A pair of teams seeking a bounce-back effort collide at Vicarage Road, where Watford look to maintain their top-half status while keeping Newcastle United in the throes of the relegation scrap.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Hornets (8-3-8) were denied a third win on the spin Boxing Day as they succumbed to Chelsea 2-1 at home. Two decisions by referee Martin Atkinson in a four-minute span – one not to award a penalty to Watford after Gerard Deulofeu was felled by David Luiz and one pointing to the spot after Hornets keeper Ben Foster upended Eden Hazard – proved pivotal as the Belgium international completed his brace by sending Foster the wrong way for the tiebreaking goal on 58 minutes.
Otherwise it was a credible effort by Javi Gracia’s side, who went into the locker room level after a well-designed corner kick from the training ground resulted in a thunderous volley by Roberto Pereyra in stoppage time that beat Kepa Arrizabalaga inside the right post.
“Maybe in the moment when we were playing better, in my opinion, in the second half, playing more time in the opposition half, it was when we conceded the second goal,” Gracia told the Watford Observer. “But I’m proud of the effort of my players and we’ll try to do better to get a better result in the next game.”
Gracia may be forced into one change for this match after centre back Christian Kabasele was stretchered off on 16 minutes following a collision with the post as he tried to clear a ball off the line. The Hornets boss had started the same back four for six consecutive league matches, and Adrian Mariappa would be Kabasele’s most likely replacement in the starting XI.
Pereyra has perked up again as the Argentina international netted his sixth goal in all competitions and has factored in Watford’s last two non-penalties. The marker also resulted in Jose Holebas’ first assist since their 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Sept. 2.
Newcastle United (4-5-10) suffered a similar result to a Big Six side but with a far worse scoreline as table-toppers Liverpool handed the Magpies a 4-0 hiding at Anfield on Boxing Day. Early errors in each half resulted in goals conceded, and Liverpool added gloss to the scoreline and Rafa Benitez’s dismay with two markers in the final 11 minutes.
Benitez appeared to be set up to limit the damage with his customary five-man back against a high-powered opponent in addition to resting top offensive playmakers Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez as part of six changes to the side that played Fulham to a scoreless draw over the weekend. With every point at a premium and Newcastle only five points clear of the drop at the halfway point, the decision to fight another day punching against an opponent in the same weight class may prove a shrewd decision.
The Spaniard, though, was not in the mood to discuss his current personnel switches as his short answers when asked about potential reinforcements in the upcoming transfer window hinted he will be locking horns with owner Mike Ashley once more in his bid to keep Newcastle in the top flight.
“Yes, I was talking with (managing director) Lee Charnley and still I have the same feeling: that it will not be easy,” Benitez told the Chronicle Live while noting that Ashley currently on holiday has complicated his timetable to bring in potential new players.
It may be a good thing Newcastle are on the road for a second consecutive match since that is where the bulk of their points have been accumulated. The Toons have claimed 10 of their 17 points outside St James’ Park and have yet to lose on the grounds of a non-Big Six side (2-4-0).
One of Newcastle’s two home wins, however, came in the reverse fixture Nov. 3. Perez’s goal on 65 minutes separated the sides and gave the Magpies their first league victory after an 0-3-7 start. While there was offensive intent as the teams combined for 26 shots, there was a lack of quality finishing as only three of them registered on target.
It also ended a five-match winning streak by Watford in all competitions between the teams. Newcastle have never done a Premier League double over the Hornets, last achieving one while the sides were in the Championship in 2009-10.
Per Bet365, Watford are 4/5 favourites to bounce back with a win and claim all three points, while Newcastle United are 4/1 underdogs to recover with a third road win on the season. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 27/10.
Unsurprisingly, oddsmakers think this game will not feature many goals as there are 4/5 odds the total will be under 2.5 goals compared to even money to top that threshold. There are 10/11 odds in both directions whether there will be at least one clean sheet or both teams scoring.
Hornets striker Troy Deeney leads the list of options for first goal-scoring honours at 5/1, leading a list of five players from the host side that include Isaac Success and Stefano Okaka (11/2) and Deulofeu and Pereyra (13/2). Rondon tops the options for the Magpies at 17/2, followed by fellow striker Joselu at 9/1. Newcastle attacking midfiedlers Ayoze Perez and Yoshinori Muto along with Watford starlet Domingos Quina (10/1).
Deeney is a 13/8 pick to score over the course of the 90 minutes, with Success and Okaka a step back at 15/8 and Deulofeu and Pereyra at 11/5. Rondon and Joselu are 3/1 options, with Perez, Muto and Quina all offering a 7/2 return.
One can sense that Benitez is fast approaching a breaking point with the dithering by Ashley and Charnley regarding the January transfer window. Never mind the fact it is somewhat difficult to find a true impact player in that window, but the fact Benitez’s pleas have taken on the form of hostage negotiations in which he begs for what appear to be table scraps is not a good luck for a club as large as Newcastle — however inverse Ashley’s ambitions are perceived by supporters.
On the pitch, the decision to hold out Rondon and Perez at Anfield puts enormous pressure on the pair to produce something in this match. Rondon, at least, has been playing at a high level of late — the Venezuela international had scored all five of his goals in the prior six matches before the Magpies were shut out in the previous two.
Perez has been somewhat disappointing this term — he has not factored in a goal since his match-winner in the reverse fixture, a goal that stands as his only one of the season.
Watford continues to have the look of a side evolving to that next level where they will compete for a top-half finish with an eye on trying to challenge Everton and Bournemouth for a potential Europa League spot. When the left side of the Hornets — Jose Holebas, Pereyra and Deeney from front to back — are all engaged and going forward, Watford are at their most dangerous.
If Shelvey is available, that would be a huge boost for Newcastle since he is their most creative midfield player. The Magpies did not look all that bad at times going forward versus Liverpool, but those half-seconds of mistiming are all the more magnified against the league’s best. If those chances are available again, Newcastle’s ability to convert will make the difference between a potential loss and a point or three.
PREDICTION: Watford 1, Newcastle United 0.