It was a week to forget in terms of cup play for short-handed Tottenham Hotspur, who must find a way to stay on the fringes of the Premier League title race without at least two and probably three of their top attacking players Wednesday when they host Watford.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Spurs are without Harry Kane and Dele Alli until at least March as the England internationals deal with ankle and knee injuries, respectively. Heung-Min Son is a short-term absentee but still sorely missed as he represents South Korea in the Asian Cup. Without the trio – who have accounted for 39 goals in all competitions – Tottenham (17-0-6) are trying to get by with Fernando Llorente, Lucas Moura, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela.
There is a chance Son could be available for this match after South Korea was stunningly dumped out of the Asian Cup by Qatar in the quarterfinals. Son had been in blistering form before his departure – totaling seven goals and five assists in eight matches before departing for the United Arab Emirates – but the cumulative fatigue of playing for club and country may have taken its toll in the Middle East.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino, however, opted to leave Eriksen off the 18-man roster for the Lilywhites’ fourth-round FA Cup tie at Crystal Palace. That partially contributed to a 2-0 defeat to their London area rivals, capping a miserable four-day stretch in which Spurs failed to protect their first-leg lead in the Carabao Cup semifinals and were eliminated on penalties by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Kevin Trippier had a chance to give Spurs an avenue back into the contest at Selhurst Park, but the England international put his 44th-minute penalty wide. Pochettino made seven changes to the first XI from Stamford Bridge but could not prevent Tottenham from failing to score on the road for the first time this season.
“Of course I’m very disappointed because it’s a difficult moment, after the defeat, to be out of the Carabao Cup and of course now the FA Cup, but that can happen in this busy period of fixtures with a lot of circumstances,” Pochettino told Spurs’ official website.
“Again, I’m disappointed. I think we competed but we were not clinical in front of the goal. We dominated, we created chances and we were a little bit unlucky, but now we need to be focused on the competitions that we have ahead, that’s the Premier League and Champions League.”
Pochettino’s challenge now is to keep the Lilywhites within touching distance of Liverpool and Manchester City. Spurs are nine points adrift of the table-topping Reds and four clear of London rivals Chelsea for third.
After using a 3-4-2-1 formation versus Palace, Pochettino can revert to a diamond midfield with Harry Winks at the bottom and Eriksen at the top while Moura and either Llorente or Lamela are furthest forward. The other option is to put Eriksen in the pivot of a 3-4-1-2 and leave Llorente and Lamela up front as a pair.
Watford (9-6-8) are currently “the best of the rest” in the Premier League, entering this contest seventh on 33 points. The Hornets progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup on Saturday, dispatching Newcastle United 2-0 on second-half goals by Andre Gray and Isaac Success.
Javi Gracia overturned his entire starting XI from the one that drew Burnley on Jan. 19 and was rewarded when Gray provided a classy finish off a pass from Wil Hughes. Success secured passage with a late tap-in for his third goal in four cup games, and Gracia was pleased his team delivered while showcasing the side’s depth.
“I’m very pleased for all of them,” Gracia told the club’s official website. “Sometimes it is not easy to explain how important all my players are. When I say I believe in all my squad, I believe in all my squad. Games like today are important to show all of them are working really well.”
Gracia, though, may have a fight on his hands to keep midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure, an integral part of his unique 4-2-2-2 set-up but likely to miss this match through a knee injury. There have been reports West Ham are considering making a bid for the Frenchman, who has also been rumoured to be drawing interest from both Everton and Ligue 1 leaders Paris-St. Germain.
The sides have split two meetings this season, with Watford having a chance to complete a league double after a 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture at Vicarage Road in September. Troy Deeney and Craig Cathcart scored goals after Doucoure had an own goal early in the second half for Watford’s first win in 11 Premier League matchups (1-3-7).
Spurs gained a measure of revenge in the Carabao Cup, sending the Hornets out on penalties after a testy match ended in a 2-2 draw played at MK Dons since Wembley Stadium was not available for Tottenham to host.
Tottenham erased a 1-0 deficit through Alli and Lamela after Christian Kabasele was sent off for his second booking, but Etienne Capoue forced the spot kicks with an equaliser on 89 minutes.
Watford have never done the league double over the Lilywhites since the sides first met in 1900.
Per Bet365, Spurs are 4/6 favourites to claim all three points to remain in the title hunt, while Watford are 19/4 underdogs to record their first league double over the Lilywhites. The odds of the sides playing to a draw that will result in a split of all three matches are 3/1.
Oddsmakers are feeling both teams could be good for goals, with 8/11 odds on them clearing 2.5 goals compared to 11/10 for finishing under. There are 7/10 odds on both teams finding the back of the net once compared to 21/20 odds for a clean sheet by either Lloris or Foster.
Llorente leads the pack for first goal-scorers at 9/2, edging out Moura at 5/1. Lamela and Eriksen are both 6/1 options, with Spurs reserve forward Kazaiah Sterling getting play at 7/1. Watford’s pair of strikers — Gray and Troy Deeney — offer a 9/1 return along with Spurs’ Georges Nkoudou. Success is another step back at 10/1, and Deeney’s expected forward partner for this match — Gerard Deulofeu — is 11/1.
No one is even money or better to score over the 90 minutes, with Llorente again leading the line at 5/4. Moura again edges out teammates Eriksen and Lamela, checking in at 7/5 compared to 7/4 for the playmaking duo. Sterling offers a 21/10 return while Gray, Deeney and Nkoudou are all slotted at 11/4.
The two previous matches between these sides have provided late fireworks on both occasions. The Hornets rallied to a win as part of their surprising 4-0-0 start at Vicarage Road in league play, and the kerfuffle as part of the Carabao Cup draw and Spurs settling on Stadium MK as their home ground rankled Watford.
That match also had plenty of late drama with three goals in the final eight minutes as an inspired Alli led Tottenham’s fightback before Paolo Gazzaniga stopped both former Spurs midfielder Etienne Capoue and Domingo Quina from the spot.
So the chances are fairly high sparks will fly again between these teams, though Spurs need to put a miserable week behind them in short order while lacking serious star power without Kane and Alli. Not helping matters was Son telling Sky Sports he was “physically empty” while playing for South Korea at the Asian Cup, which makes the winger a likely no-go for this match or a reserve at best.
All those absences means Doucoure’s absence may not impact Watford as badly as it could have. Additionally, Tom Cleverley is a pro’s pro, though his 154 minutes in Premier League play may be exceeded by the end of the weekend if Doucoure is either still injured or potentially snapped up by a bigger club before Thursday’s transfer deadline.
The Premier League season has been marked by the line between the Big Six and the Other 14, with few clubs showing an ability to take points off the perennials. The Hornets have proved their capabilities with a win in the reverse fixture and a series of “close” losses against the others.
In terms of manpower, there may not be a better time to face Spurs, and that also holds true for the mental state of the London club as they come off back-to-back cup exits in their previous two matches. The double may be a bridge too far for Watford, but given their form with three wins and a draw in their last four matches, a point here may be the most likely outcome to keep the momentum going for Gracia’s side.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Watford 1.