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Preview: Manchester United vs. Watford

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The final international break of the season is over and it’s time to get back to business

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

It’s been a rough international break for Manchester United. Disastrous, really. Seemingly every Red out on national team duty limped back to Carrington with a fresh injury, further complicating Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans for reaching the top four. United must get back on track after dropping to fifth and crashing out of the FA Cup in recent weeks — and it all starts Saturday against Watford.

Manchester United, the darlings of the Premier League since Solskjaer’s arrival, suddenly have a lot to prove after back-to-back losses. Chalk up the Arsenal result as somewhat unlucky, but the Wolves defeat was poor from start to finish. Not even Paul Pogba’s much-ballyhooed return to the captaincy saved the Reds from a dismal performance.

And it won’t get any easier this weekend. Watford sit eighth in the Premier League, just one point behind Wolves for the (probable) final Europa League spot. The big clubs might avoid Europe’s lesser competition like the plague, but qualification would be a major achievement for Javi Gracia’s Hornets.

In their last fifteen matches, Watford have lost just three times — away to Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Manchester City. Last time out, they clinched a place in the FA Cup semifinal with a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace.

Since being taken over by the Pozzo family in 2012, Watford have chopped and changed managers and players with shocking regularity. But, with Gracia in charge, that short-term mentality might be over. The 48-year-old Spanish manager has completely reinvigorated the club, much like Ole’s impact at United. On Saturday, both sets of supporters will probably spend more time serenading their manager than any of the players.

Gracia has plenty of talent at his disposal — Abdoulaye Doucoure, Etienne Capoue, Roberto Pereyra, Craig Cathcart, Troy Deeney, and Gerard Deulofeu stand out — and uses it quite intelligently. Typically, Watford rely on their fullbacks to provide width, while the midfielders stay narrow to slow down the opposition attack. United defenders also must keep an eye on Deulofeu, who likes to drift wide to open the box for Deeney or another midfield runner.

That doesn’t even mention Andre Gray, who’s taken the role of super sub to a whole new level. Gray has come off the bench to score the winner for Watford in three straight home matches. Let’s hope that he doesn’t bring any of that late-game magic to Old Trafford.

For Manchester United, everything about this weekend hinges on player health. Just consider this laundry list of key injuries:

  • Anthony Martial’s knee injury flared up again, forcing him to withdraw from the France squad. That’s especially disappointing because he only just returned to the lineup, with Solskjaer easing him back in against Arsenal and Wolves.
  • It’s a similar story for Nemanja Matić, who missed several matches before returning at Arsenal. He didn’t last long on national team duty before heading back to Manchester for extra rehab.
  • Alexis Sánchez remains out until late next month with a knee injury.
  • Luke Shaw dropped out of the England camp with an undisclosed knock.
  • Romelu Lukaku, who missed the Wolves match after picking up a training-ground foot injury, reportedly dodged the dreaded metatarsal diagnosis. Still, he might need some more time on the sidelines. Mason Greenwood, get ready.
  • Marcus Rashford, still bothered by that nagging ankle injury, withdrew from the England camp.
  • Eric Bailly scored a header in Ivory Coast’s first match of the break, but suffered a scary-looking clash that plunges his availability for Watford into doubt. He missed his country’s next match against Liberia.
  • Jesse Lingard spent the break rehabbing in Dubai.

On a happier note, Victor Lindelöf pulled himself out of Sweden duty to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. He’s expected to play on Saturday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t show it, but he’s suddenly got a few fires that need putting out. The club’s injury crisis returned with a vengeance over the past two weeks, although some reports hint that several of the walking wounded will be good to go by the weekend. Plus, Paul Pogba has noticeably regressed after a bright start under the caretaker manager. United won’t get far if their star midfielder isn’t firing on all cylinders.

This will be a tough match for Manchester United. With only eight league matches remaining and still two points behind Arsenal for the final Champions League spot, it’s also practically a must-win. Hopefully, Solskjaer can patch together a healthy starting eleven to cool off surging Watford.