Tricky trip to resurgent Sunderland

8 February ~ Two months ago, a trip to Wearside would have looked a good bet for points for Hull City, with Sunderland in Paolo di Canio-inspired disarray and the top flight new boys coping well with promotion. Now with Gus Poyet having got a grip on his team, Adam Johnson flying and City’s mediocre away form in danger of turning into a complex, the picture looks different. The gap between the two sides has shrunk from ten points when they last met in November to goal difference today.

This change is in keeping with the contraction in the bottom half of the Premier League over recent weeks. It now resembles an Upper Championship, such is its suddenly enthralling competitiveness. Everyone from 11th down, including Sunderland and City, is currently within one defeat of dropping into the bottom three.

Rather than a tense, nervy relegation scrap, though, there are grounds for anticipating an exciting contest at the Stadium of Light this afternoon. Sunderland’s ebullient form has earned them a triumphant homecoming after demolishing local rivals Newcastle last weekend and while Hull have lost four out of their last five league games, two of those were against top four sides; the Tigers could easily have come away with more from the trips to Norwich and Crystal Palace, despite putting in below-par performances on both occasions.

Hull certainly need to get a grip on their away form but they are not in as bad a shape as recent results might suggest. A solid effort in drawing at home against Tottenham last time out steadied nerves and featured the first goal from the new striking duo of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long. The signs are that their partnership will gel quickly and that Jelavic is rapidly approaching full match sharpness. Their acquisition looks to be as close as a club of City’s current stature could have got to a guarantee of the goals they were missing in tight games.

Better still, Long and Jelavic’s arrival has been followed by the return to fitness of the team’s most creative players, Robbie Brady and, soon (although, sadly, probably not this weekend), Sone Aluko. This should relieve the pressure on Tom Huddlestone and give him the chance to remind the watching Roy Hodgson just how well suited his mastery of possession is for mid-summer in Manaus. If the Tigers’ generally tight defence can contain Johnson, then a point or better should not be beyond them. Paul Knott

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