By Kevin Affleck
When the Hornets went to the London Stadium in December, they ran into a West Ham side running hot on the back of four straight wins. The form book didn't worry Javi Gracia’s fearless side one little bit as they executed their Head Coach's game-plan to perfection and ran out 2-0 winners.
The Hammers are in are similarly good form heading into the return fixture at Vicarage Road, winning two on the bounce and drawing the other. Manuel Pellegrini has said “we are going to try and have our revenge” so Gracia knows his team will have to be on their mettle if they are to stop the Irons in their tracks.
“They are improving and they are now playing better than at the beginning,” Gracia said. “They have a very good squad and a very good manager. We know it will be an equal game. The first game we won but it was very equal. We must make the last effort to try and compete in this game like we have done before.”
There is plenty at stake on Sunday. Not only are several cup final spots up for grabs, there is some all-important Premier League prize money at stake. The Hornets could finish ninth, 10th or 11th – a difference of nearly £6million.
“It’s always important to finish well, as best as possible,” said Gracia. “In this case I think it’s more important to finish with a good feeling, to finish the season playing well and trying to get the points in play. It’s important to play a good game, to have good feelings and for the supporters to be proud of us. After that, we will see. Success this season is not the position, not the points. I am living with pride and enjoying this moment.”
The players would not be human if the cup final was not at the back of their minds. With the exception of Roberto Pereyra, who played in a Champions League final, next Saturday's game will be the biggest of their lives.
“All my players are ready to play and are only focused on this game (the West Ham one),” said Gracia. “It’s the way we did it all season. They know the final is waiting but this way we can prepare as best as possible. We have enough time to prepare for the final. We know it is an important game for us, the club and the supporters. It is a day to enjoy and making the last effort to win the trophy. We have the possibility to win that trophy... but the next game is the most important one.”
Gracia was pushed further on the showpiece game with Manchester City, as it’s so hard to escape, and was asked whether the extraordinary comebacks by Liverpool and Tottenham this week fuelled his own belief that anything is possible on May 18.
“Everything is possible, it’s true,” said the Head Coach. “It will be demanding for us playing against City. We are looking forward to the game. This week was something really, really amazing for English football. It speaks very well about English football. All these finals (the Champions League and the Europa League) involve teams in the big six. We are the only team outside of the big six playing for a title.”
Indeed they are. But City can wait for a week. Now the priority is securing a top-ten finish and then the cup-final week can be launched from a position of real strength.