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Stefano Okaka at Watford: Why didn’t things work out?

2:21 am AEDT 10/1/19
Stefano Okaka Watford 2017
The Italian-Nigerian forward leaves Vicarage Road after failing to make his mark in the Premier League


Stefano Okaka’s time in the Premier League appears to have come to an end, with Watford shipping him out to sister club Udinese on loan on Tuesday.

The 29-year-old Italy international, who’s still eligible for Nigeria, made a strong early impression after arriving at Vicarage Road, but ultimately leaves having failed to make the impact that was expected of him in the top flight.

While he departs only until the season’s end, but the chances of him returning to Hertfordshire—at least in any meaningful capacity—appear slim.

The forward ends his time at Watford with only five goals in 39 appearances for the Hornets, playing under a series of coaches during his two-and-a-half-year stay, but always struggling for consistency.

His opportunities have been particularly limited this term, where he managed just 22 PL minutes—and failed to score—before being shown the door.

It’s a low-key exit considering the quality he demonstrated on occasion, and while Javi Gracia was able to revitalise Isaac Success, he was unable to repeat the trick with the powerful ex-AS Roma man.

Okaka, who scored on his Italy debut back in 2014, made his Watford bow as they came from behind to beat West Ham United 4-2 away in September 2016.

He sought to bully the Hammers’ defence—admittedly beleaguered on the day—relentlessly, dribbling towards them, shaking off his markers, and ultimately found the net, only for his close-range effort to be ruled out.

In something of a microcosm of his Watford career, he was forced off with injury before the final whistle, leaving Walter Mazzarri’s side with 10 men.

Notably, there was also the two-goal showing in the 3-2 victory against Everton in December 2016—four months after he had joined from Anderlecht.

His opening goal—to level the scores at 1-1—was a delightful back-heel that demonstrated his confidence and composure.

His second, to give Watford a 3-1 lead, was a thumping header as he rose above the Everton backline and beat Maarten Stekelenburg with a powerful effort.

It was an outing that showcased his technical quality, his athleticism and his physical prowess.

Even when he wasn’t scoring, Okaka, who had never been the most prolific forward, appeared to have the strength and the appetite to trouble Premier League backlines.

However, injuries steadily took their toll, and after managing 955 minutes across 19 outings in his first season, he would manage just 446 last term, starting only three games.

"I didn't play much at Watford, but I scored some important goals,” he told Udinese’s website. “I've encountered lots of problems in my career, including on a personal level.

"I had an injury at the end of last season and that was an issue at the start of this term too. A player of my size needs time to get fit but I'm hungry and I want to play.”

At least now Okaka has the opportunity to get his career back on track and rediscover the form that he showed—in patches—during spells at various clubs across Europe.

"My experience in England has been very beneficial,” he added. “The Premier League is a difficult league.

"I've come here with the aim of doing well. I'll give my all to realise my dreams and those of Udinese.”

The Serie A side should be glad to have him, and Okaka’s fortunes should improve in a league that he knows well, and where he’s already caught the eye—notably with Sampdoria in 2013-14.

"Okaka is strong physically, and good at defending the ball,” said Udinese’s technical director Daniele Prade, as per the Watford Observer. “He is strong in the air and inside the penalty area.”

He falls into a category of forward whose strength and power set him apart in Europe’s less physical leagues, but who got lost in the shuffle in the intensity of the Prem.

It was a similar story for Vincent Janssen, Jozy Altidore, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Islam Slimani and Kostas Mitroglou, who were able to boss defences in the continent, but struggled when faced with more superior athletes in the top tier.

Okaka’s time in England may ultimately have been forgettable, but fitness permitting, he can still demonstrate his class elsewhere.