At this late stage of the season form followers will be looking for matches that count for something, where both teams are sure to be competitive, and nothing fits that mould better this weekend than the crunch relegation battle between Sunderland and Leicester City at the Stadium of Light.
Both teams moved within touching distance of safety with victory last weekend and another three points on Saturday might well be enough to keep them in the Premier League. Equally, defeat could cause another attack of the jitters, depending on results for Hull and Newcastle.
On form there is no question Leicester have the best credentials and they rate the pick on the draw no bet at 19/20 – or off 0 on the Asian handicap on the Exchange if the odds are better nearer kick-off.
Nigel Pearson’s men are close to pulling off one of the greatest escapes in the history of top-flight football. In late March, with 29 games played, they had only 19 points and were seven points adrift of safety. Since then, however, they have almost doubled their points tally in just seven games – winning six and losing only to champions Chelsea.
Before the start of Leicester’s remarkable run, Sunderland were the team that were seven points ahead of them in the last safe spot but now they have fallen a point behind Leicester (albeit that the Mackems have played two games fewer in that period).
Leicester’s climb off the bottom of the table and out of the relegation places may come to be described as miraculous if they secure their Premier League status, but there are some solid form explanations for the improvement.
One is that their fixture list has eased towards the end of the season. From the start of January to late March, five of their 10 league games were against big-six teams, whereas Chelsea are the only elite team they have had to play since then.
Leicester’s underlying form against lower-ranked sides has been quite good for several months – only one defeat against a current bottom-half team since early December, and that was against Crystal Palace just as they started their own upward march under Alan Pardew – and in that context it is not that surprising that they have been able to beat West Brom, Burnley and Newcastle in recent weeks.
But the Foxes have also picked up wins against higher-class sides like Southampton and Swansea, possibly as a result of growing confidence but also because of personnel and tactical changes.
The arrival of Robert Huth on loan from Stoke has made a clear difference in defence, with five clean sheets in his 12 games (Leicester had four clean sheets from 29 prior to that). Four of those shutouts came in the last five games – again, the sole exception was the 3-1 home defeat by Chelsea.
With Huth bringing more security in central defence, another key factor has been the deployment of Jeff Schlupp and Marc Albrighton as attacking wing-backs – Leicester have won all four games with that formation in recent weeks.
The question mark with this game is whether Leicester will continue with that daring approach or play more conservatively in the knowledge that a point may be enough – depending on Hull’s result at Tottenham, a game Andy Brassell discusses here – and their last match is home to relegated QPR.
Sunderland, too, may be inclined to make sure of a point first and foremost.
While that could be a dangerous tactic for both clubs, the draw has to be a runner. Given Leicester’s low defeat rate against bottom-half teams for several months now, they should take something from the game and it could well be another three points.
Back Leicester on Draw No Bet v Sunderland at 19/20 (Sportsbook) (1pt)
Staked: 77 pts
Returned: 79.79 pts
P/L: +2.79 pts