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Preview: Watford vs. Manchester United

United hope to deal Watford their first loss of the season

Watford v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Following an ill-timed international break, it’s back to Premier League business for Manchester United. The mid-table Reds head to Vicarage Road on Saturday for an important match with high-flying, undefeated Watford. Yes, you read that right.

Much has been made of United’s stumbles out of the gate, but relatively little about Watford’s blistering start. When Javi Gracia replaced Marco Silva as Hornets manager in January, no one saw this coming. For the first time in thirty years, Watford have a 100% record through the opening four matches of the season.

And it hasn’t all come against Premier League lightweights. That hot start includes a shock win over Tottenham Hotspur and rightly earned Gracia the league’s Manager of the Month award for August.

Even Gracia can’t resist making comparisons between his side and the now-legendary 2015/16 Leicester City outfit that pulled off one of the sport’s greatest upsets by winning the Premier League. That’s wildly premature, but don’t be surprised if Watford keep nipping around the edges of the European places all season long.

The star of Watford’s show is Roberto Pereyra. After a quiet time in the middle last season, Gracia shifted Pereyra out to the left wing and he’s duly rewarded the manager’s faith. The Argentine has already scored three goals in the opening month and most of the side’s attacking action flows through him.

It hasn’t been nearly as happy a start for Manchester United. But, last time out, the Reds righted the ship with a comprehensive win at Burnley. The Clarets weren’t at their best, but United dominated every phase of play, earned their first clean sheet of the season, and staved off a full-blown crisis.

Hopefully the international break won’t disrupt whatever momentum the club built with that win at Turf Moor. A dozen Reds jetted off to join their national teams, including a much-deserved call-up for Luke Shaw. He’s been the undoubted surprise of this young season, winning United’s Player of the Month award for August.

Of course, that means he was the one Red seriously injured while away. During the match against Spain at Wembley, Shaw was knocked unconscious and stretchered off with a concussion after clashing heads with Dani Carvajal. He later reassured fans on Twitter, but the head injury surely rules him out of the trip to Watford.

The rest of United’s international contingent acquitted themselves quite well this week. Notably, Romelu Lukaku scored three times for Belgium to take his national team record tally to 43 goals in 77 matches. Fred played in Brazil’s easy wins over the United States and El Salvador, while Andreas Pereira made his debut in the latter match.

Marcus Rashford got on the scoresheet in both England games, but must wait until the end of the month before taking the field for United again. His naive red card at Burnley will keep him out of the next three matches.

Thankfully, Alexis Sánchez skipped out on Chile’s friendlies in Japan and South Korea. After an encouraging performance at Turf Moor, the last thing Alexis needed was an energy-sapping trip to the Far East.

With everyone now back at Carrington and focused on this weekend’s match, the biggest question remains United’s defense. Ashley Young should fill in for the concussed Shaw at left back, but there’s still no word on Phil Jones’s recovery. Perhaps the Victor Lindelöf and Chris Smalling partnership in central defense will get another shot — especially after the clean sheet at Burnley — but it would be nice for Eric Bailly to get some meaningful minutes.

Other than Young in for Shaw, José Mourinho might opt to field the same side that played so well last time out. It was easily the club’s best performance of the season and the starters deserve another chance to build on that result.

Manchester United beat Watford both times last season, but will need to be at their best to take full points on Saturday. If the team had bothered to show up at Brighton or converted even a few of the many chances against Spurs, a point at Vicarage Road could be seen as a decent result.

That slow start, though, means there’s precious little margin for error. The Reds really need a win against their in-form hosts to keep their heads above water in the Premier League title race.