Watford-Manchester United Preview
While Manchester United starlet Marcus Rashford has proved to have a deft scoring touch, Louis Van Gaal showed this weekend he can also be light on his feet.
Rashford's sensational early strike rate and Van Gaal's touchline theatrics from the weekend have lightened the mood at Old Trafford ahead of Wednesday night's visit by surprising Watford.
Manchester United are experiencing a revival thanks to teenage sensation Rashford, who was only included in Van Gaal's starting XI last Thursday in the Europa League when Anthony Martial picked up a hamstring injury in the warm-up.
That set the stage for Rashford's stunning debut at the "Theater of Dreams" with a brace in a thrashing of Midtjylland that advanced United (12-8-7) to the round of 16 opposite Liverpool. Many thought the Mancunian would endure a fall from grace in his Premier League bow Sunday against Arsenal, but Rashford instead delivered a first-half brace in a thrilling 3-2 victory.
''I could imagine the first game he did that because he is a striker coming in to score goals and the first match is always good,'' Van Gaal said. ''The second match he has to do what the manager is willing him to do, and he did it fantastically.''
Perhaps the most fantastic moment of the match came when Van Gaal fell to the ground on purpose while remonstrating with fourth official Mike Dean in the technical area during the second half Sunday. Lying on the ground and still holding his clipboard in his left hand, Van Gaal stared at Dean in mock horrour.
Van Gaal said he apologised to the officials for his behavior.
''That was too emotional ... it is not good for the referee, the linesman, the fourth referee,'' Van Gaal said. ''It happens not too much. Normally I am sitting on my bench and I have a lot of criticism because I am sitting on my bench.''
Of more concern for his injury-hit side is the possible loss of defender Marcos Rojo, who was making his first start since the reverse fixture with Watford on Nov. 21 after being out after shoulder surgery. Rojo clashed with Gunners midfielder Aaron Ramsey and left after 55 minutes.
Van Gaal said Martial and back Matteo Darmian are set to return, though defender Chris Smalling remains questionable. He's also hoping Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia could be available for selection as the fixtures come thick and fast.
Manchester United are in fifth place on 44 points - three behind Manchester City for the final Champions League spot. The Citizens, though, have a game in hand.
United have taken all five Premier League meetings versus the Hornets, including a 2-1 victory at Vicarage Road. Troy Deeney equalised in the 87th minute for Watford before his own goal in the 90th gifted the Red Devils all three points.
Watford (10-7-10), who have 19 points from 14 home matches and 18 from 13 on the road, and come to Old Trafford feeling no pressure. The Hornets, outscored 8-1 in two prior league visits to Old Trafford, are in 12th place on 37 points but could climb as high as eighth with a victory.
"All the pressure is on Man United now," Deeney said. "I think we perform better away from home."
There's less pressure on Watford following Saturday's scoreless draw with fellow newboys Bournemouth in a result that was fine for the Hornets.
"It's another good point, keeps the gap to eight points between us and Bournemouth and just edges us one win away from that magical 40," Deeney said. "So you've got to take the positive."
Deeney had a brace in the previous fixture, a 3-1 win at struggling Crystal Palace on Feb. 13, to give him eight league goals. Odion Ighalo is tied for fourth in the league with 14, although he has gone a season-long four straight games without scoring. Ighalo is third with 38 shots on target.