Sunday, 9 November 2008

12: Hull City 0 - 1 Bolton Wanderers - 08/11/2008

The word 'watershed' never seems more appropriate after defeat to Bolton Wanderers at the KC Stadium. For all the glory, the attention, the faint ridiculousness of our spell in the Premier League sunshine, the autumn of the season is underway and we have much still to do. Anyone who thought the season was sewn up just because we caught Arsenal, Newcastle and Tottenham on bad days has little experience of the way seasons can fluctuate.

This wasn't a good game, by anyone's standards. A bitty, cautious affair which only sporadically provided excitement and drama, the majority of which came via the plunges and glovework of Jussi Jaaskelainen, the long-serving Bolton goalkeeper. Phil Brown remembers him well, rates him highly. Jasskelainen spent the majority of the second half reminding him exactly why.

Quite how City failed to score is something only the gods can answer. Jaaskelainen may himself decide he was a little lucky, but he can only do so much to prevent the ball hitting his net - anticipate, position and throw himself in the way as best he can. He did all of this and City's finishing, which wasn't especially casual or inaccurate, was simply not up to the Finnish stopper's standards.

The Tigers were the dominant side, but Bolton were suitably robust and dogged, qualities which have never left them despite Brown's right-hand and Sam Allardyce's much-measured presence being a rather distant memory. Gary Megson is not a popular figure, and there is something unappealing by the way he seems to continue bawling at his players without always purveying a decent reason for it, but he has instilled a work ethic and a resistance in a group of players for whom such attributes remain fundamental to their continuing survival as a top tier side.

Brown picked the standard XI. Ian Ashbee returned to the midfield after his suspension and Bryan Hughes, his replacement at Manchester United, was notably jettisoned from the whole teamsheet. It was as you were otherwise, with wider options like Bernard Mendy, Peter Halmosi and Richard Garcia still having to wait for the formation to crumble before their chance to shine as a starter comes along.

The edginess of the opening period was plain for all to see, and plain is also apt as a description of the football on offer. Bolton enjoyed using the height and shielding skills of the excellent, vastly underrated Kevin Davies as the classic centre forward role he portrays better than a lot proved crucial in their retention of the ball. The midfield structure allowed the more cultured Matthew Taylor and the industrious one-cap wonder Gavin McCann to make forays for Davies to find, though returning striker Johan Elmander was one visitor suffering an off-day.

Geovanni was in a deeper role, scheming, observing. His left foot strike after 14 minutes represented the first serious effort at either goal. Jaaskelainen saved, low down. The Brazilian then found space on the left to clip a clever ball towards the penalty area where Marlon King's improvisation nearly embarrassed Jaaskelainen when he moved his heel at the ball as it sailed behind him, only for it to get the connection all tricksters wish for, and the ball looped over the Fin and touched the angle of post and bar.

The goalkeeper would subsequently make sure that this was the only time he was beaten.

Elmander wastefully put one wide from Davies' insightful knockdown as Bolton cleared their lines, creating their first chance through the unfancied but effective route one manner. City, back at the other end, attacked with purpose again, but Daniel Cousin headed George Boateng's cross disappointingly too high.

It isn't pretty, this. But it is fascinating. The Tiger Nation are a little quiet. Perhaps the educated among them are understanding that after showbiz games against Manchester United and Chelsea, that sizing up less heralded opposition has to be part of the game plan prior to a frontier of all-out attacking. And Bolton are no mugs. They're streetwise, schooled well in this Premier League lark and were under no illusions about the sort of party-pooping policy they needed to adopt. They've done it many times before, be it against a club expecting to trample on them on their way to a Champions League place, or the newly-arrived upstart with ideas apparently above their station.

Boaz Myhill nearly ruins it by chasing an overhit cross he was never going to reach, and City were fortunate that the listless Elmander didn't anticipate Ricardo Gardner's return ball across an empty net. This was the last element of opportunity of the half, and 0-0 was reflective of a nervy, tactical spectacle which wasn't out-and-out thrilling, but certainly had intrigue.

The second half, and Bolton grab the opening goal. Sucker punch stuff. A corner on the left is swung in and two City defenders have separate goes at heading clear. Neither really make a good job of it, and the ball bounces in front of Taylor who guides a shot beyond the unsighted Myhill and in at his near post. Taylor's left peg has, famously, found the net from much longer distances than this, but the importance of the goal makes the tidiness of it entirely irrelevant. Bolton's large contingent of extremely bombastic support go rightly wild, and there's a new task ahead of the Tigers.

Brown makes a change quickly, withdrawing Cousin and introducing the unpredictable Mendy, whose entrance gets as large an ovation from the visiting support as it does from the Tiger Nation. Instantly, he's in the action, providing the width that a full back in a 4-3-3 can't provide, and with Paul McShane providing good support, the enigmatic Frenchman becomes City's main target when starting fresh assaults on the Bolton goal.

Dean Marney is fouled on the edge of the box and Geovanni wants this. After the stylish set-piece he swerved in at Tottenham, he should always be backed to make a keeper work. But Jaaskelainen has so much more on that clown in the Spurs net, and he flies across his goal to fist out the Brazilian's curling, placed and definitely goalbound effort. A fine save. Finer would come, still.

Mendy then takes a King flick and his persistence gets him to the byline. The clip back is gorgeous, but nobody is there to anticipate it. A waste, and a pity. Brown brings on Sam Ricketts in a straight swap for Andy Dawson, which could be for injury or for extra mobility down the other flank to complement Mendy's work. It may well be both.

City begin to put the squeeze on, and Bolton's rearguard responds. You have to admire them for it. Marney's free kick is fabulously delivered and Geovanni heads the equaliser. Like Peter Lorimer at Wembley in 1973, the players and supporters were celebrating a goal, such was the obviousness of the ball's destination. But Jaaskelainen had alternative ideas. He dived in anticipation and hope and judged the header immaculately as the ball struck his legs and bounced out; even then he had a moment to get up and deny Michael Turner the spoils from the rebound.

Unbelievable. But City were undeterred. There was surely a leveller to be had here. Brown takes off Boateng and slings on Caleb Folan, essentially making it a 4-2-4, with Mendy playing further forward than even his crazy, directionless habits would permit. Bolton have one counter attack, as sub Ebi Smolarek gets on the end of a Jaaskelainen punt, gets through Kamil Zayatte and across Turner before shooting over. It's brief respite.

Geovanni shoots at goal from a narrow but gettable angle, and the Fin saves again, and saves well. King then gets a yard as he cuts in and his shot is well struck and placed. Jaaskelainen gets across, palms the ball down and then, in a way Dave Beasant would have been proud, flings up a hand, at the risk of seeing it sliced clean off, as Geovanni charges in for the rebound. Unbelievable goalkeeping, Brilliant goalkeeping. The Bolton fans have just one chant now, consisting of the two syllables of their heroic custodian's first name. They are in awe, as are we all.

Four minutes are added, and City still lay siege. A last chance comes when Mendy again finds enough room to curl in a teasing ball. The clearing header drops to Ashbee, who hits a vicious shot inches too high. The game is up. A roar of delight and relief from Bolton's supporters rings across the city as they claim three precious points and leave City without anything from three matches. The entire Bolton outfield rushes to congratulate Jaaskelainen, as the vocal lauding of the Fin continues behind his goal.

Brown's faith in his 4-3-3 and the players therein is well-placed, of course. It won four in a row, earned plaudits and apologies and acquired clean sheets. But it's notable that the rescue package against Bolton was the same as the comeback package at Old Trafford - that is, only the introduction of natural width seems to allow City to be creative. Certainly Marney and Boateng can provide width from their narrower default position, but they're not natural exponents of it and Mendy's two cameos from the bench, and City's lack of cohesion or dominance prior to this, suggests that maybe a rethink is due.

Mendy awaits the chance to show he can do his act from the start, as does Halmosi, and indeed both did so when City won at Newcastle. Craig Fagan's return will be complete in the next month, and Garcia's close control and finishing skills make him a candidate too. Bolton were as resistant to pressure as you would expect them to be, and their goalkeeper's very presence makes them a most fortunate side. Jaaskelainen's singular brilliance robbed City of a share, but maybe Brown needs to look beyond a charmed stopper's lot for a reason why the Tigers lost.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson (Ricketts 64), Boateng (Folan 73), Ashbee, Marney, Geovanni, King, Cousin (Mendy 54). Subs not used: Duke, Barmby, Garcia, Halmosi.

Bolton Wanderers: Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Cahill, Andrew O'Brien, Samuel, Muamba, Gardner, McCann, Taylor, Elmander (Smolarek 77), Davies. Subs not used: Al Habsi, Helguson, Shittu, Basham, Sissons, Obadeyi.