Xisco Munoz's baptism of fire as Watford Head Coach continues, this time in FA Cup competition. The Hornets travel to Old Trafford looking to upset a United side who are joint-top of the Premier League, but both sides are likely to rotate.
The ever-positive Munoz wasn't in the mood to give anything away ahead of his toughest test yet, not even confirming who'll be between the sticks for the Saturday evening kick-off. It is expected that the role will be filled by Daniel Bachmann though; Ben Foster's deputy saw action during the short Carabao Cup run and Munoz expressed his enthusiasm in having someone as professional as the Austrian in his Thursday Press Conference.
In terms of other players you'd expect to see line up at the "Theatre of Dreams" new signing Philip Zinckernagel and the returning Will Hughes appear ready to start. Both players come with high expectations to turn around the below-par season so far, and their respective creative sparks could make the difference against a United side whose priorities lie very much elsewhere.
It's fair to say that Watford are no different however. Despite a week long gap both leading up to this fixture and following it, Watford won't treat this as a must-win, rather a free hit to try and beat one of the most in-form sides in the country. The likes of Ismaila Sarr and Ken Sema may be rested given their heavy involvement in recent weeks. Xisco Munoz recognises this difficult task and, as he always says, wants his players to "Fight like animals" against a team he considers to be "perfect".
Tactically we could see a change to a 4-2-3-1. Deeney and Gray are unlikely to retain their starting places for a cup tie, and with the limited attacking options at the disposal of the Head Coach, a lone striker may be the avenue the Spaniard veers down. James Garner is cup-tied, and injured players like Domingos Quina, Stipe Perica and Isaac Success won't feature for a little while yet. Craig Cathcart and Joao Pedro on the other hand are nearing a return, however I wouldn't count on them coming straight back into the XI.
I'll provide some background information here, as today's opposition may not be widely known. Manchester United are currently 2nd in the Premier League, and have a game in hand on leaders Liverpool. They have won this competition 12 times, a feat beaten only by Arsenal's 14, and last lifted the trophy back in 2016, the same season Quique Sanchez Flores took Watford to the Semi Finals.
In terms of team news, Head Coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær was more revealing in his intentions for the Starting XI. It was hinted that former Hornet Odion Ighalo will feature, but Solskjær's comment of "Hopefully I don't need to put him on" implies he'll be waiting in the wings on the home bench. The former striker very clearly wishes to rotate, confirming that Jesse Lingard will make his first start in over 3-and-a-half months, and the likelihood is that star players Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, amongst others, are to be rested.
Donny Van De Beek has found game time to be a little scarce since his summer arrival from Ajax, but the Dutchman will start under the floodlights this evening. Nemanja Matic is another possibility, the former Chelsea midfielder is low on the pecking order now at Old Trafford but could get an opportunity to impress against the Golden Boys.
Youngsters Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo won't get that opportunity. Diallo, a new signing from Atalanta, won't be available straight away due to the necessity of a Covid test and Solskjær's intentions to integrate him slowly into the fold. Pellistri meanwhile has tested positive for the virus, and compatriot Edinson Cavani is still serving a three-match ban for an offensive post on social media.
For this FA Cup tie I'll predict the lineups for both sides, starting with the hosts:
Telles, Bailly, Tuanzebe, Williams.
Matic, Van De Beek.
James, Mata, Lingard.
Navarro, Wilmot, Troost-Ekong, Masina.
Sema, Hughes, Zinckernagel.
I'm backing Bachmann as the shot-stopper at Old Trafford.
Given Watford's Premier League status until recently, there are plenty of games to choose from when discussing key matches. Last time out, a fantastic Mason Greenwood performance made the difference as they ran out 3-0 winners over a depleted Hornets side. Bruno Fernandes scored the first of many United goals (unsurprisingly, from the spot) and Anthony Martial was also on the scoresheet.
The last FA Cup meeting between these two sides came in April 2007, in the Semi-Finals. Hameur Bouazza netted for Watford, but it wasn't enough as Wayne Rooney beat Richard Lee twice, Kieran Richardson scored late on, and Cristiano Ronaldo also found the target. Whatever happened to him?
It's not all doom and gloom Hornets Fans. Although they have NEVER won at Old Trafford, they did see off the Red Devils at Vicarage Road in late 2019. Sarr and Deeney got the goals, and may be capable of striking up the winning formula once again tonight.
Who's the Threat?
Manchester United: Mason Greenwood
By no means an unknown, Mason Greenwood has burst onto the scene over the past year, and scored a brilliant goal against Watford last time out. A natural finisher who can conjure up an opening from nothing, the Watford backline will have to be switched on if they're to keep out Greenwood.
Watford: Philip Zinckernagel
Why not? Zinckernagel tore up the Norwegian Eliteserien for former club Bodo/Glimt last season and, as noted by Tom Cleverley on Thursday, may be the link between midfield and attack that Watford have been missing thus far. Catch him if you can United...
Elliot's Score Prediction
My optimism can sometimes come across as delusion when predicting a Watford result, and I very often get it wrong. That optimism is nowhere to be seen here. A routine 3-1 victory for Manchester United, with Watford's goal coming as a late consolation. Sorry.
Manchester United 3-1 Watford
Televised? Yes, on BT Sport
Referee: Andy Madley.