Both Wolverhampton and Watford have been pleasant surprises throughout this Premier League season as they vie for the title of “best of the rest,” which makes it unsurprising the two sides meet for a spot Sunday at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final opposite Manchester City.
Wolves (13-8-11) have met the expectations placed on them before the season as one of the best promoted sides in the Premier League era. While it can be argued they could be closer to sixth than the current 14-point chasm between themselves and Manchester United, there is no denying the quality of the West Midlands club after they defeated United 2-1 for the second time in 17 days Tuesday, following up their landmark win in the FA Cup quarterfinals over the storied club.
“It’s Wembley. It’s special. Just saying Wembley means a lot to everybody involved in football,” manager Nuno Espirito Santo said at his Friday press conference. “It means a lot to us, it means a lot to our fans who’re going to be there. Wembley is special. We look forward to it, we want to play it, we want to compete – this is the spirit that we have.
“You just go around on the streets in Wolverhampton and you feel the excitement and the emotion of our fans. We know there’s going to be 34,000 of our pack there and we’re thankful for that. We’re going to play the game together, we’re going to compete together. This is the best way to approach competitions – play the game, action after action.”
Wolverhampton took care of an important piece of business for the next season in the Premier League on Thursday, signing Raul Jimenez to a permanent deal through 2023. The Mexico international, who joined Wolves on loan from Benfica as part of the heavy Portuguese flavor of the club, assisted on Diogo Jota’s first-half goal versus United and leads Wolves with 15 goals in all competitions — three of them coming in Wolverhampton’s five FA Cup ties.
“It’s a great honour for me to now be a permanent member of the team. I’m very happy for this permanent deal as I feel that being at Wolves suits me,” the No. 9 told the club’s official website after putting pen to paper. “I’ve enjoyed my time here, I enjoy playing in the pitch and, along with all my teammates, we try our best in all the matches to win.
“Since I’ve arrived here it’s all been so good. We’ve had some good moments, some bad moments; but the best ones have been so good and I’m very happy for that.”
Wolverhampton played the role of giant killers in their path to Wembley, also stunning an overturned Liverpool side in the third round at home. They eliminated Shrewsbury Town in the fourth round after a replay and won at Bristol City before defeating Manchester United.
This is Wolves first appearance in the semifinals since losing 1-0 to Arsenal in 1998. Wolverhampton have not been to the FA Cup final since upending Aston Villa in 1960, which is also the eighth and most recent time they lifted England’s oldest trophy.
Watford (13-7-12) have been on Wolverhampton’s tail for most of the term and are one point behind them and ninth in the table. The Hornets have reached Wembley for the second time in three years, looking to progress to the FA Cup final for the first time since beating Plymouth Argyle 1-0 in 1984 for their only appearance in the championship match in club history.
Javi Gracia’s side navigated an interesting path to Wembley, winning their first three matches on the road over non-League side Woking, Newcastle United, and Queens Park Rangers while recording clean sheets in all of them. Watford then gained a measure of revenge for their 2016 semifinal loss to Crystal Palace, beating the Eagles 2-1 on March 16 as Andre Gray scored the match-winner on 79 minutes shortly after his introduction as a substitute.
Etienne Capoue scored the other goal for Watford, who have found the stability under Gracia that has long been lacking at Vicarage Road as they eye their first top-half finish in the top flight since placing ninth in the First Division in 1986-87.
The Hornets have not lost to a club outside the top six since a 2-0 defeat at Leicester City on Dec. 1, and have won six of their last nine (6-0-3) in all competitions after sealing Fulham’s return to the Championship with a 4-1 victory Tuesday at home. Will Hughes snapped a 1-1 tie in the 63rd minute with a thunderous volley that broke the will of the Cottagers as Gray — again coming off the bench — set up goals by Troy Deeney and Kiko Femenia in the 69th and 75th minutes.
The 27-year-old Gray appears to have found his stride in his second season at Watford after many considered him a failed signing last term after coming over from Burnley for a then-club record transfer fee of £18.5 million. He is now giving Gracia the kind of headaches managers long for — the ones where they stay up looking for an excuse to keep a player out of the first XI.
“All the time I have to take difficult decision,” Gracia told the club’s official website after the win. “If you ask me about Andre Gray, it was the same after he scored important goals at home. He has always played well and I know he is a very important player for us. He is helping the team and I think he’s only focused on the way to help the team.
“For the next game, we’ll see what happens. I have to take difficult decisions. After his performance today, I have to think about that. I always try to choose the best option for the next game.”
Watford struck a confident tone in the build-up for this match, and with good reason considering they posted a 2-0 victory at Molineux in October. The Hornets got rapid-fire goals from Capoue and Roberto Pereyra set up by midfield destroyer Abdoulaye Doucoure 58 seconds apart in the first half.
“It was a very important game for us, playing away and the way we did it,” Gracia recalled at his Friday press conference. “We dominated the game, with control of possession. We scored on counter-attacks but we dominated possession. It was a very good moment. We were getting good results away and this gave us confidence to keep going and to have the confidence in the way we were playing and the way we were working.”
Gracia is waiting on Pereyra to pass a late fitness test dealing with a hip injury to start at left back, and No. 2 Heruelho Gomes is expected to be between the sticks as he has been throughout Watford’s run to the last four. Tom Cleverley has been ruled out with a calf injury.
Wolverhampton have no injury concerns, with the lone point of contention for Nuno is whether he will continue to stick with No. 2 goalkeeper John Ruddy for FA Cup action or if Rui Patricio will take the spot.
This is the seventh FA Cup meeting between the sides, with Watford’s lone victory a 3-0 triumph in the fifth round in 1980. The most recent meeting came in 2008, when Wolves stormed to a 4-1 victory at Vicarage Road in the fourth round.
The winner of this match will face Manchester City in the FA Cup final May 18 at Wembley Stadium.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 1, Watford 1 (Wolves win in PKs)
(Ruben Neves photo courtesy Wolverhampton official Twitter account)