Claudio Ranieri did not need much time to consider the question. “I’ve had a lot of experience but I’ve never faced a week like this before,” said Watford’s manager. “It’s an extraordinary situation.”
The 70-year-old had just been asked whether he had been involved in a run of three games in seven days more pivotal than his latest team’s assignments at fellow relegation strugglers Newcastle on Saturday, Burnley on Tuesday and at home to Norwich next Friday.
“The next three games are very, very, important,” said the man who led Leicester to the title in 2016 yet has latterly presided over six straight Premier league defeats at 17th-placed Watford. “But we are ready for the fight. I believe in my players, I believe in this team and, sooner or later, results on the pitch will tell me: ‘Claudio you are right.’”
As Ranieri boarded Watford’s flight from Luton to the north-east on Friday, Eddie Howe was hoping his own judgment would be similarly vindicated. When, a little over a week ago, Newcastle’s manager completed Kieran Trippier’s signing from Atlético Madrid it became apparent the England right-back shares an agent with Chris Wood and that the Burnley striker’s contract contained a £25m release clause.
On Saturday Wood is expected to make his Newcastle debut and Howe must trust the most expensive 30-year-old signing in Premier League history makes an instant impact against visitors likely to be bolstered by Emmanuel Dennis’s attacking skills.
If Howe is heartened by the absent quartet of first-team stalwarts Ranieri has temporarily lost to the Africa Cup of Nations, Newcastle’s manager will not be overjoyed that an administrative error denied Dennis the chance to represent Nigeria in Cameroon.
Instead Watford’s £3.6m, 24-year-old signing from Club Brugge last summer is expected to pass a fitness test en route to St James’ Park, where Dennis hopes to add to his eight league goals in 17 club appearances this season.
Given that Wood managed only three in 18 league games before departing Burnley, the sense that Newcastle have overpaid, if not panic-purchased, seems heightened. But that £25m fee could seem a bargain if Howe’s team leapfrog opponents two points and two places above them.
With Newcastle having won only once all season – against Burnley – and been knocked out of the FA Cup by League One Cambridge last weekend, it remains a big if. Yet for all Ranieri’s characteristic 100-watt optimism, not to mention the prospective return of the recently sidelined Ben Foster in goal, Watford are hardly in top form either.
The Italian’s less than impressive record of two wins and 10 defeats since succeeding Xisco Muñoz meant it came as no surprise when the 15th manager at Vicarage Road in the past 10 years was asked this week whether he feared the sack.
Far from taking offence, Ranieri smiled beatifically at the journalist interrogating him over Zoom. “The club believe in me, don’t worry, I have had assurances,” said a man without a victory since the 4-1 deconstruction of Manchester United in late November. “I speak with the board, with the chairman, with everybody, every day and we are all together – it’s fantastic.
“I have a lot of experience and I say we will be safe. My experience tells me we are a very good team. Sooner or later, results on the pitch will show us who we really are.”
Howe almost certainly needs Ranieri to be wrong, if his own side are to survive. Although Leeds and Everton – coincidentally Newcastle’s next two opponents – could conceivably be dragged into the relegation skirmish, the consensus suggests three of the current bottom four are Championship-bound.
“We need wins,” Howe said. “We can’t survive on draws; that won’t be enough.”
Much on Saturday could hinge on not only the performance of Watford’s former Newcastle midfielder Moussa Sissoko – still a divisive figure on Tyneside – but the potential impact of Watford’s trio of bargain January signings: Hassane Kamara, Samir and Edo Kayembe, a left-back, centre-half and defensive midfielder, acquired from Nice, Udinese and Eupen respectively.
Newcastle’s recent Saudi Arabia-led takeover dictates that Howe – actively seeking two central defenders, a left-back, a midfielder and another forward – is shopping in a very different market. He may find that working for enormously wealthy owners is ultimately unlikely to be any less demanding than working for Watford’s infamously ruthless and controlling Pozzo family.
“It’s a unique, delicate and very complex situation,” Howe said. “Newcastle does have a huge pull in many different ways but our league position isn’t one of them. Persuading top players to join a relegation fight is not an easy sell.”
Lose to Watford and it will become infinitely harder.