Watford-Swansea City Preview
While the holiday crunch might have grounded any of Watford's lofty ambitions for Europe, Swansea City's form should act as caution to how dire circumstances could be with much more of an extended point drought.
Heading into Monday's meeting at the Liberty Stadium, the surprising Hornets are clinging to the top half of the table by a point, and the Swans have fallen within one of the relegation zone.
Four matches without dropping a point heading into Boxing Day had Watford (8-5-8) in seventh but one point off the top four. It's since been nearly a complete reversal with a solitary point from their last four, including three straight losses after Wednesday's 2-0 final at Southampton. The Hornets now find themselves in 10th on 29 points with three teams capable of passing them this weekend.
They were limited to a season-low four shots and one on target, giving them just five such threats on the losing streak. Granted, it hasn't been the easiest stretch with a draw at Chelsea before home losses to top-four Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, but their manager considered the trip to St Mary's Stadium the worst of the bunch - and the low point of the season.
"We can all make mistakes," Quique Sanchez Flores told the club's official website. "This is the worst match we make in the season so far in the Premier League so we will make sure our reactions are strong."
Swansea (4-7-10) are 17th in the table on 19 points, and rather than taking advantage of a key home match against relegation-threatened Sunderland, the Black Cats ran out of the Liberty on Wednesday with a 4-2 win to get within one point of Alan Curtis' sliding side.
Newcastle United even managed to climb to 18 points with a home draw against Manchester United, so Swansea have just a point of comfort twice over. And after distant last-place Aston Villa managed three midweek points, it might be the Swans as the division's ugly duckling of the moment.
The loss came with Kyle Naughton shown a straight red card in the 37th minute for what referee Graham Scott saw as a malicious tackle while elevating his studs, though it appeared the defender played the ball. Curtis, who has been elevated last week from caretaker status and confirmed as manager through at least the end of the season, didn't let his complaints rest there due to questionable offside no-calls leading to two Sunderland goals, he but stopped short of saying refereeing determined the outcome.
"Even with 10 men, we showed that we could play, but if anything, we needed a huge stroke of luck," Curtis told the club's official website. "If we keep working hard and allied with the players' ability, hopefully we can turn things around."
That turnaround has already been a long time in the making and, pending appeal, will have to come without Naughton, while the Swans let midfielder and England international Jonjo Shelvey move to Newcastle on Tuesday.
Since starting the season with two wins and two draws, Swansea have managed 11 points from 17 matches (2-5-10), during which they've been held goalless nine times.
They can trace their slide back to a 1-0 loss to Watford in the reverse fixture Sept. 12 following the impressive four-match start. It was the clubs' first meeting in the Premier League, with Odion Ighalo scoring in the 59th minute on an assist from striking partner Troy Deeney.
The duo, which accounts for 20 of Watford's 25 league goals, hasn't scored in the last two matches, marking the only games in which neither have scored since the Hornets were last shut out Oct. 17 in a 3-0 home loss to Arsenal.
It could point toward clubs finding the right way to defend the direct-attacking Hornets, but as for the recent fall, Ben Watson doesn't think it's yet reached the point of being anything more than a humbling.
"It could be a good thing though and give us that little kick we need," the midfielder said. "We've done so well this season and set our standards so high that sometimes you think that you're better than you are."