September 4, 2018

EPL FREE KICKS: Wat the heck is going on with Watford?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

As we head into the first break of the English Premier League season, the top of the table looks sort of how we would expect it.

1. Liverpool

2. Chelsea

3. Watford

Wait, what?

Yes, the Hornets have surprised many by jumping out of the gate and picking up four wins in four games. They’re out of first place by just a two-goal margin in differential.

And it’s not just based on a weak schedule, either. Watford showed its credentials on Sunday with a comeback win over formerly undefeated Tottenham.

Spurs had looked good for most of the game and seemingly were cruising towards grabbing at least one point on the road, but the hosts at Vicarage Road quickly turned it around.

This is a team that lacks in star power, but gets it done with teamwork. Troy Deeney is a solid, but unspectacular target man up front. Roberto Pereyra had eight EPL goals heading into this season, but already has three in four games. Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue are just two solid workers in the midfield that will always put in a 90-minute shift. Ben Foster came over from relegated West Brom in the summer and has been solid between the sticks.

And then there’s Jose Holebas. The Hornets defender has been involved in five goals this season — a goal and four assists, including two against Spurs — which is the most in the league.

The immediate comparison that some will make is to Leicester City of 2015-16, the biggest underdog champion in history. There’s actually an incredible similarity between the two: The season before the Foxes’ improbable title run, they finished 14th in the league with 41 points and an 11-8-19 record. Last year, Watford finished 14th in the league with 41 points and an 11-8-19 record. Pretty shocking, I know.

Of course, we won’t go as far as to say that Watford will be competing for the title come May, but it’s always nice to see a new team up there in the standings.

Matches against Manchester United, Fulham and Arsenal are up after the break, so we’ll see just how good this Watford side is. But considering that we predicted it to finish 15th, we’d say the Hornets are well ahead of schedule.

Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku scored two goals against Burnley on Sunday. (GETTY IMAGES)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

You’re not going to believe this, but Romelu Lukaku found his goal-scoring touch once again — all it took was a game against a club near the bottom of the table.

Lukaku’s goal-scoring plaudits are well-known: He’ll bag a brace — as he did against Burnley on Sunday — when the stakes are low, but he can’t seem to pull it off against the bigger clubs — like when he was blanked against Spurs the week before.

The Belgian forward will continue to pile up the numbers against lower sides, but when will he be able to do it against those big clubs? It would be incredibly interesting to see him head to a league with fewer top clubs and see just how rampant he could run.

Not taking any shots against the Bundesliga or La Liga, but with only two or three truly big clubs in each league, Lukaku might achieve legendary scoring status if he left England.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Its schedule certainly hasn’t been easy, but West Ham is the only pointless team in the league, going 0-4 so far. The last time that the Irons started the season with four losses, they were relegated … We should have known better to doubt Jose Mourinho. After weeks of doubting him and Manchester United, his team bounces back with a 2-0 win. We’re sure this won’t be the end of this saga, though … We know that new manager Unai Emery has set the priority at Arsenal to be all about offence, but at some point the Gunners will have to learn how to defend. This week, Cardiff scored its first goals of the season and nearly stole a point … Mesut Ozil was back in the lineup after being “sick” last week. We’re guessing that won’t be the only time that the ex-German international will be stricken this season … Kyle Walker’s winner against Newcastle was a stunner. The City fullback put everything he had behind that rocket … Leroy Sane wasn’t even included in the squad this week, reportedly due to some attitude issues. If this isn’t a wakeup call for last year’s Young Player of the Season, we don’t know what will be … Aleksandar Mitrovic scored yet again. That’s four goals in four games for the ex-Magpie striker … Crystal Palace could be in big trouble. Wilfried Zaha was hurt during the final training session before Saturday’s game and it could be really bad news. The Eagles attacker has no timetable for return, either … Alisson is the latest goalkeeper to be caught in possession, although it didn’t cost the Reds points. There’s more pressure than ever on keepers to be good on the ball, but sometimes you just have to put your boot through the ball.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah is a finalist for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or. (AP PHOTO)

THE LAST WORD

You wouldn’t think that seeing Mohamed Salah being a finalist for the Ballon d’Or would stir controversy, but somehow it has.

All that Salah did last season was set the record for goals in the season while being crowned Premier League player of the year and leading Liverpool all the way to the Champions League final.

But when you consider that Lionel Messi and Antoine Greizmann were left off of that list of three finalists, well, that gets some people upset.

Former Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric were the other two finalists along with Salah. Ronaldo had another stellar season in La Liga and lifted his fifth Champions League title scoring many key goals along the way. Modric was Madrid’s midfield leader for that run, but his shining moment was getting underdogs Croatia to the World Cup final in Russia and winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.

For Messi, this is the first time in 12 years that he hasn’t been a finalist for the award that he has won five times. He led Barcelona to the La Liga crown in a difficult year following the sale of Neymar.

Greizmann had another fantastic season with Atletico Madrid, leading it to the Europa League title and a second-place league finish — ahead of Real. Oh, and he won the World Cup with France. The striker was also given the Bronze Ball, but somehow wasn’t on the tournament’s Best XI — for the record, Ronaldo, Messi and Salah all underperformed in Russia.

So how do you fix a situation where so many players are clear contenders for the trophy? The answer is that you can’t and you don’t. There’s no need to expand the number of finalists because we had a banner year for superstars. There’s no shame in missing out to any of these guys for Messi or Greizmann.

And if you think that Salah, only the best player in the world’s most competitive league last year, wasn’t worthy of being a finalist, you’re crazy.

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