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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Jose Mourinho and Manchester United will have to be on guard against Javier Gracia's flying Watford

Games between the sides at Vicarage Road have been memorable in recent years and Saturday is a big one for United as they seek to recover from an inconsistent start to the season

Jose Mourinho has had a mixed time of it in the past when he has taken his Manchester United side to Watford. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
Jose Mourinho has had a mixed time of it in the past when he has taken his Manchester United side to Watford. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

It is easy to forget recent games between Manchester United and Watford at Old Trafford.

They are usually dull and straightforward, the last three, since Watford returned to the Premier League uninspiring United victories by the respective scorelines of 1-0, 2-0 and 1-0.

United at Vicarage Road, where they play on Saturday, is a different matter, because for better or worse, they are usually notable affairs.

United have had 2-1 and 4-2 successes there, sandwiched between a 3-1 defeat. Each of these games were highly significant for United fans.

With the 2-1 triumph in November 2015, United went top of the league for the only time in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era.

But only after Bastian Schweinsteiger helped bundle in a last minute winner, with the ball going in via Troy Deeney.

That was one of the few times the German got near any opponents’ net in in a disappointing career that amounted to only 13 league starts and one league goal.

The other goalscorer was Memphis Depay, while Morgan Schneiderlin also came close to scoring. So much for those 2015 signings, whose collective failure contributed to coach Louis van Gaal’s dismissal the following year.

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United were beaten 3-1 the following season, the third successive defeat for Jose Mourinho after losing at home to Manchester City and away at Feyenoord.

Jose Mourinho took it as badly as the United fans. His team had been comfortable at 1-1 with seven minutes to play.

“At 1-1 everyone thinks we are going to win the game. We were showing complete control, intensity, creation,” the Portuguese had said at the time.

Then substitute Juan Camilo Zuniga came on, scored immediately and Troy Deeney added a third, a penalty won by Zuniga.

Now 32, the Colombian Zuniga has retired, while Deeney remains an important part of Watford's forward line.

Mourinho was publicly critical of Luke Shaw for being 25 metres from his man rather than five, while BBC headlines asked if the manager was the special one anymore and wondered how to ‘solve a problem like Paul Pogba’.

Some things never change, but Shaw has been United’s best player so far this season.

He is not expected to play at Watford but he is expected to feature against Bern in Switzerland, next Wednesday in United’s first Uefa Champions League group game.

United’s last visit to Watford came a week after an away defeat in Switzerland last November. Having lost their two previous away matches, they needed a win.

They got one, thanks to two goals from Ashley Young against his former club and Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial also netting in a 4-2 win. Pogba’s family were among the 2,000 in the travelling support.

That away end will be full again on Saturday, but they will meet a Watford side who have won their opening four games and are six points ahead of United after four matches.

The onus is upon United to win as the only acceptable result after two defeats in their opening four league games.

It is the same next Wednesday in Bern – a win is a must given Mourinho’s men are also in a group with Juventus and Valencia.

Watford manager Javi Gracia has won much praise for their start – but his success does not surprise anyone in Spain.

Working on a vastly reduced budget at Malaga, cut from €150 million (Dh643.9m) in 2012 to €40m when Gracia took charge two years later, his side beat treble winners-elect Barcelona away and held Atletico and Real Madrid.

Against all expectations, Gracia led Malaga to two successive top 10 finishes. He trained Malaga hard, while his staff analysed their opponents even harder while developing and using young players in the first team. He did that at a club where change and uncertainty was the norm.

Not only that, they did it by playing attractive football. Gracia, 47, a former midfielder who’d played 430 mostly La Liga games for clubs including Real Sociedad and Villarreal, worked his players to create an indomitable spirit.

Players like him and his methodical approach – and exactly the same is happening at Watford.

He has strict order in the team, tight banks of four players, wingers and a high defence. His teams switch tactics during matches if required and they impressed in coming from behind to beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 in their last game.

Watford were given a fixture list that gave them three of their first four games on home turf.

They have won the first three of those and now the challenge for Mourinho and United is to avoid being their fourth victims on Saturday.

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