Premier League: Expect tension as relegation battle reaches key juncture

The full midweek programme in the Premier League should give us a clearer picture of the relegation battle, says Andy Brassell, who looks at the big six-pointer between Hull and Sunderland and suggests Everton still have plenty to worry about…

This week’s busy Premier League fixture programme will mark an important point in the season. For almost all of the division (the exceptions being the Capital One Cup finalists and their planned opponents last weekend), they will go into the weekend with just ten matches to go in the campaign.

There is little time to pontificate on how it flew by so quickly, particularly at the bottom end of the table. It is, once again, a fascinating relegation battle, with not even bottom team Leicester quite cut off just yet. It is above The Foxes, however, that it gets interesting.

The fixture that really leaps out in the bottom six is obvious. Hull host Sunderland on Tuesday with the Tigers leading their visitors by just a point.

It couldn’t be any more of direct confrontation. Even taking the limited qualities of the bottom four into account and the relatively low points totals needed to stay up in recent seasons, you have to assume that both teams (currently on 26 and 25 points respectively) will need another 10 points apiece to feel anywhere near home.

It is unlikely to be entertaining, despite the tension. The Tigers have scored 14 at home and Sunderland just 10 in away games, and Gus Poyet’s side scored only once in their last five matches (none of which they have won). Against this background, getting on under 2.5 goals at 1.68/13 seems like a no-brainer.

Even better value is probably a Hull win at 2.226/5 (you can combine the two at better than 4.03/1).

There has been a significant degree of turnaround for Steve Bruce’s men since the abject home hammering by Newcastle United at the end of January, with a draw at Manchester City followed by successive home wins, before the narrow weekend loss at Stoke.

Dame N’Doye, who scored the late winner at against QPR in that last game at the KC, looks likely to return tonight while Poyet is obviously missing joint top scorer (if only with four) Adam Johnson.

Knowing the stakes involved are likely to make it difficult for Sunderland to reproduce the freedom with which they played – and almost snared a point with – at Old Trafford on Saturday.

It’s worth looking just outside that bottom six too, with Everton still in trouble – when you get leapfrogged by West Brom it’s not good news, will all due respect to The Baggies – ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Stoke.

They have just 28 points, a fraction more than one per game, and weren’t ruthless enough at a wounded Arsenal on Sunday, especially for a team that had plenty of the ball and began with a front three of Kevin Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley.

Roberto Martínez’s continued positivity and ambition is admirable – why shouldn’t the Europa League be a realistic target given their stellar form in it and the carrot of a Champions League place at the end? The rhetoric is a bit too reminiscent of his time at Wigan for comfort, though.

The coach complained after the game, and not entirely without merit, that his team have had to be “perfect” to win games this season, and have had very little luck. With that in mind, a safety first approach makes sense in the Potteries, even for someone with Martínez’s adventure. There are winnable games against Newcastle (home) and QPR (away) next up, with Burnley, Aston Villa and Sunderland all on the menu for the run-in.

All things considered, the draw looks good at 3.3512/5. Everton need to balance the pragmatic with the pugnacious at Stoke in order to distance themselves from a conversation they’d rather not be a part of.