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May 9, 2014

Victory in finale would be good prep for cup final

In among photo-shoots and suit fittings, the final days of Hull City's Premier League season has barely had room for a mention of Everton. Roberto Martinez's side are the final opponents of the campaign at a sold-out KC Stadium, but the sparkle of silverware has left City blind to what stands right in front of them.

- Report: Meyler escapes FA action

FA Cup finals are like that; a beautiful, all-consuming distraction. A return to Wembley on May 17 has been the only topic of conversation at the club's training ground for weeks. The tactics room even became a makeshift tailors shop for a day. And why not? With Premier League survival and a place in the Europa League already sewn up, there is every reason to enjoy this moment.

Even manager Steve Bruce struggles to pick fault with this blinkered conclusion to the season. "It's normal for a club of our size to be swept away with the final," he said with an air of acceptance on Friday. In the four games since beating Sheffield United 5-3 in the semifinal last month, City have taken just one point to fall a long way below their standards set this term.

Few will expect that to alter on Sunday. Against an Everton side that will finish fifth in the table and join the Tigers in next season's Europa League, Bruce's weakened side will almost certainly be shorn of the intensity that has run through their season. In a 3-1 defeat against Manchester United on Tuesday night, it was unclear if City ever climbed above third gear.

This weekend's clash with Everton would appear to be another fixture short on significance, but there are still a couple of subplots to raise its status far above the meaningless.

First is the financial reward on offer. If the sums are to be believed and each place in the table is worth an additional 1.3 million pounds in prize money, the difference between victory and defeat at the KC Stadium could be as much as 6.5 million pounds. The Tigers can climb as high as 13th (Sunderland hosting Swansea denies the possibility of 12th) but could fall as low as 17th, and for a club intent on washing its own face in the transfer market, this is not loose change.

City also owe it to themselves. A late blow to the balance sheets would not please the club's hierarchy, but defeat to Everton would also do a disservice to a bright campaign. This is a side that was never lower than 14th for eight months of the season. Somehow the current standing of 16th does not look quite right for a team that never once had to panic in the fight for survival. To finish 17th, the club’s highest ever standing recorded in 2008-09, would be a flat finale.

There are certain players who will be desperate to ensure that fate is avoided. Matty Fryatt, a guaranteed starter at Wembley in the words of Bruce, could make his full Premier League debut this weekend in what could also be his last appearance at the KC Stadium. He might not need confidence after a lovely goal at Old Trafford in midweek, but he does need time under his belt.

So, too, do Allan McGregor and Paul McShane. Bruce would dearly love to see both of his long-term absentees thrust their hands up high in the air for Wembley contention, but it is hard to make a case for their inclusion without a smooth return against Everton on Sunday. Throwing either player in at the deep end against Arsenal without a start in months would be a risk Bruce is unwilling to take.

The City boss says he has a side in mind to combat the Gunners. It will be more cautious than cavalier and gambles will be kept at a premium. That does not bode well for Sone Aluko and James Chester. Both would ordinarily have turned their focus towards the next season, but the lure of the FA Cup final means they are refusing to succumb to their injuries. A place on the bench is surely the best either player can hope for with so much at stake.

Bruce faces big decisions in a big week and for now he might be well advised to join his side in enjoying the moment this weekend. The KC Stadium is ready to salute a side that has never been higher than in 2013-14. For 90 minutes, no more or less, there will be the opportunity to forget Wembley and everything that goes with it.