ALL EYES will be on the centre of the Watford defence today when the Hornets look to continue their sparkling away form at Deepdale.

Adrian Mariappa is vying with Matt Jackson to fill the huge void left by Dan Shittu, the goalscoring centre-half who joined up with Nigeria for the African Cup of Nations this week.

Although Shittu is prone to the occasional calamitous moment, he has emerged as a key figure in Watford's promotion bid. Shittu's pace and ability to bully the opposition centre forward will be sorely missed as will his aerial prowess in the opposition box where he provides a real focal point for the Hornets' set pieces. Mariappa and Jackson know they have big shoes to fill.

"Dan has been immense," said Malky MacKay, a defender of some distinction during his playing days.

"Seven goals from centre half is a great return and he will be a real loss to us. You could flip that and say the experience he is going to get at the African Nations Cup will hopefully make him an even better player. But I'd rather he was here, obviously."

MacKay raised the fans' hopes of a comeback when lined up for the Reserves in midweek but he has ruled himself out of contention and it looks like being straight fight between the experienced Jackson and the exuberant Mariappa.

"Matt is an experienced professional who has been round a long time," said Mackay on his close friend. "His qualities as a leader are second to none and one of the reasons why the manager brought him to the club.

"He's a fantastic pro and a good ambassador for the club. He has words with some of the youngsters every day in training and that's an aspect many people don't see. He hasn't played a lot but he's had an effect on a lot of people and that isn't to be underestimated."

Jackson looks likely to get the nod as Mariappa played at right back for the Reserves against Orient while the former Everton man was presumably kept fresh for tomorrow. MacKay, though, expects Mariappa's time to come.

"He's a delight to work with every day," said the Scot. "His attitude is exceptional and he constantly wants to learn. He's always asking questions and he handled himself very well in the Premiership last year.

"There will be times this season when he will be called upon and Saturday (tomorrow) might be one of them."

One option could be to move Lloyd Doyley inside and pitch Adrian Mariappa at right back.

"On the whole, Lloyd has been one of our best players this season and really has come to the fore," explained MacKay.

"He has played at centre half and he could play there and Aidy could play at right back but the fact that Lloyd has been steady and stable and has improved the attacking aspect of his game means he is the number one right back."