Sunday, 14 December 2008

17: Liverpool 2 - 2 Hull City - 12/12/2008

An inexhaustible wave of attacks it may have been, but successful repellence is never quite afforded the attention or the congratulation of the floundered assault. And while other teams are being slaughtered in the media for putting ten men behind the ball on the more prestigious (and less winnable) Premier League occasions, Hull City are choosing to go on the attack at these places.

Somehow, oddly, the Tigers are still cast as naive, gung-ho, fortunate or irresponsible when such progressive tactics - ergo, to play football during a football match - appear to come off. That fur-coated Phil Brown is unhappy that Liverpool were permitted to come from two down by a mixture of brief concentration lapses from both his defenders and the referee is maybe an indication of how much he expects from a team doing the unexpectable, and how far he knows they've already blossomed.

Liverpool, designs more on the Premier League crown than ever, will be vilified for drawing a second half blank after clawing it all back in the first, but City are the ones who deserve to absorb the attention. It was a courageous rearguard, never negatively inviting the next wave of attacks while merely making sure each was sponged up and squeezed away efficiently, and sometimes heroically.

And those heroics were devised in the first half when two quick goals made the wannabe masters of the English game spend most of the match chasing, rescuing and, finally, trying desperately to prove none of it ever happened.

They failed.

Brown picked ten of the eleven who began against Middlesbrough last week, with Dean Marney - a little bereft lately - being asked to put his feet up on the bench and Bernard Mendy, that greatly gifted and engimatic loony, finally getting the starting role that his crazy cameos have deserved. There were no defenders on the bench at all, something which would prove a key factor in the game's topsy-turvy plot. Liverpool have no Fernando Torres at the moment, while Robbie Keane's troubled time earned him a mere sub's spot.

Liverpool, especially while Torres is crocked, are the most one-manned team I have ever watched. There is guile and energy within Dirk Kuyt and resourcefulness from Yossi Benayoun, but essentially the tactic involves getting the ball to Steven Gerrard and waiting to anticipate what he may try to do with it. Gerrard is such a phenomenon that against unmotivated sides who just want to escape Anfield without a crushed goal difference, he can literally do it all by himself. Against professional, engaging teams like Hull City, he needs the assistance of others. And for the most part he didn't get it.

Liverpool not unexpectedly stretched City in the opening ten minutes with powerful Gerrard-helmed attacks which Michael Turner and Kamil Zayatte dismantled with aplomb, helped in no uncertain terms by captain Ian Ashbee, who was tremendous as a blocker, cajoler and manipulator. Within this barrage of red-shirted ball-hogging came the first of numerous controversial non-decisions.

Sam Ricketts
gave Nick Barmby running room down the left, and the ex-Liverpool player opted for an instant cross on the turn which a sliding Javier Mascherano blocked quite obviously with his hand. Alan Wiley, our Wembley and Arsenal referee, didn't give the penalty. It seemed a poor and flimsy decision on his behalf. Michael Turner reached the ball from Marlon King's corner but headed over.

Moot point #1 then. City should have had a penalty. Still, justice would not be far away, although Turner and Ashbee both had to throw themselves into meaty low drives from Benayoun and Albert Riera as Liverpool pressed towards the Kop. Eventually, however, all would be well.

Mendy was the architect, again, for City's grandest moments. Pace, power and an unreadable mind are his three major strengths and in full flow he gave Andrea Dossena the complete runaround. It was fantastic to watch a Hull City player giving a Liverpool full back a severe footballing telling-off. Not since Gary Ablett fell over in 1989 to allow Billy Whitehurst a goal has a Liverpool star been so conclusively rubbished by a City player. Mendy was fouled by Sami Hyypia after doing Dossena, and Geovanni swung in a slightly overhit free kick which King chased, collected and re-delivered for Paul McShane to climb skywards and nod the ball over Jose Reina.

City lead 1-0 at Liverpool. Crumbs.

Mendy then did Dossena even more laughably, crossing eventually for King to get on to his right and fire a shot which was deflected away. A second goal, madly, seemed to be likely. The Kop was silent and the rest of Anfield which wasn't decked in black and amber was like a cemetery throughout. Old Trafford and Anfield aren't as dissimilar as mawkish, red-sided Liverpudlians would have you believe. They were in trouble and knew it, but their reaction to being in trouble was to refuse to encourage their team.

So City had another go. Even the supremely gifted Geovanni was bowing to Mendy at this point. Any opportunity he had, he would feed th rampaging Frenchman and Dossena would steel himself for another act of ritual humiliation. So, on 21 minutes, Mendy receives the ball, sends Dossena to the turf and flies to the line, finally putting in a ball intended for Barmby's arrival but steered into his own net by a panic-stricken Jamie Carragher. City are two up.

Immediately, Liverpool pulled one back. They shouldn't have been allowed to, as Turner was evidently dragged to the ground as the ball was chipped in, leaving Gerrard with a tap-in. No decision given, except to award a goal. Moot point #2 then.

Gerrard had another crack three minutes later which Kuyt tried to deflect goalwards but only succeeded in altering the ball's course as far as any hope of beating Boaz Myhill was concerned. Instantly, McShane was substituted. He'd taken a facial whack which had affected his vision, but with Andy Dawson and Anthony Gardner injured, Wayne Brown as out of favour as any player could be and, most strangely, Nathan Doyle overlooked, City had no defender to bring on. Even Ryan France, a practised but not specialist right back, would have sufficed. But it was Marney who was introduced and Mendy who shifted backwards to adopt McShane's position. Our biggest threat had been snuffed out for tactical reasons, and City were not favoured by it.

By the half hour, all was square. Riera and Kuyt combined elegantly and swiftly to give Gerrard another chance on a plate, and Myhill was powerless to prevent the ball hitting the top of his net. But again, Turner was bundled to the ground and again Mr Wiley chose not to award the foul. Moot point #3.

The rest of the first half, aside from a wide-angled Geovanni shot which the cocky Reina collected at the second go, involved City in their own box. It seemed almost obvious that Liverpool would still lead at the break despite going two goals adrift. Riera fired a shot just wide, the excellent Xabi Alonso curled one peach inches away from the post, and Barmby got back to implement a stunning block on Benayoun as the winger homed in on Myhill's goal from a sharp counter attack.

City were shellshocked to the extent that the noisest Tiger Nation members were rendered almost wholly silent. Brown began waving at them to regenerate the atmosphere created solely by the travelling supporters. This canny operator knew that appreciating the fans when they weren't there - as silent fans seem to be - would get more out of them when they were. There was no more silence for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the break came and a breathless set of spectators mooched to the concourses at 2-2.

Not a great number of chances at the Kop end for City once the game restarted, really. What was created was promising, especially as Liverpool became more and more desperate to show that they can beat this group of overbearing gatecrashers with ideas above their station. They piled forward, we soaked it up then occasionally launched good, promising breaks. But in essence, the second half was almost exclusively about keeping Liverpool away.

Gerrard aimed a corner on to Hyypia's head, and the long-serving Fin aimed his header low to Myhill's right, ultimately touching the post with it. Myhill double-fisted away a cracking Riera drive while Turner, Zayatte and especially Ashbee called upon all their passion, masculinity and willpower to get in the way of everything and everyone whose purpose was to billow the Tigers' net. They were spectacularly good at it too.

George Boateng
, his usual quiet, personable midfield self, was withdrawn for Peter Halmosi as Brown looked to restore a wider element to City's possession play, previously absent since Mendy's forced transfer to the defence. Halmosi was disappointing though, and arguably for the first time in his cameo-ridden City career thus far. On at least three occasions he had room and time for his left foot to get a ball towards King or Geovanni on the edge of the Liverpool box but his conveyance of the ball was not good.

The Brazilian, as fruitful in possession as ever, had one hopeful counter attack across the middle but swung his shot way too high into the Kop. Liverpool regrouped and continued what was largely becoming a one-way passage of play. This usually involved giving it to Gerrard and seeing what he could do.

Alonso swerved one shot on to the roof of Myhill's net, and Gerrard put another corner on to Hyypia's head which this time caused fewer problems than the one which struck the woodwork. Brown brought Dean Windass on for Barmby - who had a superb match - but Rafael Benitez chose not to introduce Robbie Keane, instead preferring less tested substitutes as he decided extra width was the issue, not bodies in the box. He may have regretted this as Turner and Ashbee both put glorious, crunching tackles in on Gerrard, while the maligned Kuyt miscued one chance over the bar from a close enough range to suggest he was having a guff day.

Nabil El Zhar, one of the fledgling subs, hit a sturdy shot which Myhill spilled before re-grasping as Gerrard came close to committing himself to kicking a ball which would, in the split-second it takes to move one's foot back, would have instead morphed into Myhill's head.

Four minutes were added, and City delightfully maintained most of the possession for its duration. The draw was secure and was celebrated like a win, with a mild undercurrent of feeling a chance missed, when the whistle went.

That's another game undefeated away from home - only the 4-3 at Manchester United blots our travellers' copybook - and we are, simply, the most interesting, enlightening and exciting thing in English football right now; an exercise in togetherness, determination, skill, spirit and eagerness to enjoy the experience. We're still sixth, a position we've monopolised for some time now, and with managerless Sunderland and rudderless Manchester City up next, we've got some real bargains to grab this Christmas.

Liverpool should have won, of course. But they should also be grateful they got a point. That's how we feel, and we have every right to. This ride continues and anybody who wants to get off should be sent straight to the funny farm.

Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Carragher, Dossena, Mascherano (Leiva Lucas 87), Alonso, Benayoun (El Zhar 74), Gerrard, Riera (Babel 82), Kuyt. Subs not used: Cavalieri, Agger, Keane, Ngog.

Hull City
: Myhill, McShane (Marney 27), Zayatte, Turner, Ricketts, Mendy, Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 66), Geovanni, Barmby (Windass 77), King. Subs not sed: Warner, Garcia, Cousin, Giannakopoulos.