Watford supporters would hardly claim their club occupy a significant part in Liverpool’s history, but at least three visits to Vicarage Road still resonate in the minds of Reds’ fans down the years.
Famously, an FA Cup sixth round defeat in 1970 was the catalyst for Bill Shankly to finally break up the bulk of his first great Liverpool side and cast aside sentimentality for the players who had put the Reds on the domestic and European map during a glorious decade.
Happier memories stem from a cup replay win in 1986 when Kenny Dalglish’s men, resplendent in all white, salvaged victory from the jaws of defeat – after a John Barnes Watford goal – to propel themselves towards the league and cup double. A couple of years later, the Liverpool shirts were as grey as the Home Counties skies but John Barnes and Peter Beardsley made light of a Vicarage Road quagmire to dance their way to a 4-1 conquest en route to a sparking 1988 championship triumph.
Since Watford returned to the top flight in 2014-15, Jurgen Klopp’s visits there have seen Liverpool experience mixed fortunes. Before the German was able to put his own stamp on the squad bequeathed to him by Brendan Rodgers, the Reds fell victim to a galling 3-0 defeat when Nigerian Odion Ighalo starred with a brace for the home side. The following season, an outrageous overhead kick from Emre Can was needed to secure a narrow victory which smoothed Liverpool’s passage towards Champions League qualification.
Last season’s 3-3 draw on the opening day is an indicator of how much has changed in a short time as Klopp’s side have traded some of their trademark swashbuckling attack for a meaner, more measured approach to controlling football matches during this campaign.
The previous Vicarage Road encounter, where chaos reigned, saw a central defensive partnership of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren with Simon Mignolet in goal as the Reds conceded a late goal to cede a share of the points. Since then, the recruitment of powerhouse Virgil Van Dijk and the exponential development of Joe Gomez, plus the assured presence of Alisson Becker between the sticks has given Liverpool the parsimonious base which sees them still unbeaten going into Saturday’s clash.
The final international break before Christmas has given all supporters time to take stock and revel in the fact that with nearly a third of the season now complete the Reds are resolutely in the title mix. Before the crucial return fixture at Manchester City in January, the games now come thick and fast and if some still lament the temporary loss of rapier-like attacking football, this more pragmatic, earthy Liverpool unit looks primed for the grind of keeping the pace at the league summit.
However, Watford are no mugs. They currently stand in 7th place – despite a recent dip in form – and Javi Gracia’s charges pose an undoubted threat with the vision and thrust of Roberto Pereyra central to their plans. The Argentinian former River Plate and Juventus attacking midfielder is now into his third season in England and already boasts five Premier League goals this term. The form of the mercurial Isaac Success has been enough to deny the more muscular Troy Deeney a regular start with the former likely to pair with Andre Gray up front.
Daryl Janmat, Sebastian Prodl and Tom Cleverly all miss out through injury, and one-time Liverpool fancy Will Hughes is also doubtful starter. Ex-Everton trickster Gerard Delofeu may deputise for Hughes in a more withdrawn role than is familiar.
For Liverpool, Klopp has to balance the understanding this is a tough away fixture with half an eye on Wednesday’s big European test in Paris.
His instinct will be to revert to his most compact 4-3-3 formation with a rigid midfield of James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho and use Xherdan Shaqiri from the bench. The fixture probably comes a little too soon for the recovering Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita’s inclusion from the off.
Up front, the manager has already tried numerous positional changes to eke out the best of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. All three have struggled to find the most cavalier versions of themselves but Klopp will be loathe to break up a combination that thrives on the rhythm of regular football. For as long as the Reds retain their new-found solidity at the back the onus on the front three to fully rediscover their collective zest isn’t quite as acute as some critics might suggest.
At the risk of repetition, another must-win challenge awaits the Reds in a trappy tie at Watford and everyone from manager to players to supporters would happily accept an added dose of substance over style as long as the glow of three points illuminates the road home.
*odds are subject to change.
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