Hull must beat relegated Sunderland in agonising fight for survival
For four weekends in a row the two-point gap between Hull City and Swansea City has steadfastly held firm. Stumble has mirrored stumble in this two-horse race for Premier League survival; victory matched with victory.
The pattern continued last weekend as the Tigers' 0-0 draw at Southampton was followed up by the Swans' spirited point away to Manchester United the next day. For good and for bad, these two relegation rivals are shadowing one another's movements as the finishing post approaches.
Marco Silva would gladly accept this status quo all the way through to May 21 but there will be a hope that this weekend can bring City a decisive advantage. In the hours before Swansea host Everton at the Liberty Stadium, nothing less than a win will do for the Tigers at home to Sunderland.
The timing of this fixture is perfect for Silva and his side. Although there can be nothing taken for granted against an opponent that won the previous meeting 3-0 at the Stadium of Light in November, there is a gilded opportunity to ramp up the pressure on Swansea.
A fifth straight home win for City would leave Swansea with it all to do. Paul Clement's side deserved credit for responding with a draw at Old Trafford last weekend but the margin for error would be tiny were they to fall five points behind with just three games left for them to cancel that lead out. Psychologically, it would be some hurdle to overcome with the pressures rising.
Silva maintains he cares little for the fortunes of Swansea and there is a logic to his inward view. Without taking care of business at home to Sunderland on Saturday, survival will no longer be in Hull City hands. Without taking three points, it will undoubtedly be advantage Swansea.
The Tigers, you feel, might still need another four points to avoid relegation. A win is needed somewhere from these last three games and few would want to bank on it coming away to Crystal Palace or at home to Tottenham on the final day.
Slipping up against Sunderland does not feel an option. A side already relegated from the Premier League has to be beaten. Sugar-coating a draw would need a wheelbarrow full of the sweet stuff. A defeat, meanwhile, is unthinkable.
Not that Hull City fans will be taking anything for granted. Recent history has taught supporters to be very wary of these fixtures. In 2012-13, with promotion out of the Championship in the palm of their hand, Steve Bruce's men drew 0-0 to a Bristol City side that were already condemned to League One. That season eventually had a happy ending but two years later there was no such reprieve. A 1-0 defeat at home to Burnley, who were relegated from the Premier League that very day, meant there was no way back for the Tigers. There and then, they were handcuffed to a drowning man.
The warnings are there to guard against complacency. So, too, is the record of City having never won a Premier League game in the month of May. Yet there is a confidence in the class of 2016-17 that still encourages belief.
That was again evident in the 0-0 draw at Southampton. It needed Eldin Jakupovic's 90th minute penalty save to earn that precious 34th point but there was no doubts City had deserved something from St Mary's. They had played with poise and control. Had they found a cutting edge, it could well have been a win.
There is no point pretending Swansea's point at Manchester United the following day did not hurt, reducing a three-point gap back to two, yet repeating the performance that frustrated Southampton will give the Tigers a chance of taking points in each of their three remaining games. There should be nothing to fear playing like that.
Certainly not at home. And not against Sunderland. Silva's remarkable record of 19 points from his seven Premier League games at the KCOM Stadium is almost as many as Sunderland's haul for the entire season. The Black Cats have failed to score in nine of their last 10 games and are surely there for the taking.
The level of expectation will bring its own pressures but failing to extend this long-standing two-point lead to five points, if only for a few hours, would leave City requiring favours from elsewhere.
Philip Buckingham is ESPN FC's Hull City blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @PJBuckingham.