London (AFP) – Four games into the new season, the top of the Premier League already has a familiar feel bar the presence of Javi Gracia’s Watford nestled alongside Liverpool and Chelsea.
Tipped for another campaign in which just beating the drop would be deemed a success, the Spanish coach has led the Hornets to a club-record start, winning their opening four top-flight league games.
Such a stunning start — including the scalp of Tottenham in their last outing — has some Watford fans dreaming of following Leicester’s incredible march to the title in 2015/16.
But with another of the top-six elite, Manchester United, rolling into Vicarage Road this weekend, Gracia has his feet firmly on the ground.
“I think we are in good form, we are enjoying it, but there will come a bad time when we’ll have to suffer and that’s fine,” Gracia told AFP.
“We are a humble team. We have big ambitions, big aspirations, but we know what league we are in. Over the course of the season, the competition will put us in our place. We know that winning the league is not our fight.”
A highly respected coach from La Liga spells with Osasuna and Malaga, Gracia was hired in January to ensure an alarming slump in form did not turn into a relegation battle.
Survival was secured, but a run of just one win in Watford’s final nine games of the campaign did not hint at greater things to come, particularly when Brazilian international Richarlison was sold to Everton.
Unlike in previous years under Italian owners the Pozzo family, there was no revolving door of new arrivals for Gracia to work with.
– British spine –
But where other managers might have complained, Gracia saw an opportunity in the stability a quiet summer in the transfer market offered.
Of his unchanged starting XI in the Premier League for the first four games, 10 were already at the club last season with the only exception being goalkeeper Ben Foster, now in his second spell at the club.
“Perhaps we have a continuity that other teams don’t have and that has been a strength for us,” added Gracia.
Gracia has spoken previously about the difficulties involved in merging together the divergent languages and cultures in a squad containing 17 nationalities.
But he has managed to balance that with building a more home-grown spine to the team with five British players in his starting XI.
“That we have a base of British players I think is necessary,” he said. “They have to be the foundations of the team, to show those that come from different countries what the Premier League is about.
“I consider it important to have a base of home-grown players so that there is an identity with our fans, so that the players identify a bit more with them.”
The looming spectre of Brexit could threaten the Premier League’s position as the most international of Europe’s major leagues.
However, it could benefit England on the international stage, with boss Gareth Southgate this week again bemoaning his dwindling pool of options due to the lack of game time afforded to English players in the Premier League.
“I’m not one for putting up barriers,” said Gracia on the possibility of more restrictions on foreign players.
But he believes one of his own players could provide the solution to England’s need for a midfield playmaker.
– Hughes for England –
Will Hughes played under Southgate during his time as England under-21 boss, and Gracia expects him soon to become the first Watford player to represent England since John Barnes more than 30 years ago.
“I’m sure that in the short-term he will be part of the England team,” Gracia said.
“For me he is a midfielder with great quality, great work ethic, very disciplined in his defensive work and in attack he can make the difference.”
Hughes has the perfect platform to make his case when he comes up against a World Cup winner in Paul Pogba on Saturday as Gracia looks to continue his fine record of taking big scalps.
His Malaga team beat a treble-winning Barcelona at the Camp Nou in 2015 then held Real Madrid twice the following season, while his first home game at Watford ended in a 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea.
“We know we have a chance at home because we have the fans behind us, because we are confident at the moment, but we will pay heavily for any sense of over-confidence against a team like United,” added Gracia.
For now, Watford have earned the right to be the ones relishing a meeting with the 20-time champions of England.
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