English Championship : Watford host Middlesbrough in Skybet Championship opener
Watford's quest for a swift return to the Premier League begins in earnest when they host Middlesbrough on Friday night in the opening game of the new Championship season.
The Hornets are on a rebuilding mode after the departure of a few star players including Abdoulaye Doucoure and new manager Vladimir Ivic is preparing his side with 11 of his first-team players missing through various injuries and transfer uncertainties.
Middlesbrough visit Vicarage Road on the back of a late-season upsurge in form last season that pulled them out of the Championship relegation zone and into 17th place. Veteran manager Neil Warnock was instrumental in keeping Boro in the Championship last season after amassing 12 points in the last 8 matches. Yet the 71-year-old former Sheffield United, Queen's Park Rangers, and Cardiff City boss has voiced his concern over his club's lack of activity in the transfer market ahead of a tough opening night clash.
Teams' preparation and Pre-match analysis
Serbian head coach Vladimir Ivic will have to do without 11 of his first-team players through injuries and transfer uncertainties. Record signing Ismaila Sarr has arrived back at the club from his summer break but is yet to resume training amidst interests from various other clubs.
Star striker Troy Deeney is the subject of interest of various Premier League clubs and so is former Barcelona man Gerard Deulofeu but the Serbian coach hopes to keep his prized assets at the club come to the end of the transfer window.
Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the club since its relegation from the Premier League, the former Maccabi Tel Aviv and PAOK manager has acted swiftly in the transfer market to prepare for the possible departures of Deeney and Sarr.
With injuries mounting following the completion of an arduous COVID-19 stricken 2019-20 season just 38 days prior to the new campaign, Ivic has strengthened his attack with a mixture of exciting young talents like Jeremy Ngakia, Stipe Perica, and experienced striker Glenn Murray.
Watford fans would hope that the Serbian manager's reign brings back a semblance of stability to a club that has been firing managers at will and the club has backed 43-year old Ivic to further strengthen his squad before the transfer window ends in October.
Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster believes that the new manager is the right person to take the club back to where they belong and that is the Premier League.
“He is very conservative in giving out praise. He’s not the kind of guy to put an arm round you, speak to you – ‘how you are doing or how’s the family’; he’s a completely different manager to Nigel Pearson," Foster, speaking to the Guardian, said of his new boss.
The club from the Teesside in the north of England travels south with a mixed feeling ahead of Friday night's curtain-raiser. Neil Warnock, while upbeat about Middlebrough's chances in the upcoming season, has publicly criticized the club's owners for a lack of support in the transfer market till now.
Warnock has no injury concerns but having lost ten players since the end of last season, the wily coach knows that he will walk a fine line with such a thin squad in such a competitive and long drawn out league.
Boro has managed to sign only two players in the close season with defender Grant Hall set to make his debut on Friday night after impressing his manager in the 4-3 League Cup win over Shrewsbury Town and goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli coming into the squad after a loan switch from Fulham.
With a tremendous pedigree of getting the best out of under budget Championship clubs with limited resources and getting them promoted to the Premier League, Middlesbrough fans will hope that the Warnock magic would again work at the Riverside stadium just as it did in the case of Sheffield United, QPR and Cardiff City.
Head to Head
Friday night's clash will be the first league meeting between the two sides since January 2017 in the Premier League, when the match ended in a goalless draw. The Hornets are unbeaten in seven league matches against Middlesbrough (Win-4, Drawn-3) since a 1-2 loss at Vicarage Road in the Championship in October 2012.
Players to watch out for
Watford- Former West Ham starlet Jeremy Ngakia could be the player for Vladimir Ivic, who can inspire the club throughout the Championship season.
Experienced forward Glenn Murray will be a nuisance for any defense and the tall forward will be the go-to man during times of crisis.
Middlesbrough- Despite Neil Warnock looking for defensive reinforcements, it is his talented forward Britt Assombalonga, who holds the key for his club's goal-scoring threats.
A new set up at Watford with a young coach at the helm gives the Watford faithful genuine hope of a swift return to the Premier League but the Hornets will be a touch unfamiliar with the competitive nature of the Championship.
Neil Warnock, despite a thin squad, will count on Boro's strong finish to the season and with the 71-year-old being hugely experienced in English football will use his assets well against a first timer in the form of Vladimir Ivic, who is still not sure about his final eleven for the match.
Score Prediction: Watford 1- 3 Middlesbrough
Cover image credits: Squawka