There aren’t many players who enjoy the rigorous training sessions that are undertaken during pre-season but none doubt their importance.

So an injury-hit pre-season leads to frustration, as defender Joel Ekstrand admits.

The Swedish international picked up an ankle injury during Watford’s summer trip to Italy. He missed several of the Hornets’ warm-up matches and had to watch from the sidelines on the opening day of the Championship season.

“It’s been very hard,” the 24-year-old explained. “It is important to get a good pre-season and I didn’t get that, so it has been frustrating. I pushed it and maybe that is why I have been out a bit longer than I normally should.

“We changed my rehab work and the latest work has been really good. I am going to have to keep working on my foot and hopefully nothing will happen.”

Ekstrand had to be patient after returning from his ankle problem but has played 90 minutes in Watford’s last two matches.

But the centre-back, who joined the Hornets permanently in the summer after spending the previous campaign on loan at Vicarage Road, is not taking his place in the team for granted and is looking forward to battling for a starting position in Gianfranco Zola's side.

He said: “I like the competition. At the end of last year there were only three or four defenders and that wasn’t ideal.

“It is good to have competition and it is only positive.

“I am not saying I am confident that I will play but I like the competition and the best players should play.

“I need to prove in training that I should play every game. It is just a case of showing the manager you want to start games.”

In his last two matches, Ekstrand has played alongside four different central defensive partners.

In the weekend defeat to Blackpool he started alongside Gabriele Angella and Marco Cassetti, while against Bournemouth in the League Cup, Reece Brown and Essaïd Belkalem joined the Swede in the Hornets backline.

Algerian centre-back Belkalem was the Hornets’ final summer signing and made his debut in the win. He may have only played next to him for 90 minutes but Ekstrand believes Belkalem is a player who has big potential.

“He is strong, he is fast and I think he will be a good addition for us,” Ekstrand explained. “Obviously I don’t know him that well yet but as a person, he is very calm and very nice.”

Ekstrand was handed the captain’s armband against the Cherries and described the experience of leading the side as an honour and something which left him very proud.

“I was here last year and gave my all for the club,” he said. “Even though it was a cup game, it didn’t matter. It means a lot. It gives me that extra confidence, especially after my start to the season. It is only positive.”

Ekstrand was an important first team player for Watford last season and made 36 appearances during the campaign.

But is this season’s squad stronger than the one which agonisingly missed out on the Premier League last term?

“It is a little bit too early," Ekstrand said. “But I feel we have a bigger squad and it is maybe a bit better this year.

“Everybody knows each other from the start of the season which we didn’t have last year. Because of that we struggled in the beginning. We are a very good team, very confident. But we had a very good team last year as well.”

While seven of his teammates will represent their countries this weekend, Ekstrand did not receive a call up to the Sweden squad for their World Cup qualifers against the Republic of Ireland and Kazakhstan.

He has been capped once by his country and says representing Sweden at next summer’s World Cup in Brazil would be “the biggest thing you can do”.

However, he insists that is not currently on his mind and added: “I just want to get back to playing here regularly, that is my main focus. If I do that then I have a chance of getting back to the Sweden squad.”