Such has been the turnaround in Manchester United’s fortunes since the arrival of caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that the popular Norwegian has been rewarded with a three-year contract in the Old Trafford dugout. The former “baby-faced assassin” will have the chance to celebrate his part-time job being made permanent with a home game against Watford – one which his side start as favourites to win, albeit they come into this contest off the back of consecutive defeats.
The Hornets have, themselves, been flying under the radar pretty much all season. In eighth place, a point behind Wolves, Javi Gracia’s side are by no means out of contention for a European place – and they have an FA Cup semi-final against Wolves to look forward to. Somehow, they aren’t being talked about all that much, but if they put a dent in United’s fading-but-still-real chances of finishing in the top four, maybe people will remember they exist.
Manchester United vs Watford Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Watford
There is nothing especially radical in the way that Javi Gracia has gone about delivering results for Watford this season – their approach is a fairly basic 4-4-2 with wingers – but there is no point fixing what isn’t broke. The good news for Watford is that this has been delivering consistent results against most of the Premier League. The bad news can be seen in their last two away games – at Liverpool, where they were beaten 5-0, and then at Manchester City, who ran out 3-1 winners. United can be considered another big fish, and with home advantage should have enough to see out a win here.
Our recommended tip: United win and BTTS
Under Solskjaer, United have been as different to the Mourinho-era side as night is to day. While the previous manager did make them hard to score against, it was at the expense of attacking freedom. Equally, while Solskjaer has made the Red Devils more productive going forward, they have become a bit less secure at the back. Assuming the Hornets can get the ball to Deulofeu often enough, they should be able to carve out enough chances to get the ball in the net. However, it’s hard to see them stopping the hosts scoring, so Ladbrokes’ odds of 2/1 on United winning with both teams getting on the scoresheet look like good value.
The omens aren’t ideal for Watford here – they’ve lost their last four matches against United, albeit they’ve got a little closer each time. The most recent meeting came in the fifth week of the season, a match which the Hornets came into with a surprise 100% record. That lay in tatters after 38 minutes, United going 2-0 up through goals from Lukaku and Smalling in quick succession. While the home side did pull one back through Andre Gray on 65 minutes, they couldn’t grab a second goal and United grabbed what at the time was a desperately-needed three points.
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Players to watch: Paul Pogba & Deulofeu
A shining star at Juventus, Pogba’s lack of success in the United midfield surprised many, especially when he went on to play an instrumental role in a French national team that won the World Cup last summer. When he went back to not being terribly good in Manchester, it started to seem like Mourinho might be the problem. Since Solskjaer’s introduction as manager, the immediate improvement in Pogba’s form has indicated that there was always a Manchester United player in there – one who can change games with his smart passing and well-timed runs into the box.
Deulofeu’s career path has not been the most conventional – two separate stints at Barcelona sandwiching a spell at Everton, with a loan period at AC Milan buried in there too. It’s still odd to see him in the yellow of Watford, but clearly he doesn’t find it jarring – it’s impressive just how consistently he turns in the kind of performances you would expect from someone who came through Barcelona’s La Masia academy. Superb with the ball at his feet, the Spaniard – still only 25 – has the kind of talent that can turn a game.