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The relegation battle continues

In a sense, this year’s Premier League relegation has been both a forgone conclusion and a captivating fight that will probably go to the death. While Sunderland and Middlesbrough have put up a rather meagre fight as the season enters the home straight, both Hull City and Swansea City have set about achieving their goal of survival with real vigour with just two games to go.

One place remains, with as many as three teams in the fight to avoid disaster. Crystal Palace may have enough points, with 38, to stop themselves joining the North East duo in the Championship next season, but off the back of a 5-0 defeat at Manchester City, they sit just three points above Swansea, who in turn are one above Hull and out of the bottom three by a neck.

Twists and turns can and will happen. Before the weekend’s fixtures, Paul Clement’s Swansea, who hosted Everton, were in the drop zone and facing the second tier for the first time in six years despite beating Liverpool away, Southampton at home and, most recently, drawing with Manchester United at Old Trafford since the Englishman took over in January.

That was because Hull, under Portuguese Marco Silva, a 39-year-old coach unknown to the English media, were facing already relegated Sunderland having not lost at home since before he took over around the same time as Clement. Many believe changing manager, and the timing of doing so, is why Crystal Palace, Swansea and Hull are all still battling when Middlesbrough and Sunderland aren’t.


Silva impressing

In fact, Silva hadn’t lost a home game for three years whilst in charge of Greek giants Olympiakos and Sporting Lisbon and Estoril in his homeland. But still, when he arrived in England, Sky Sports pundits Paul Merson and Phil Thompson met him with derision and contempt.

When Mike Phelan was in charge at the KCOM Stadium, the Tigers looked doomed, but Silva and Clement are an example to anyone in a similar situation of how to turn a club around on and off the pitch. Players have come and gone at Hull, but the impact of Silva has been much more general. His self-confidence is infectious, allowing his tactical nous to take centre stage, much like his coaching idol Jose Mourinho. Everything is in place for the Humberside club to build something special.

Or perhaps, it was. Very few, if anyone, saw defeat to Sunderland coming, but a week after their own fate was sealed, the Black Cats broke the status quo by clinching a 2-0 victory. Hull’s lack of composure and intensity and even Silva’s poor substitutions gave Swansea the initiative, which they duly grabbed by beating Ronald Koeman’s Toffees 1-0.

So, after weeks of hard work and getting the whole club into a position where survival looked not only possible but also likely, Silva is once again running against the wind. His legacy has already been written, his reputation enhanced. The obsessive that Silva is, he’ll be desperate to see the job through, but whatever happens, he will have opportunities to fulfil his Premier League dream a lot longer than two more games.


Clubs are watching with interest

Confusion over his contract was cleared up last week, with reports suggesting he is signed up until the end of next season but does have a break clause should relegation occur, as opposed to his deal ending at full time against Tottenham Hotspur on the final day.

Southampton could part company with Claude Puel after the Frenchman’s less than satisfactory debut season at St Mary’s. Before the Sunderland game, Silva was mentioned as a possible successor and his meticulous nature would make him every bit as successful as Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were, prior to Puel, on the South Coast.

Outgoing champions Leicester City are yet to announce a permanent successor to Claudio Ranieri. The Foxes could do much, much worse.

Does the Sunderland result change anything? The wider question is, does Silva need to save Hull to have another go at the Premier League? Answering both swiftly, no. Perspective is needed when judging his performance, because taking into account the sense of apathy from the players to the fans under Phelan and the disastrous transfer window last summer, keeping them up would be a miracle.


The job isn’t done yet

Having not amended their away form, Silva’s magic has not worked to the full effect. Failure to win on the road means any error at home could be fatal, and the loss to Sunderland, coupled with a late draw against Burnley, is what could send the Tigers down just a year after their playoff final win.

Of course, things can turn as dramatically as they did here. Hull travel to a nervy Crystal Palace next week, but relegation-battling master Sam Allardyce may well look to take a point. The Eagles have terrible home form and were the last side to lose to Sunderland, but a draw would all but save them and leave Hull sweating for the visit of Spurs, while Swansea head up to Wearside before facing West Brom.

Northern football on the whole has reached a new low with possibly three teams from the wider region suffering relegation. Hull had done the hard work of pulling away, but the pendulum has swung at the worst possible moment.


Marco Silva has proven any doubters or ill-informed pundits wrong. He is the latest in a long line of intelligent, tactically aware coaches whose work has shone in the Premier League. There will be a good number of chairmen asking for his phone number in the summer, regardless of the outcome of Hull City’s survival battle.

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