After reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup, the next target for Watford is to reach 40 points in the Premier League, and victory over Stoke City on Saturday would see them achieve that.
Although the increasing tightness of the mid-table battle has seen them drop to 14th, it has been a magnificent season for Watford whatever happens between now and May, with the club having been tipped by many for relegation at the outset. Under the astute leadership of Quique Flores they have exceeded all expectations and went even further in doing so last time out by ending Arsenal’s grip on the FA Cup with a tremendous win at the Emirates Stadium.
Crucially, it was a game which saw the Hornets end their lengthy wait for a goal, with Odion Ighalo producing the kind of finish which made him so prolific during the first half of the campaign. Back at home, this will be a difficult test against a side that likes to play controlled, possession football. It will be down to the combative midfield trio of Etienne Capoue, Valon Behrami and Ben Watson to prevent Stoke’s Giannelli Imbula from dictating the game.
Since signing for a club record £18.2 from FC Porto on transfer deadline day at the beginning of February, Imbula has already made a big impact for the visitors. A lot of their play now goes through the Frenchman and his all-round ability has certainly boosted their fortunes in attacking areas. However, here they are hoping to bounce back from a disappointing defeat to Southampton that put a dent in their aspirations to qualify for next season’s Europa League.
Despite the return to central defence of captain Ryan Shawcross, it was a slow start which cost them as they allowed their opponents to gain the initiative early on and score two avoidable goals from manager Mark Hughes’ perspective. An early second half goal was not enough to inspire a comeback, so Hughes will undoubtedly demand better from his side in this one. Stoke do have an occasional habit of playing within themselves, and Watford are a team that like to punish a lack of commitment.
Defenders Miguel Britos and Joel Ekstrand are both unavailable for Watford, who have concerns over the fitness of Ighalo, who has a muscle injury.
Shawcross is back on the treatment table for Stoke along with Xherdan Shaqiri. Right-back Phil Bardsley should however be able to return from a calf injury.