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From aspiring priest to Watford's saviour – will Dennis prove key in the relegation fight?


Emmanuel Dennis
Emmanuel Dennis joined Watford in the summer from Club Bruges

When fighting for survival in the Premier League, having a clinical goalscorer can be the difference between staying up or going down.

Fortunately for Watford, they have one of the most in-form forwards in the top flight this season – Emmanuel Dennis.

And even more fortunate for the Hornets, an administrative error means they have not lost the Nigeria international to the Africa Cup of Nations this month.

That means he will be available for some crucial fixtures against Watford’s relegation rivals, including Newcastle on Saturday.

So just how big a difference could Dennis make in the battle to stay in the Premier League?

The bargain buy of the season?

Emmanuel Dennis
Emmanuel Dennis has been involved in 13 goals for Watford this season

Rarely is buying a prolific goalscorer a cheap endeavour in the Premier League. So on their top-flight return last summer, Watford completed some shrewd business when they signed Dennis from Club Bruges for a reported £3.6m.

Dennis had a decent record in Belgium, scoring around a goal every three games, and has continued to strike regularly at Watford.

He is the Hornets’ top scorer with eight goals in 17 appearances while his five assists means he has contributed to 59% of all Watford’s goals in the Premier League this season.

None of the bottom three sides have a player who has scored as many goals as Dennis, while none of their top scorers have provided any assists, underlining just how important he is to Watford.

Player Club Goals Assists Total goal contribution
Emmanuel Dennis Watford 8 5 13
Maxwel Cornet Burnley 6 0 6
Callum Wilson Newcastle 6 0 6
Teemu Pukki Norwich 5 0 5

From hopeful priest to prolific scorer

Despite his talent, the young Dennis did not have a burning ambition to be a footballer.

Having attended church from a young age with his parents, he dreamed of becoming a priest – but those impressed by his football ability persuaded him and his family that he should pursue a sporting career.

He joined Accademia di Abuja in his native Nigeria when he was 13 before moving to Ukrainian club Zorya Luhansk in 2016.

Emmanuel Dennis
Emmanuel Dennis marked his goals for Club Bruges against Real Madrid in the Champions League by mimicking Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebration

Dennis scored on his professional debut, the moment tempered slightly as he received a booking for his “excessive celebrating”, but he caught the eye with his pace and impressive movement and it wasn’t long before clubs from some of the biggest clubs in Europe were attending games to watch the youngster.

In the end he moved to Club Bruges where he continued to impress, most notably catching the eye with two goals against Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2019, marking his feat by mimicking former Bernabeu favourite Cristiano Ronaldo’s iconic celebration.

“I said to my friend before the game, I will score and I will do the celebration,” he said in an interview with Watford’s website.

“My friend said ‘no’ but I was like: ‘OK, you will see.'”

Those two goals enhanced his developing reputation and Manchester United and Arsenal – the club Dennis supported growing up – were both linked with the player. Club Bruges reportedly said no, and ended up accepting a cut-price deal with the Hornets as his contract ran down.

Firepower gives Watford relegation fight advantage?

Watford have lost their past seven games under Claudio Ranieri, with former England striker Chris Sutton telling BBC Radio 5 Live he is “amazed” the Italian hasn’t already been sacked after becoming the club’s 14th manager in 10 years when he replaced Xisco Munoz in October.

Sutton, though, has been impressed by Dennis – a player he feels is an attacking improvement on former club captain Troy Deeney, who left in August after 11 years at Vicarage Road.

“They are going backwards,” he said. “Dennis is an upgrade on Deeney, though, and his goals could still be very important.

“In the past, Watford’s gut instinct has been right to sack managers but for some reason they aren’t pulling the trigger this time, even though performances have not been good enough.”

Watford’s game against Newcastle is a significant one in the relegation battle.

If Watford win, they will move five points clear of their opponents and, potentially, the relegation zone. If Newcastle win they will move above the Hornets and, potentially, out of the bottom three, although Ranieri’s side will have a game in hand.

Burnley, meanwhile, have the most games in hand of anyone in the bottom four – one on Watford, two on Newcastle and three on Norwich.

table

But the Clarets’ form has been poor for sometime now and they appear set to lose a key player in Chris Wood, who is closing on a move to Newcastle.

Norwich look the club most in danger as they sit bottom of the table, three points adrift of safety and having played more games than any of their rivals.

None of the bottom of three have scored as many goals as Watford, with Dennis alone having scored five more than the entire Norwich team and just three fewer than the Burnley squad.

If Watford are to pull themselves out of trouble, then Dennis maintaining his form from the first half of the season will no doubt be key to that.

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