twelve seasons in a red shirt and richly deserves a warm send-off on Sunday.
True to his word, Mourinho has played all of his center backs — even Eric Bailly! — in the past few matches to help them win national team spots for the World Cup this summer. Whoever plays in defense on Sunday will have to tangle with a capable Watford front line of Troy Deeney and Andre Gray.
But the visitors’ biggest goal threat actually comes from midfield — in the form of 25-year-old Abdoulaye Doucoure. The club’s top scorer and Player of the Year tallied against United in November’s matchup and insists that his side has nothing to fear at Old Trafford.
“We go there with a lot of confidence,” Doucoure told Watford’s official site. “We know we are staying in the Premier League next season, so we have to go there with confidence and try to get points.”
Even with United’s lackluster form of late, anything less than three points on Sunday will be a disappointment. Not to mention an ominous sign ahead of the FA Cup final.
But Jose’s not worried. “I am not critical of the performance [against West Ham] at all,” he said at his post-match press conference. “Against Brighton, at halftime, I told the players they were going to lose. Tonight, at halftime, I said we would win. I was wrong, but we were positive in the game.”
Hopefully that positivity translates into a win on Sunday — and, more importantly, next weekend at Wembley.