Do Norwich, Watford meet with their relegation fates already decided?
Background image: Martin Thirkettle, CC BY-SA 2.0
Every manager sets his own program and charts goals for his club. Fans have their expectations as well. In that context, international windows serve as mile markers for a team’s progress. Results in matches leading into a break can take on added significance and why not? Supporters must replay them in their mind for a fortnight while waiting for club play to resume. If your side wins, hope springs eternal. Should they draw or lose, doubt and desperation fester.
For Watford and Norwich City die-hards, a Friday evening kickoff cruelly extends the empty void until their next match. With Aston Villa and Everton four points clear in 16th and 17th, neither side can escape the drop zone with a victory. Triumph at least provides a reason to wake up on Saturday and Sunday.
First, Everton travel to Saint Mary’s on Saturday afternoon. Despite their travails, you have to believe the Toffees’ quality makes them relegation-proof. Conversely, Southampton aren’t much better off than their bottom-three cohorts, languishing three points from safety. After Leicester City treated them like Michael Flatley does a hardwood floor, two Fridays back, the Saints responded well. Manchester City claimed the next two dances, first in the EFL Cup then the Premier League, invoking an image of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s squad blackened with heel marks from head to toe. The Sky Blues came away with two wins but 3-1 and 2-1 scores had to feel like small victories for the losers following the 9-0 stomping. If either the Canaries or Hornets can claim all three points in their tilt, they’ll be rooting for So’ton to drag Marco Silva’s inconsistent squad, now without Andre Gomes, into the relegation battle.
If Southampton remain unreliable, hopeful gazes turn to the Midlands where Aston Villa journey to Molineux on Sunday. It’s a desperate hope, however. Not only are derbies notoriously unpredictable but the Wolves fortress has been anything but this term. In five league matches, Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wanderers only once enjoyed the comforts of home. Dean Smith’s Villans are more pedestrian than Silva’s Everton but the Birmingham outfit apparently bought enough quality, depth and balance to keep the fray at arm’s length as well.
Reality is the last thing anyone at the bottom of the table wants to face but victory on Friday won’t bring relief for Norwich or Watford faithful. The best they can hope for is to be within a point of safety. More likely, they’ll remain three or more adrift.
If your bookie held a gun to your head over this match, you’d have to choose Norwich. Both sides leak goals like submarines with screen doors, haemorrhaging 49 between them in a combined 22 matches. At least the Canaries know where the goal is. They’re 11 strikes nearly double Watford’s six. Moreover, the Hornets don't travel well. They've claimed two points from their five ventures away from Vicarage Road in 2019/20.
On the other hand, Norwich haven’t won anywhere since that famous victory over Manchester City on 14 September. In their half-dozen outings since, they’ve been outscored 14-2 on aggregate with the lone result an inexplicably goalless draw against Bournemouth. Saints fans can only hope their opponents have forgotten where the goal is.
Chances are slim that Troy Deeney, Etienne Capoue and Ismaila Sarr feature in the match. Quique Sanchez Flores all but ruled out Deeney earlier in the week. Featuring any of the injured trio rather than giving them another 15 days to gain further strength and fitness is too great a risk with the holiday fixtures on the horizon. Given a quick succession of results in a short timeframe could turn the tide in a rapidly receding season, that is when both sides must be at full strength.
While neither squad, Watford especially, can afford many more defeats, you must walk before you can run. A result this evening can be treated as a first step by either or both sides. Although the international break kills any resultant momentum and it’s far too early for any of the three teams in the relegation places to surrender, their idle time can at least be spent looking in the right direction.