Manchester United found themselves in freefall and hanging on for their lives before the international break brought them some welcome respite. Defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City have only further added to the doom and gloom, meanwhile.
But their first game back comes this weekend against Watford, and represents a golden opportunity for them to pick up a crucial victory and haul their stuttering Champions League bid back on track – not that this is an easy assignment.
Far from it, in fact. Watford have a new manager in the wily Claudio Ranieri, they suffered a narrow loss to Arsenal last time out and also memorably hit five goals beyond Everton in only the second game under their new leadership.
Under-fire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping Manchester United beat Watford this weekend
Watford are yet to experience a new-manager bounce under Claudio Ranieri but are a threat
They also have players more than capable of troubling United, and their opponents – who have persisted with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the dugout despite the mounting pressure to axe him – are fragile. The signs point towards an enthralling clash.
So, as both teams gear up to re-enter battle in the Premier League, Sportsmail looks at five reasons why United simply cannot afford to underestimate Watford…
United find themselves near the bottom of the form table and need to turn their season around
1. ISMAILA SARR
United will be desperate to avoid more humiliation at the hands of Watford’s flying forward Ismaila Sarr. In the past, they have tried – and failed – to sign him, and also conceded to him two years ago in a 2-0 defeat at Vicarage Road.
Ironically, the club have splashed out around £120million on three different names to fill the void at right wing, but it is Sarr who is currently in better form than all of them. To little surprise, he is dazzling and helping keep his team afloat.
It is understood that United tabled an initial season-long loan deal, with a first refusal to outright buy Sarr for £25m, last year. Watford rejected this, however, and also stood firm when Liverpool came knocking but failed to stump up the money.
This decision paid off in spades. Sarr scored 13 goals last season to help Watford rise into the top flight once again, and he has netted four this season from 11 appearances. Without him, the relegation dogfight may have looked that bit clearer.
United have every reason to be wary of his threat, therefore. Their calamitous defending this campaign has allowed an array of tricky wingers to carve them open and, unless substantial changes are made, Sarr is capable of doing just that again.
Ismaila Sarr, a one-time United transfer target, is capable of hurting them at Vicarage Road
2. NEW MANAGER ‘BOUNCE’
We are, in truth, yet to see this at Watford – aside from their jaw-dropping victory at Everton. But there is still time, and Claudio Ranieri has now had two solid weeks to hone in on his side’s troubles on the training field and work on fixing them.
It is a phenomenon seen many times before. A new manager will take charge at a club, bring back a semblance of the feel-good factor, and then help their side string together a run of results. Watford will hope their season plays out this way.
Ranieri is certainly well-equipped enough to make this happen. He has vast experience in football, and a Premier League winner’s medal to boot, and will surely have studied Watford’s failings and pieced together ways to stop the rot.
A brief glimpse at what they can do under their new tactician was seen at Goodison Park. It was a freak encounter, in all honesty, with Everton taking the lead twice before Watford – and particularly Joshua King – got down to business.
King hit a hat-trick, leading nicely into the next point, while Juraj Kucka and Emmanuel Bonaventure were also on target. Watford were quick, incisive and made good decisions, and similar hallmarks of quality wouldn’t go amiss this weekend.
The ever-wily Ranieri helped Watford beat Everton but has work to do in the relegation scrap
3. JOSHUA KING
His heroics against Everton, his former club, could not have been more ironic. King failed to score at all during his brief, ill-fated stint on Merseyside, but looks to have settled in superbly at Watford and will be key, with Sarr, to ensuring they stay up.
And King may even be out for a spot of revenge when he lines up against United. He is another player the Old Trafford club moved for in recent years, but their deadline-day ultimatum in January last year failed to sway Bournemouth and the frontman ended up missing out.
‘I had some faith that it was going to happen,’ King later admitted. ‘And it was a bit sensitive for me considering that I moved to England as a 16-year-old to achieve my dream and wanted to reach that goal at Manchester United.’
King played for United for a couple of years as a promising youth prospect, but went on to leave for Blackburn permanently in 2013. There, and at Bournemouth, he caught the eye – and earned himself a top-flight reprieve earlier this season.
Worryingly for United, he is exactly the sort of striker destined to spark havoc across their backline. Quick, physical and able to drift out into the wide areas, King will have Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scratching his head, and the visitors must keep on top of him.
Joshua King used to play for United, and he will be out for revenge after a failed transfer chase
4. VICARAGE ROAD RECORD
Dating back to late 2015, United have travelled to take on Watford at Vicarage Road five times. They have a mixed record at the ground, having won three of the games but suffered defeat in two. This weekend, the outcome is on a knife-edge.
The most recent encounter, from December 2019, saw the hosts emerge 2-0 victors. On that occasion, Ismaila Sarr and Troy Deeney scored. Sarr’s goal, in particular, was born out of a mistake from David de Gea, who allowed a mis-hit to sneak in.
Before that, United won 2-1 in September 2018. Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling netted within three minutes of each other in the first half, before Andre Gray set up a nervy finish when finishing past De Gea on 65 minutes.
Watford lost 4-2 in November 2017, meanwhile, but came out on top the year before, winning 3-1. The first clash between both teams since 2007 took place in November 2015, but United took all three points courtesy of a hard-fought 2-1 win.
So, with two losses suffered there already, United know full well that Watford’s ground is a tricky place to go at the best of times. If they fall below their standards, which they have been guilty of far too often this year, another defeat may happen.
United have won three and lost two of their five fixtures at Watford since November 2015
5. THE FORM GUIDE
The table does not lie. Over the last six games, United find themselves languishing in a lowly 18th spot in the form table. The team above them, you ask? Watford.
That is to be expected considering they are in a relegation dogfight, but United’s place reveals everything about their shocking form of late. They have just one win from six and have been made to suffer four chastening defeats.
Room for improvement for both, then. And what better time to kickstart a run than now? Watford need points to pull further away from the quagmire that is the bottom three, while United – somewhat miraculously – are within reach of the top four.
And that is why they should not underestimate Watford or this damning table. Any more aimless meandering this season and they are at real risk of missing out on trophies, while their opponents this weekend will be desperate to shock them.
United are running out of time to breathe new life into the campaign, and a title push is in ruins