Aston Villa vs Watford preview: Who will prevail in crucial basement battle?
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These are the games which shape a season. The team sitting just above the relegation zone travel to the outfit currently situated in 18th place as Watford visit Aston Villa. A win means more than three points here; it could well be the key to survival come the end of the Premier League campaign in May.

After a somewhat positive beginning to their return to the top flight, Villa now look a side in grave danger of finding themselves back in the Championship at the advent of 2020/21. An inconsistent spell of form has seen them drift from the comfort of midtable to their present, far more perilous position.

Their most recent assignment, a trip to Brighton & Hove Albion, was also a crunch tie. Disaster looked on its way when the hosts took a first-half lead, but captain and talisman Jack Grealish came to the fore to equalise in the 75th minute and earn a vital point for his side. It was just reward for a positive showing after the break, and Villa will be hoping to continue their momentum into this encounter.

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On 12 January, Watford climbed out of the bottom three for the first time in the entirety of this season, and that is testament to the work of Nigel Pearson since he inherited the reins of the club in early December. But make no mistake, they are still looking over their shoulders, eager to distance themselves from the ever-more intense dogfight at the foot of the standings.

Should the Hornets continue their recent form, they will manage just that before long. Three consecutive league victories came to an end at the weekend with a nonetheless respectable draw against Tottenham Hotspur in which they were arguably the more impressive side. Replicate that performance, and Watford will have every reason to be confident of a positive result here.

Cue a tense affair at Villa Park — this is not a game for the faint-hearted.

Previous meetings

The most recent clash came not too long ago in December, when Watford's resurgence under Pearson continued its course with a comfortable 3-0 win comprising a brace for Troy Deeney and one for Ismaïla Sarr — that is despite the dismissal of Adrian Mariappa with over half an hour still to play. It was a mortifying afternoon for Villa.

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Said victory was Watford's third in succession against these opponents, and they have also struck three goals on each of those occasions.

Their last trip to Villa Park ended a miserable run of eight games without triumph there for the Hornets, though the Villans have struggled on home turf of late, with three defeats in their last four.

View from the dugout

Villa manager Dean Smith was pleased with the draw his side earned on the south coast at the weekend and is well aware that games such as that — and, therefore, this — hold the key to dictating his side's fortunes in the near future.

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"It was a good point in the end," said the 48-year old. "We spoke to the players at half-time, we'd done okay in the first half but that isn't good enough in this league. We were too passive. Games against Manchester City and Liverpool aren't going to define our season, it's the games against teams similar to ourselves which will."

Meanwhile, visiting head coach Pearson will not rest on the laurels of Watford's victory just over three weeks ago, and is expecting a gruelling battle at Villa Park.

"I don't take anything for granted in football, and I don't buy into the thought that just because something happened a couple of weeks ago it is going to happen again," he said. "They will want to reverse the last result and because we are both in a difficult situation they will be up for the fight; there is no doubt about that."

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Team news

An injury to Wesley means Villa will be forced to line up without a recognised striker again, as new recruit Mbwana Samatta will not be able to feature yet.

Frédéric Guilbert requires dental surgery and is unlikely to play a part, with Ahmed Elmohamady possibly stepping in, while key players Tom Heaton and John McGinn will both miss out.

For Watford, meanwhile, the positive news of the return of Danny Welbeck to fitness is somewhat counterbalanced by the absence of Sarr who suffered a hamstring injury at the weekend. Roberto Pereyra or Ignacio Pussetto will likely deputise.

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Kiko Femenía is also nearing a return, but Tom Cleverley, Sebastian Prödl, Daryl Janmaat and Will Hughes all remain sidelined for now.

Predicted XIs

Aston Villa — Reina; Konsa, Mings, Hause; Elmohamady, Nakamba, Luiz, Targett; Grealish, El Ghazi, Trézéguet.

Watford — Foster; Mariappa, Dawson, Cathcart, Masina; Chalobah, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.