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African All Stars

Are Emmanuel Dennis & Watford’s Nigerians destined for the drop?

23:37 GMT+3 15/02/2022
Emmanuel Dennis of Watford and Nigeria.
The Hornets’ gamble on Roy Hodgson is yet to bear fruit; are the club’s Super Eagles destined for the Championship?

Like them or loathe them, Watford have to pique the interest of Super Eagles supporters due to their heavy reliance on Nigerian players.

The Hornets may be pretty unpopular in Nigeria these days after the club’s wrangle with the NFF on the Africa Cup of Nations participation of Emmanuel Dennis, but it’s impossible for supporters not to care about the Hornets’ fortunes.

The Hertfordshire side currently have four Super Eagles internationals in their ranks as they look to battle against the drop, with Peter Etebo (on loan from Stoke City), William Troost-Ekong, Emmanuel Dennis and Samuel Kalu all set to be involved between now and the season’s end.

Beyond that quartet, the club also have Tom Dele-Bashiru and Dapo Mebude currently on loan with Reading and AFC Wimbledon respectively, while Maduka Okoye will also join in June after signing from Sparta Rotterdam.

He’s currently on loan in the Eredivisie, but will he—and his compatriots—be playing in the top flight or the second tier next season?

Beyond Nigerians, few sides in Europe are as reliant on African talent as the Hornets, who can also call upon Morocco duo Imran Louza and Adam Masina, as well as Cameroon’s Nicolas Nkoulou, Ivorian Hassane Kamara and Senegal’s Africa Cup of Nations winner Ismaila Sarr.

This cabal of continental stars are currently in a considerable battle against relegation to the Championship, with few reasons of optimism as they look to beat the drop.

The club’s gamble on Claudio Ranieri earlier in the season didn’t pay off, with the former Leicester City maestro failing to oversee a clean sheet during his three and a half months with the club, and they’ve subsequently turned to another veteran—Roy Hodgson—in a bid to survive.

Things didn’t go well on his home debut against Brighton & Hove Albion at the weekend, as the visitors dominated the early stages—silencing an optimistic home crowd—before eventually running out 2-0 winners.

Watford bore some of the hallmarks of Hodgson’s Crystal Palace—organisation, defensive rigidity—and while there are merits there, particularly considering the defensive struggles under Ranieri, is this really what the club needed at this stage of a particularly testing campaign.

During the second half, there was a glimpse at how Watford can look under Hodgson during the coming months, with the returning Sarr stepping back into the side to join Joshua King and Dennis in a front three.

The Nigerian looked brighter after the break, but he desperately needs to return to the form that characterised his final months of 2021.

By New Year’s Day, the striker had had a hand in 10 goals in his previous eight games for the Hornets, but after snubbing the Super Eagles, has failed to contribute a goal or an assist in his last five matches.

A red card in a 3-0 home defeat by lowly Norwich City was Dennis’s most noteworthy offering to Watford’s cause since the turn of the year, and Hodgson must prioritise finding a system that remains solid while helping get the best out of his team’s attacking options.

“Ismaila and Dennis on either wing - I’m telling you that there aren’t many teams in the league that will have a better option on the counter-attack than us,” left-back Danny Rose told the club’s website in December.

“It’s great working with Dennis, and everything he is touching is turning to goals at the minute. Long may it continue.”

It didn’t, but the ex-Club Brugge hitman will surely have a key role to play if Watford are to avoid relegation.

However, Rose’s compliments come in sharp contrast to Hodgson’s words after the Vicarage Road side failed to hurt Brighton at the weekend.

“We can’t do much more than put the attackers on the field,” he told journalists. “If they are very good players like everyone seems to think they are, unfortunately when they get the ball at their feet they’ve got to do something with it.

“We can’t magic up ways in which they can score goals and create goal chances just by giving them the magic word in their ear.”

Things certainly aren’t looking good; they’re currently on 15 points after 23 games, six off safety and only one ahead of bottom club Burnley having played a game more.

Newcastle United—in 17th—have won their last three and are unbeaten in five, while Leeds United, Norwich and Everton have both picked up wins in their last five fixtures.

Watford, with only four wins all season, are without a victory since they dispatched Manchester United in November, and desperately need things to turn around in upcoming games against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and the Red Devils again.

Once upon a time, defence was the only problem, whereas now, attack has become a concern as well, with Watford scoring just once in their last six games and are without a goal in their last four matches.

The return of Sarr will help, but Hodgson desperately needs both he and Dennis to ignite if Watford are to pull clear…otherwise, the Hornets’ Super Eagles-heavy project might be destined to unravel in the Championship.