The FA Cup Fifth Round sees Championship side Queens Park Rangers host top-flight outfit Watford on Friday night, with a place in the quarter-finals awaiting the winner of the tie.
Currently sitting 18th in the second tier and haunted by a run of five consecutive league defeats, QPR will be hoping that, as per the cliché, form will go out of the window for the visit of higher level opposition. This is the furthest they have advanced in the competition in over 20 years.
The Rs were on course to secure an impressive point at Bristol City on Tuesday before a stoppage time penalty from Famara Diedhiou saw them leave Ashton Gate with nothing to show for their considerable efforts.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast, Watford are enjoying the most prosperous season of their limited Premier League history, remaining in contention to play Europa League football next season.
Life was made that little bit better for Hornets fans last weekend as a 65th-minute strike from Andre Gray was enough to defeat Everton in a game which was intensified by the underlying subplot of current Toffees manager Marco Silva’s antecedent tenure with the Hertfordshire club.
Watford reached the semi-finals of the competition in 2016 and will be desperate to replicate similar success this term in order to round off what looks set to be a remarkable season for the club.
The last encounter between the two sides took place in the 2013/14 campaign, when QPR followed up a goalless draw at Vicarage Road by beating their opponents 2-1 in the reverse fixture.
Perhaps Hornets fans will more fondly remember their 3-1 victory at Loftus Road in 2010, in which a Danny Graham brace was the feature of a scintillating 50 minutes from the away side. Adrian Mariappa and Troy Deeney are the only two players surviving from that match day squad.
However, Watford can’t boast the most impressive record in west London. That result from nine years ago stands as their only away win against QPR in the last five attempts, though the only other cup meeting between the two sides saw the Hornets edge a narrow victory on the road in 1980.
View from the dugout
QPR have a former England national team manager at the helm — and Steve McClaren appreciates that his side will have to be at their very best to muster any kind of result against such strong opposition on what is destined to be a special night for the club regardless of the result.
“Loftus Road, under the lights, a full house — it’s going to be a great atmosphere and we have to respond to that,” the 57-year old said in his pre-Watford press conference. “We will have to start well against a very good, very consistent, very tough Watford team.
“Consistency has been the key for them. The back four have been good and Ben Foster has been exceptional this season.”
McClaren also recognises what the game will mean to the home support, who have witnessed a fairly mediocre spell in the second tier since their relegation in 2015, finishing 12th, 18th and 16th in the last three seasons.
“We wanted to do well in the FA Cup — the supporters have demanded that from the start. We all really wanted to get trough the ties against Leeds and Portsmouth and we want to do the same against Watford.
“It’s created a bit of a fixture pile-up, but we would much rather be playing games than training.”
In the opposite dugout, Hornets boss Javi Gracia is fully aware that Rangers will be no pushovers despite their recent slump in form.
“They are playing well. It’s true in the last games they didn’t get good results, but in many games they have been close to getting them — against Bristol City, against Birmingham. They always compete very well. They beat Portsmouth and I know it will be a very demanding game for us.”
Similarly, the Spaniard will not yet be caught up in talk of reaching the latter stages of the competition, emphasising his match-by-match strategy towards the management of his team: “I focus to win the next game. I respect a lot the next rival, this time QPR. It’s a lack of respect to speak about the semi-final or final.
“We have a very demanding game and we have to be ready to compete. We have to be ready for a final, it’s a final for us. If you lose, you don’t have the chance to play in the FA Cup. We know we have to be ready to compete on the pitch and show our ability.
“I don’t know if we will be able to achieve something special in the cup, but we will try, for sure.”
Rangers centre-back Joel Lynch is having his fitness monitored as he looks to recover from a back injury.
Teammates and fellow defenders Angel Rangel and Geoff Cameron, both with substantial Premier League experience at Swansea City and Stoke City respectively, will not be in contention to feature against Watford.
Given that this will be QPR’s third game in seven days, and with promotion chasers West Bromwich Albion visiting on Tuesday, McClaren may have to manage a fatigued squad as a result of the recent fixture overload that has befallen him and his side.
Gracia will have no such problems, given that Watford’s last game was the best part of a week ago and they do not resume league action until next Friday with a trip to Cardiff City.
The Hornets may be able to call on Sebastian Prödl and top scorer Roberto Pereyra, as both have returned to full training in the last week having overcome knee and calf injuries.
Meanwhile, Isaac Success — who scored in the Fourth Round win over Newcastle United — is unavailable, as is Kiko Femenía who misses out due to a hamstring problem.