Watford v Wolves
Sunday 07 April, 16:00
Live on BT Sport
Quiet man Gracia two games from glory
When Watford first hired Javi Gracia as manager, it spoke volumes that Spanish football experts were glowing in their praise of a man who had impressed them with his diligence, his loyalty to players and his ability to bring discipline to a group and squeeze everything out of them. Their praise has been fully justified.
Gracia admits it was a risk to join a club that had a well-established revolving-door policy when it came to managers, but he is the first boss in the Pozzo era to extend his contract with the Hornets. This unassuming man from Pamplona has led Watford into the top eight of the Premier League, and reaching a first FA Cup final since 1984 would further underline the club's progress.
While their Wembley opponents Wolves have excelled against the elite clubs in the Premier League, Watford have been incredibly consistent against the rest. If you removed the top six from the Premier League this season, Watford would be five points clear at the summit of that table. This is a team that mixes silk and steel well, but also has a burning desire to prove people wrong. Players like Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra didn't quite make it at massive clubs like Barcelona and Juventus and have points to prove, and long-serving striker Troy Deeney's recent comments about the failure of England boss Gareth Southgate to recognise the team's achievements add to the impression that Watford enjoy their role as snarling underdogs.
Gracia has some big decisions to make. Popular veteran Heurelho Gomes has been playing in the cup, but may be supplanted by in-form first choice Ben Foster. Tom Cleverly is injured, while fellow midfielder Pereyra has a hip injury that could keep him out.
Wolves' Portuguese period a joy for fans to behold
As Wolves bid to reach their first FA Cup final since 1960, a game they won with a team containing club stalwarts like Ron Flowers and Jimmy Murray, there is a conflict of opinion about their current health as a club. Some bemoan the pervading influence of "super-agent" Jorge Mendes, who recruited manager Nuno and a host of the names from his client list. However, many choose to enjoy an exciting brand of football that features players who would surely never have ended up at Molineux under different circumstances.
The impact of the genial and thoughtful Nuno has been enormous. He took the team into the Premier League, and has quickly established them as one of the best sides outside the top six with a style of play that has thrilled supporters. Portuguese midfielders Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho have been outstanding, Willy Boly has been excellent in defence, and Mexican striker Raul Jimenez has found the best form of his career. Wolves have turned his loan from Benfica into a permanent switch, and after he scored 12 Premier League goals, made seven more and netted three times in the FA Cup, that's a justifiable expense.
The quality in the Wolves team has been apparent against the big hitters this term. Nuno's team have recently beaten Manchester United in league and cup, they knocked Liverpool out of this competition and they've taken points off Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City. However, some of the results against sides who aren't so talented have been a concern. They lost home and away to a Huddersfield side that has already been relegated, they were beaten at Cardiff and lost at Fulham. If Wolves are to break into the top-six cartel next term, they are results that must improve.
That is a concern for later. What matters now is performing in front of the 34,000 Wolves fans (they sold out their allocation) that will make the trip to the capital. It helps that Nuno has no fresh injury concerns, and can play his strongest 11. He has confirmed that cup keeper John Ruddy will once again start ahead of usual first choice Rui Patricio.
Wolves to make it to the final
These are two excellent sides who have been consistently impressive. Watford won their only league meeting this season, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and recent performances against top-class teams give cause for concern for Watford supporters. Wolves have the technical quality and approach of a top-six club, and are perhaps closer to those sides that any other team in the division. Watford's last three games outside Vicarage Road have been a 5-0 defeat at Liverpool, a 3-1 loss at Manchester City, and a somewhat unwarranted 2-1 reverse at Manchester United.
Wolves have a hugely experienced big-game player in Moutinho, who is the kind of guy who could rise above the tension and pull the strings in a match like this.
There won't be much to choose between the teams, but I'll back Wolves in the To Qualify market here at 1.84/5.
Tension may lead to tight tussle
The stakes are very high for both of these teams, as this is a rare opportunity to reach a cup final. Wolves have seen just two of their last nine games feature more than two goals, and they won't take huge risks early on.
Watford's last seven matches have seen an Over 2.5 Goals bet land, and that outcome is trading at 2.245/4, but I just can't get past the idea that the occasion will inspire a bit of caution.
Mexican magic to make the difference
Raul Jimenez has had a breakout season, and has consistently made the difference for Wolves. He has scored in six of his last eight appearances in all competitions. The Mexico striker is 6/4 on the Sportsbook to score in 90 minutes (remember, it doesn't apply to extra time), and that's a bet I'll happily make.
If you use the Same Game Multi feature, you could back Wolves to qualify and Jimenez to score at combined odds of 3.64.