Just when you thought it was safe to look over your shoulder, the relegation shark is back biting at your heels. And so it is for both Sunderland and Stoke City, who could have been forgiven for thinking that they were well on their way to doing enough to maintain their Premier League status for another season.
Yet the way the table looks ahead of their Monday night meeting at the Stadium of Light, anybody who thought survival had been secured looks to have been spectacularly wrong and this is now set to be one the most dramatic relegation battles in Premier League history.
All of sudden, the ‘magic 40-point mark’ looks like it might not be so magic after all, and it has left everybody in the bottom half thinking they need another result in the next couple of weeks to ensure they won’t be dropping into the Championship.
Wigan Athletic’s win at West Brom has been the prompt, and if the Latics were to win their game in hand on Tuesday against a Swansea City side that are safe, Roberto Martinez’s men will be out of the relegation zone having amassed 38 points.
That leaves the teams currently sat on 40 points with more work to do – and that includes Stoke, who must have thought after two wins in succession over Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City that they had done enough for a sixth straight year of top-flight football.
But it now looks as though Tony Pulis’ side will need at least a point from their last three games, two of which are away from home, where they traditionally struggle.
For Sunderland, the situation is even starker. When the Blacks Cats won successive games of their own against Newcastle United and Everton, you were getting in excess of 20/1 on the Wearsiders to be relegated.
Yet a 6-1 mauling at Aston Villa, coupled with other results, means that Paolo Di Canio’s side are now fourth-bottom, just two points ahead of Wigan, and could be in the relegation zone come Wednesday morning.
It all makes Monday’s game a massive one, and it has to be said that I am not anticipating a classic. Sunderland are the 21/20 favourites, with the draw at 11/5 and the away win a 27/10 chance, and none of those prices particularly appeal.
Stoke have won just two of their last 26 away league games, one of which was against hapless QPR last time out, so you’re mad if you think backing them is the way to go, while Sunderland have won just five home games all year, so they appear on the short side given the way they played at Villa Park.
So for me, the play here is unders on the goals.
Odds of 57/100 for under 2.5 goals are shorter than you might normally find for a Premier League game, but that is with good reason – these sides are among the most dour in the division.
Only QPR have scored fewer goals at home than Sunderland, who have managed just 18 in their 17 fixtures at the Stadium of Light.
Stoke are even worse on the road, as they have managed only 11 goals in their 17 away games, sharing the joint-worst record with West Ham, and have drawn a shockingly bad nine blanks in their 17 trips, a record only worsened by Swansea.
An incredible 66% of Stoke’s games have seen under 2.5 goals – 23 of their 35 fixtures – and no side has seen fewer goals in their fixtures than the Potters.
Yet no ground has seen fewer goals this term than the Stadium of Light, with just 35 goals in 17 games at an average of just over two goals per match, and I strongly believe this will continue on Monday.
As such, I would even advise a go on the 33/20 there are under 1.5 goals. A total of 16 of Stoke’s games have seen under 1.5 goals this season, easily the most in the division and another quite amazing statistic.
Nine of those have come on the road, including three of their last five trips, and it could easily happen again up on Wearside, where goals are at such a premium.
Eight of Sunderland’s 17 home games have not even produced two goals, including four of their last six, and without the injured Steven Fletcher and suspended Stephane Sessegnon, it is hard to see where the hosts’ goals could come from, especially against a Stoke rearguard that is the sixth-meanest on the road in the division.
But Sunderland boast the fifth-best home defensive record, too, and it is hard to ever envisage Stoke scoring as soon as they leave Sir Stanley Matthews Way.
So whatever way you look at it, there can’t be many goals and if the 57/100 on under 2.5 looks like buying money, take a chance that there is one goal or fewer at 33/20.