Having got a needed result in their first-leg Europa League semifinal tie, Chelsea look to continue defending fourth place in the table Sunday when they host Watford at Stamford Bridge.
Maurizio Sarri once more proved to be a lightning rod for criticism ahead of Thursday’s match at Eintracht Frankfurt, where he opted to drop Eden Hazard from the first XI in a match crucial to keeping a second lane open for Chelsea (20-8-8) to reach the Champions League next season.
The angst grew after the Pensioners conceded midway through the first half. But Pedro bagged the equaliser just before intermission, and Hazard played the final half-hour to help Chelsea preserve the 1-1 draw that gives them the advantage for Thursday’s second leg at Stamford Bridge.
“1-1 away is not so bad,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “They are very dangerous at home, but unfortunately they are also very dangerous away. It depends on the second leg. We have to play at Stamford Bridge. We want the final, but we know we have to play a very good match next week.”
Hazard likely will return to the starting lineup for this match as Chelsea try to protect their two-point advantage over fellow Europa League semifinalists Arsenal for the fourth and final Champions League spot. The Blues can nail down fourth if they win this match and both Arsenal and Manchester United fail to win their contests against Brighton and Huddersfield Town, respectively.
Sarri will likely rotate some of his players with an eye on the second leg, most notably bringing in Gonzalo Higuain to lead the line over Olivier Giroud. Andreas Christensen will continue as David Luiz’s partner in central defence with Antonio Rudiger out for the season following knee surgery following an injury suffered against Manchester United last Sunday.
Chelsea have played to draws in their last three matches overall but are winless in their last three top-flight matches (0-2-1).
Watford (14-8-14) have a challenging road to traverse if they are going to claim seventh place, which for them would guarantee a spot in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League since they also face Manchester City in the FA Cup finals in a fortnight. The Hornets are 10th in the table, four points adrift of Wolverhampton, but they would also have to overtake Leicester City and Everton in addition to Wolves.
After their famous FA Cup semifinal victory over Wolverhampton in which they rallied from two goals down late, Watford were served a dish of revenge by the promoted side in their 2-1 defeat at Vicarage Road on April 27. Andre Gray erased one deficit for Watford with a goal four minutes after the restart, but Ruben Neves picked out Diogo Jota with a deep cross Watford keeper Ben Foster misjudged 13 minutes from time for the match-winner.
It was Watford’s first loss to a non-“Big Six” side since a 2-0 defeat at Leicester City on Dec. 1, but what concerns manager Javi Gracia is he felt both goals were preventable as the Golden Boys failed to record a clean sheet for a club-record 10th consecutive Premier League match.
“In most games goals come from a mistake but in the last games were are conceding avoidable goals,” Gracia told Watford’s official website. “We need to improve for the next games as this is the thing that will help us have more chances to get the result.”
Gracia confirmed midfielder Etienne Capoue would not be available for this match due to a groin injury, opening the door for either Tom Cleverley or Nathaniel Chalobah to partner with Abodulaye Doucoure. The Hornets will have talisman and striker Troy Deeney available for this match after he finished serving a three-match ban for elbowing Arsenal’s Lucas Torreria in the head.
His return may relegate Andre Gray to coming off the bench despite Gray scoring twice in Deeney’s absence.
“I started the season well and scored three goals in something like the first six games, so it was a good start and I think that always helps any striker with confidence,” Gray said. “I’ve just knuckled down and got on with things. I’ve been honest with myself every day.
“I try to put a lot of pressure on myself to keep improving so that I can contribute to the team, and thankfully I’ve been able to chip in with a few more goals this season.”
Hazard was the difference make in the reverse fixture, recording a brace on either side of halftime in Chelsea’s 2-1 victory at Vicarage Road on Boxing Day. He opened the scoring in first-half stoppage time and recorded his 100th career goal for Chelsea, but Roberto Pereyra equalised right before intermission with an 18-yard volley off a short corner.
Hazard began his build for a second century of goals from the spot on 58 minutes after Watford keeper Ben Foster clattered into him.
Chelsea conclude their season next weekend at Leicester City while Watford are home against West Ham United.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, Watford 1.
(Pedro photo courtesy Chelsea FC official Twitter account)
(Troy Deeney photo courtesy Watford Football Club official Twitter account)