It's almost hard to believe. On January 27 2018, Javi Gracia began his career at Watford with a FA Cup tie at Southampton. The Hornets were knocked out by an early goal, and their aspirations of advancing in the competition were shattered by the fourth round for the second year in a row. The doom and gloom created by the tenure of Gracia's predecessor, Marco Silva, didn't look one bit like going away.
Fast-forward nearly 16 months and the 2019 final is on the immediate horizon. Watford will feature, facing off against the recently crowned English champions Manchester City.
A poor run of form in the closing fixtures cast a shadow on what nevertheless became the club's most successful Premier League season, tallying their greatest number of points and highest position since the top flight was rebranded in 1992. For a team widely tipped for relegation and a manager that featured regularly in sack race predictions heading into 2018/19, that's also fairly good going.
And now, the Hornets are just 90 minutes — or, fate permitting, 120 minutes and a possible penalty shootout — away from a major trophy and instant qualification for the Europa League.
Gracia made no attempt to conceal the pride he feels at the season's achievements during his pre-match press conference: "It's special. I am just so proud for the club to be in this final, so proud to be at this club and so proud for the players."
There's more to picking eleven players than meets the eye. Not only do those selected have to be perfect for the tactical system into which they are implemented, but they also need to be suitable counteractions for the opposition. The pressure to find that balance greatly increases when an occasion such as a Cup final rolls around.
It's hypothesised that Gracia makes his selections well in advance of the fixture but only informs his players on or just prior to the day of the game, exactly as he has here: "I have decided. You can always change something when you are preparing for the game, but changing one player at the end of the week doesn't change my plan because I trust all of them."
In the exhilarating semi-final triumph over Wolverhampton Wanderers last month, Gerard Deulofeu began the afternoon on the bench, but his impact when introduced to the field has been credited as the driving force in Watford's accomplishment of victory from the jaws of defeat. Due to the Spaniard's recent form it's unlikely that Gracia will pass up the opportunity to start him, but the 49-year old has faith that all in his squad are capable of such an impact.
"I was thinking many days ago about how best to defend, how best to attack and which players are better to do that. We have different options and I would like them all to play in the final, but it is not possible."
Prospective treble-winners in the opposite dressing room
Saturday will be the first time Watford have reached a major final since 1984, but they will have to overturn one of football's toughest opponents if they are to bring the trophy home. City have accumulated 198 Premier League points across a two-year period in which they have also picked up five pieces of silverware.
However, the gap between the elite and the rest may not be as large as the figures suggest. In both league meetings between Watford and City in 2018/19, the Citizens prevailed but the Hornets looked fair value for a result. At Vicarage Road they applied significant pressure on their opponents in the latter stages and came close to overcoming a two-goal deficit, while at the Etihad Stadium in March Watford kept the scores even until the break, after which City displayed their ruthless side with the aid of some questionable officiating.
"We lost both games but I think we showed that we can beat them," he said. "We competed really well in both games in different moments. In the first game we lost 2-1 but we competed until the end and had chances. In the second one we kept the result until the second half when they scored from an offside position and the game changed. It was then tough for us to keep the same attitude, but I think it showed us it's possible."
Watford's players lock horns with those which have become English champions, and Gracia will operate from the opposite dugout to one of the most esteemed coaches in the game: Pep Guardiola. A serial winner in all three of his managerial posts at Barcelona, Bayern Münich and City, and recently awarded LMA Manager of the Year, the 48-year old is now wholeheartedly focused on delivering the Manchester outfit's first FA Cup triumph since 2013.
Gracia is full of praise for his compatriot: "Pep is the best in the Premier League, yes. I think he deserves the recognition. He is a very good manager. I don't speak with him many times but we have a good relationship.
"We are woking in this country with other Spanish coaches as well. We have the chance to coach in the final and in Spain they speak about us because it speaks well about Spanish managers."
Ending on a high
A beam on his face, Gracia says: "My mum is coming for the final. I haven't seen her for a long time, maybe one year. It's special."
Regardless of the result on Saturday afternoon, the 49-year old views the campaign as a mark of the ascendency of the club, a step in the right direction. Win or lose, 2018/19 will live long in the memory for Hornets fans, and it appears the foundations have been laid for an even more prosperous future which Gracia is keen to realise.
"I feel very proud of this team. This season has been amazing. I said in other comments that the success of this season doesn't depend on this one result. My opinion is that my players deserve recognition anyway as they have done many things well. This is only one step as we want to be more ambitious, we want to improve."
At one point the Hornets looked set to secure Europa League qualification by finishing 7th in the domestic league, yet a poor spot of form in the aftermath of the semi-final victory saw those aspirations fade away.
However, Saturday presents the final chance for Watford to achieve their European ambition. As per the cliché, form goes out of the window when Cup time arrives, and Gracia knows that his players, eleven against eleven in 90 minutes of football, have every chance of pulling off a shock result against one of the world's elite sides.
"I know in the past there have been some important games, but I am sure it will be a different game, with different moments and different teams. We'll try to show our best face and play as best as possible and have a good performance. After that we'll see if we are able to achieve the trophy.
"We try to prepare as usual. We haven't done anything different this week. We try to analyse the rival, prepare the sessions and try to be ready to compete in the next game. In this case it is to play against City; it is tough because they are the champions of the Premier League. We know that, but we know we will have our chances and we are ready to play."