Wilkins warns Hull of pressure that comes with life at the top

Ray Wilkins probably spoke for a lot of people when asked to contemplate Chelsea's game tonight at Hull City. "It's second versus third. At the start of the season you wouldn't have said that nine games in it would be like that, but it's great to see the work they've done there."

The Blues' assistant first-team coach was not being patronising in any way. However, Wilkins, giving a pre-match press conference for the first time since joining the Chelsea payroll in September, laced his heartfelt praise for the work Hull manager Phil Brown has done with a little warning.

It was not in concentrating on the fact that the Tigers' best results have come away from home rather than the KC Stadium – wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and a 3-0 victory at the weekend at West Bromwich Albion – but more that the effort expended in getting to third place before October is out might drain Hull of the ability to continue in this vein.

He said: "You'd have to say he [Brown] is the manager of the season so far, to be where they are [third]. The work ethic is fantastic, so we know we're in for one hell of a game. It wouldn't be beyond them to beat us, like they did the other London clubs.

"It's going to be difficult for them to maintain this start. They play with so much energy and if you're playing with that energy every week for 90 minutes it can be difficult to sustain. In Daniel Cousin, Marlon King and Geovanni, they've got three guys who can score as well. They've amassed 20 points so I'm sure Phil Brown will be looking for the next 20 to make them safe and kick on from there. It's going to be a very difficult season for everybody and for the newly-promoted sides the adrenaline rush is immense. If they can sustain it, all well and good, but it's going to be difficult."

For Chelsea, tonight's match is a chance to prove that losing 1-0 to Liverpool on Sunday, which ended their 86-game unbeaten league run at home, was just "a blip" as Wilkins said. Joe Cole is fit and in the squad but they are still without Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Michael Essien.

Hull's left-back Andy Dawson is hoping to overcome a dead leg. Should he miss out, Brown would be forced into making his first change for five games with Sam Ricketts the most likely to come in. Record signing Anthony Gardner must continue to wait his turn while Stelios Giannakopoulos and Nick Barmby will hope to force their way into contention. Captain Ian Ashbee plays his last game before a one-match ban.

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