Manchester United vs Watford Preview: Vital points up for grabs
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It's been an exhilarating season so far — here's to hoping for more of the same from here onwards. And with Liverpool's status as champions elect the only near-certainty thus far, the run-in is sure to provide plenty more twists and turns in the final 12 match-days.

As far as Manchester United are concerned, the prospect of European football may now be on their minds, particularly given the news that local rivals Manchester City have been banned from continental competition for the next two years by UEFA, meaning the 5th-placed team in this Premier League will, as things stand, qualify for the Champions League.

But it has been an indifferent season for United thus far, with positive consistency far from easy to come by. Suffice to say the impressive victory at Chelsea last time out was an exception rather than the rule as far as performances go for the Red Devils, and they have struggled particularly in these sorts of fixtures; dropping points at home to all of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Everton and Burnley.

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For Watford, on the other hand, the end of the campaign will only be considered successful if survival is secured. Nigel Pearson's arrival buoyed the team and club as a whole, heaving them out of despair and into hope of retaining their Premier League status for another year. And though results have shuddered recently, their chances of beating the drop remain considerably greater than anyone could have foreseen as little as two months ago.

Their last assignment was a crucial clash in the lower reaches of the table as the Hornets travelled to Brighton & Hove Albion. A spectacular solo effort from Abdoulaye Doucouré saw his side on course for a priceless victory, but it was squandered with little more than ten minutes to go when Adrian Mariappa bundled the ball into his own net.

Watford have dropped eight points from winning positions in their last three games; should they take the lead at Old Trafford, it will doubtless be one they will be desperate to hold on to. But make no mistake, these are points which neither can realistically afford to surrender if they hope to achieve their objectives.

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Previous meetings

The most recent encounter between the two sides, back in December, resulted in Watford's second win of the season, thanks to goals from Ismaïla Sarr and Troy Deeney. It was the beginning of an ascendency up the table for the Hornets, and a mark of the calibre of performance that would come to be expected under Pearson.

However, Watford have only avoided defeat against United in two of the previous 18 meetings; both of those occasions were at Vicarage Road. They have not won at Old Trafford in any of their 12 league visits to the ground.

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None of the 13 Premier League encounters have ended with the scores tied.

View from the dugout

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær will surely be keen to amend the defeat his team suffered to Watford earlier in the campaign; the Norwegian believes it was a case of self-inflicted damage on the day.

"That was a very disappointing game, we should have won," he said. "We gifted their two goals and we had chances to put away ourselves but you can't win games if you don't take chances."

As striker Odion Ighalo lines up to make his Old Trafford debut against a former club of his, Solskjær reminded the press that expectations placed on the Nigerian should be measured, particularly given the competition he faces for a spot in the line-up.

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"Everyone says that they play better when they score against their old team, but there are also many games when you don't. Onion is getting more and more minutes; it depends on Mason [Greenwood] as well of course, and Anthony [Martial], how well he is."

Meanwhile, visiting head coach Pearson is excited about the match ahead and is prepared to embrace the challenge that awaits him and his team: "Every player should look forward to playing in these games and every coach too. It's about going out there and getting a performance as close to maximum as possible because that's what we need to do."

However, the victory for the Hornets in the reverse fixture will have no bearing on his mindset or strategy heading into the clash; it's very much business as usual as far as Pearson is concerned.

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"I don't spend too much time looking at things that have been and gone," asserted the 56-year old. "We know we've beaten them this season, which is good, but firstly it's about us being able to produce a level of performance that is good enough to cause them problems. We've got individuals in our squad who are very, very capable in an offensive manner. But, as always, the collective is the most important thing."

Team news

Solskjær has confirmed that there could be a place for midfielder Scott McTominay in the squad on Sunday following the Scot's recovery from a knee injury.

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Eric Bailly may return to the fold after missing out the midweek trip to Club Brugge, while Mason Greenwood will hope to recover from illness.

Forward Marcus Rashford remains sidelined, while Paul Pogba is also a doubt with an ankle problem.

Watford will welcome back Kiko Femenía and club record signing Sarr to the matchday squad, with both enjoying a week of full training following recent hamstring injuries.

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Daryl Janmaat is also close to a return, but this weekend comes too soon for the Dutch full-back.

Predicted XIs

Manchester United — de Gea; Bailly, Maguire, Shaw; Wan-Bissaka, Fred, Matic, Fernandes, Williams; James, Martial.

Watford — Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Masina; Hughes, Capoue; Sarr, Doucouré, Deulofeu; Deeney.

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