Watford’s Premier League status is on the line when they travel to the Emirates to take on Arsenal on the final day of the season (11am ET Sunday).
Consecutive wins over Norwich and Newcastle earlier this month seemed to have provided Watford with a workable cushion over the bottom three. At that stage, the bookmakers gave them an 80% chance or better of remaining in the Premier League next season.
Things have since taken a turn for the worse. A 1-3 defeat away to West Ham was followed by the sacking of head coach Nigel Pearson and then a damaging 0-4 loss at home to Manchester City on Tuesday. That, in combination with results elsewhere, saw Watford drop into the bottom three for the first time since late February – the worst possible timing.
There are three teams still technically striving to avoid joining Norwich in the Championship next season, although Bournemouth would only stay up if they won on Sunday and both Watford and Aston Villa lost. In reality, it is likely to be a straight fight between Watford and Villa, although Tuesday’s results have left Watford with a clear handicap.
The two teams are level on points, but it is Villa who have the superior goal difference by a single strike. Not only that, but they are also ahead on the second tiebreaker, having scored five more goals than Watford. What that means is that if Villa win away to already safe West Ham on Sunday, Watford would have to better their winning margin by two goals to stay up.
So if both sides lose, Watford are down. If both sides draw, Watford are down. If Villa win by one, Watford would have to win by three; if Villa win by two, Watford would have to win by four; and so on. That 80% chance of survival two matches back has now reduced to around 27% according to the chief U.S. online sportsbooks’ relegation odds, although the publicly available statistical models are kinder to them, giving them between a 31% and 38% chance of staying up.
Some of that is prefaced on that fact that Villa have only once won back-to-back games this season. It is also worth noting that Watford have thrice won by three goals this season, including a surprise 3-0 win over Liverpool in February.
Neither do Sunday’s hosts Arsenal have anything to play for. Their 0-1 defeat to Villa on Tuesday left them down in 10th, with no possibility of qualifying for the Europa League via their league placing. This season will be the first since 1994-95 in which they finish outside of the top six.
The loss to Villa was not all that surprising. The match came just a few days after Arsenal’s superb 2-0 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and Mikel Arteta made six changes to his starting XI. What followed was a limp display in which none of the replacements made much of a case for continued inclusion, and Arsenal failed to muster a single shot on target.
The Gunners are a rebuild project for Arteta, who stepped down from his position as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at City to take charge in December. Results aren’t really of paramount importance at this stage, particularly given the strange circumstances of the league run-in. That he has Arsenal within a match of winning the FA Cup, and so qualifying for Europe that way, is commendable.
The final against Chelsea next weekend will take priority, and Arteta is unlikely to risk injury to any of his key players. While the desire for rotation players to prove themselves worthy of a cup-final starting berth may provide a bit more energy than could otherwise have been expected from Arsenal, there can be no doubt that Watford have more pressing reasons to be the more determined and focused of the two sides on Sunday.
It has been a chaotic season for Watford that has seen them go through three permanent head coaches. Given that they were seven points shy of safety after 15 matches, even to have a decent hope of survival ahead of the final day represents pretty good going. They have a solid chance of taking all three points on Sunday, but will that be enough to avoid the drop? These are our Arsenal vs Watford predictions for this preview:
- The pick is to back Watford to win @ best odds of +284 with 5Dimes on the moneyline.