Sunday, 23 November 2008

14: Portsmouth 2 - 2 Hull City - 23/11/2008

Linguistics enthusiasts will enjoy the number of superlatives which emerge from this game. Hull City, the highest placed team to score a goal, put in their worst away performance of the season at the shabbiest ground at the end of the longest trip. And that's where the word 'superlative' ceases to be relevant.

City weren't good, especially in the first half. The breadth of the side was again tested by a high-lined, squeezing Portsmouth side of pace and tenacity, and it seemingly took one of Phil Brown's half-time addresses akin to Gettysburg to get the players into the groove.

It was the standard 4-3-3, again. We should all stop speculating about injuries and formations and the like, as each week seemes to be the one where tactics are set to alter considerably, and each week the manager grins his most mischievous grin, fooling us all, as he jots out an identical teamsheet. Daniel Cousin was fit, Marlon King was not jetlagged and Dean Windass was not set to swoop in on a rescue mission, though he did make the bench. Sam Ricketts continued at left back, with Andy Dawson not yet ready after his Achilles bother.

Fratton Park is, frankly a tip. An endearing, compact, atmosphere-generating tip, but a tip nonetheless. While the decor and architecture issues are superficial and can be alleviated, there is no excuse for the monstrous circus act involving two blokes, a stupid hat and a large drum which slices into every eardrum for the whole game. It's not as if it provokes the fans into rhythmically chanting along, or inspired the players. The home crowd were quiet, possibly concerned at seeing a side devoid of Campbell, Diarra and Defoe take to the field against a Tigers team thriving on capitalising on opposition misfortune.

For all that, Portsmouth were miles better than City. Papa Bouba Diop hit the underside of the bar with a close-range header in the opening two minutes, and City's aimless, harried benchmark for the half had been set. Everyone assumed it was a goal. It mercifully wasn't, but it did indicate that one was imminent and it was a mere question of time.

The left-hand touchline as City looked at it seemed to be made of sheet ice, given the number of players from both sides who slipped and slid around, unable to maintain balance or posture. This affected City's width, what little there was, and neither flank was utilised in the way necessary. Ricketts, the more instinctive attacker of the two full backs. struggled to maintain his position while Paul McShane, whose shift in defence was excellent, was as reticent as ever to get forward at all.

Boaz Myhill got a fingertip to a Diop shot as Portsmouth maintained their relentless beginning, and Peter Crouch headed over from John Utaka's sublime cross.

By the time Crouch finally put the home side ahead on 20 minutes, City had still created little and were being perennially undone by the lack of width. It was clearly an issue which needed addressing. Meanwhile, Crouch was celebrating after heading in Younes Kaboul's cross.

At last, City wake up. It was as if they realised they had a football match to play and the last 20 minutes had been a deliberate gimme. Cousin, trying hard with little reward, gives King a fabulous chance on the edge of the area, but his shot is charged down excellently by Sylvain Distin.

George Boateng then makes room for a dig which ricochets complicatedly around the box to King, and this time the shot is unblocked but scuffed wide. Two chances, not taken, not good enough.

Still, as the half reaches its conclusion, it's the Tigers in command. Michael Turner swings a long one boxwards and Cousin clambers well to head across goal to King, whose volley is just wide. A better effort, but still David James has to be tested.

However, James is nowhere when City then come closest to an equaliser. Geovanni, less influential - even to the extent of being quite poor - than normal, appears on the right corner of the box and nonchalantly swipes a vicious, arching shot around the England keeper and back off his crossbar. So unlucky, so out of the blue. It remains 1-0 to Portsmouth as the half-time whistle shrills, but the hope of a share at least had been thoroughly restored after a lacklustre opening 20 minutes.

No changes to personnel by Brown, but something was instilled in the players as the second half got underway. The width issue was still apparent, but City were keeping the ball better and running at Porstmouth, making them think, work, make the hard decisions. City charged into the home side's faces much more and they didn't like it.

Snapshots, crosses, intricate passing ... all contributed to a much more promising opening spell, but still City needed a goal. It duly came when Dean Marney swung in a corner, Kamil Zayatte flicked on at the near post and Turner arrived late to bury his header past James.

Now there ewas one team in it, and they weren't dressed in blue. The indefatigable King chased a wide through ball and pulled a smart cross into Marney's range, and his low volley was tipped away impressively by James. From the corner, skipper Ian Ashbee has a free header which he sends towards the stars, wastefully.

Oh, we like this. The Tiger Nation, tucked away at the opposite end in the cowshed-esque visiting quarters, is in raucous and ebullient mood now. It's a one-way game, City are in the ascendancy, about to take apart another premier League mainstay who assume they just have to turn up. It feels good, proper and right.

Then Portsmouth score the best goal we've conceded this season.

A corner is half-cleared. The second ball is headed with distance away from immediate peril by Turner, but full back Glen Johnson collects on his chest and delivers a dipping, swerving and powerful volley which beats Myhill all ends up. It's a glorious goal, and a bitter experience when it comes against the run of play. Yet City should expect to conced goals at this level which are almost worth the entrance money alone.

It's 2-1, and the work has been undone by a touch of magic. This is irritating. It's also enlightening, and City react in the correct way. King has another go at defying James, with an unexpected snapshot from distance which the custodian, dressed in a kit which was not dissimilar to that of a South African cricketer's World Cup garb, spilled and then grasped.

Brown decides that guile is required up front and proper width, at last, down the flanks. Peter Halmosi supplies the latter, with George Boateng leaving the action, and simultaneously a handshake of sorts is exchanged between sworn rivals and gambling nemeses King and Windass, as the latter takes over from the former.

What can Windass do? He has no pace, mobility or match practice. But much remains in that footballing brain of his, and his patter can also pay dividends, inspiring others and deflating opponents. This is what we hope for - the classic instruction of "make a nuisance of yourself" (thank you to Terry Dolan and Alan Fettis for that) seems to apply as he struts on to partner the tireless Cousin.

Utaka puts a good chance too high after Crouch volleys a long corner back across goal, but Portsmouth still look less likely to get the next goal, despite leading the match. City's notorious ability to persevere and not let these fashionable teams have their wicked way, is maintained to the death. Two Geovanni-range free kicks are forced, one of which the Brazilian laughably slices high and wide; the other he curls goalwards for James to pluck from the air. We see our first glimpse of Stelios Giannakopoulos in the final ten minutes as the impressive Marney withdraws from the action.

Two minutes left, and finally the deserved point for the Tigers is earned. A scramble of almighty proportions allows Windass a lurching close-range header which hits Noe Pamarot and goes in. Windass is initially credited, but official accreditation goes to Paramot, something which irks Windass as he notices the scoreboard during the post-match salute of the City fans.

Neither side looked set to win it in the five minutes added, and City's second consecutive 2-2 draw is a most satisfcatory conclusion to a strange old game. Sometimes lethargic and uninspiring, City had pockets of possession which showcased them at their best - visionary, patient and respectful of the ball rather than the opposition. There were stinkier displays - Geovanni was off his game throughout, despite that mad shot on to the bar - but as a team City remain tough to beat, though their beatability is still apparent and that's something for Brown to work on prior to next week's jaunt to Stoke.

Portsmouth: James, Johnson, Kaboul, Distin, Pamarot, Diop, Davis, Hughes (Nugent 58), Belhadj (Armand Traore 58), Crouch, Utaka (Kanu 74). Subs not used: Ashdown, Hreidarsson, Mvuemba, Little.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Marney (Giannakopoulos 82), Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 72), Geovanni, King (Windass 72), Cousin. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Barmby, Garcia.