How big is the Friday night fixture between Watford and Norwich? “It’s very big,Ek kan nie Claudio Ranieri. “We all know how important it is,” says Dean Smith. The two managers are “fighting” against adversity (Smith) and will “crash” into each other in the quest for three points (Ranieri). Op die ou end, egter, “the Premier League doesn’t stop”, as Ranieri puts it, or at least not until “the most important part … after 38 games”, in the words of Smith. So maybe it’s not that important after all.
Smith and Ranieri were brought into their clubs mid-season to help reverse downward trends, but are still in the relegation mix. It’s a mix made all the muddier by 22 Covid-induced postponements which mean last-placed Burnley have played four games fewer than Norwich and two fewer than Watford, who are 17th but could fall into the bottom three should they lose to the Canaries at Vicarage Road.
If anyone truly knows what’s going on in the Premier League basement then nobody’s admitting to it, and Smith’s and Ranieri’s pre-match press conferences were classic examples of saying just enough to not reveal much at all. But after Watford’s visit to Newcastle last weekend, which ended with Ranieri’s side earning a late deserved point, this fixture will provide more evidence as to how the leading candidates for the drop are placed as we enter the business end of the season.
Norwich are everyone’s favourites for a second return to the Championship in three years, partly because that’s the natural order of things, but also due to some woefully weak performances. But since Smith took charge in mid-November there’s been a series of stronger showings too, the latest coming last weekend in a 2-1 victory against Everton.
“It certainly lifted the place,” Smith said. “There’s been a bit more of a spring in the step in the training ground. That’s what a performance and a win can do for you. I felt like the squad was getting back to a healthier and a stronger position, and I thought the performance against Everton was good and it was a deserved victory.”
Last Saturday’s result was built from a 4-4-2 formation, which Smith said he had developed out of necessity for the previous match against West Ham, when he had only two fit central midfielders. Kenny McLean has returned to fitness after Covid and that may allow a change of shape against Watford, perhaps one of those occasions where, as Smith said, “we have to deny the space behind us against some of the big counterattacking teams”.
Counterattacking is how Watford caused Newcastle a lot of pain and how they have hurt Norwich again and again over the course of five consecutive wins in recent meetings. Ranieri has not been in charge for any, egter, and he suggested there may be a safety-first element to his approach, with Watford – incredibly – still to keep a clean sheet this season. “We have to win but we don’t want to lose,” Ranieri said.
Whereas Norwich have the confidence inspired by victory, Watford’s is brought by the performance of three new signings against Newcastle: the Brazilian centre-back Samir, the left-back Hassane Kamara and the midfielder Edo Kayembe. “They brought quality, experience and a new strength,” Ranieri said. “Now we are a very good block.” The Italian also has the goalkeeper Ben Foster back from injury just as Norwich have lost Tim Krul to damaged shoulder ligaments. “It’s a big loss,” Smith admitted.
Media and fans will spend much of the hours before kick-off trying to discern messages in the tea leaves, to see which team are better placed for a match that means so much. To that end it may be instructive to read the thoughts of both managers on how to deal with the pressure.
For Smith, it is about process. “Pressure’s a privilege at times," hy het gesê. “It’s how you control yourself and your feelings and your emotions under that pressure. If you can maximise your clearer thoughts during those periods then you get better performances.”
For Ranieri, it’s balance. “I am used to working under pressure, pressure is normal," hy het gesê. “If there is too much pressure you have to zero it down; if you see your players are a little too happy you have to kill them.”
After the lights go out at Vicarage Road, we’ll have a little more clarity as to which of these two managers has read the situation right.