Saturday, 20 December 2008

18: Hull City 1 - 4 Sunderland - 20/12/2008

Hull City's resolve and composure evaporated in the last ten minutes of a tight and edgy Premier League battle at the KC. Ultimately, the scoreline makes this look like a cakewalk for a well-drilled and patient Sunderland side but it could have gone either way.

It was 1-1 with 13 minutes to play and both sides fancied their chances. But when the Black Cats benefitted from a horrid deflected shot to reclaim the lead and then Mike Riley's annual mission to send Hull City players from the field, the spirit of the Tigers died a gruesome death.

It was an enjoyable and unpredictable occasion. Sunderland have flowered under Ricky Sbragia's calm, unshowbiz approach after all the laserbeams of Roy Keane and his players clearly know how to react to him. City had one marvellous spell of pressure in the first half but lacked a ruthlessness.

Phil Brown, a Mackem by birth and a candidate through this mere circumstantial accident for the vacancy at the Stadium of Light, had to make one crucial change. Paul McShane, double whammied by being a Sunderland loanee and the recipient of a blow to the head last week, sat this one out. Bernard Mendy, regrettably, had his idiosyncratic force sullied by being put in the right back role, and there was a surprise recall to midfield for Richard Garcia.

It didn't work. Mendy's unpredictability can lend itself to defensive ineptitude as it can to attacking resourcefulness, and Garcia's delightful first touch cannot shroud a lack of match fitness. Assuming the two-week role keeps McShane out on Boxing Day (it'll be a day short of the mandatory two-week rest period for head injuries), then Mendy needs to be re-freed quickly.

City attack early. A long punt panicks Nyron Nosworthy as Marlon King chases both defender and ball, and his wimpish attempt to backhead a clearance lands at Nick Barmby's feet, but he hacks a low shot a good few yards wide.

The bedding down period now associated with the Tigers in the Premier League at home means that this is the only chance City can carve out - and it wasn't that great a chance - prior to the visitors turning the screw and scoring a great goal.

Incisive work from the squat and industrious Andy Reid got him beyond Mendy and his ball to Steed Malbranque was controlled deftly and then crashed past Boaz Myhill from distance. A cracker, and an early blow for the Tigers.

It didn't take long for City to equalise, an emblematic quality for the Tigers in this division. As stewards tried to sort a standing "problem" in the Sunderland crowd, attentions were re-diverted to the pitch when a free kick was headed across goal by Kamil Zayatte for defensive partner Michael Turner to poke a shot goalwards. Marton Fulop blocked the shot but as Turner battled for the loose ball while on the deck, it broke kindly for Barmby to thump home with the left foot. Sunderland's travelling contingent suddenly had a dual reason to feel aggrieved.

Barmby last scored for Hull City in the play-offs against Watford. He last scored a standard League goal 16 months ago at Coventry in the Championship. His last Premier League goal was five and a half years ago. While he has always enjoyed his manager's approval, he has entirely justified his inclusion as a marauding wide midfielder of late, more so than he ever did in a play-off campaign where he emerged as an out-of-context hero. Barmby, at last, deserves the praise he currently gets; something which hasn't quite been the case since he spent the League One promotion season in his dinner jacket.

City were galvanised by this leveller. Barmby, King and a surprisingly sublime final ball from Ian Ashbee nearly combined to give Barmby an intricate and eyecatching second goal, but Anton Ferdinand got across to block well. Mendy and Geovanni then tested a short corner routine as Sunderland failed to mark up, but the Brazilian's left-footer is held competently by Fulop.

The pressure remains on the visitors. Geovanni swings in a corner which is momentarily cleared, but Mendy's return ball is met by the meat of Turner's forehead and the ball drops on to the net's roof. Barmby, in possession and somehow also possessed, shakes off Nosworthy's powdery challenge and gets King going, but the ball is bouncing oddly and the striker chooses not to try to bring it down, electing instead to hoof a first-time shot which goes high, wide and less than handsome.

Sunderland, having taken the lead, have suddenly been not only pegged back to 1-1 but then severely battered by a relentless, inspired City. Barmby is the fulcrum of it, but King's work at the helm and Ashbee's unfussy probing at the base is key to this spell of City dominance. Only once did they seem close to extending their lead, as Kenwyne Jones plunged his awkward frame at Phil Bardsley's unclearable ball, but got his angles all wrong and headed away from goal.

Bardsley, as impressive a defender as any that has faced City this season, then got himself sandwiched between two City players as he courageously headed behind a Garcia cross with both King and Geovanni hovering. City then get a free kick on the edge of the box, which Geovanni curls and dips beyond the wall, only for Fulop to tip over with real agility.

From the corner, Geovanni manages to swerve the delivery under the bar and a foul is called on Fulop as he flaps at the ball and Ashbee puts it away.

Half time approaches, and Malbranque has a bit too much room from a Djibril Cisse knockdown but the shot is scuffed wide. All square at the break, and a half that was hard to call. City made waves of chances but adequate finishing was at a premium and Sunderland's defending, as it needed to be, coped well.

The second half was a lifeless affair initially. Brown realised his error on recalling the talented but blunt Garcia and replaced him with Daniel Cousin just before the hour, allowing Geovanni to roam the flanks a little more as the big centre forward entered the fray. Sunderland began to emerge authoratative afterwards, with Kieran Richardson, hard to like but easy to appreciate, becoming the main influence.

His right foot shot was beaten out by Myhill, and Cisse missed the rebound as two defenders closed in and put the frighteners on. Cisse, complete with cretinous green mohican, was notably irritated by himself and the Sunderland fans weren't too enamoured with him either.

City briefly rally, and Ashbee hits a sweet volley which is blocked without much knowledge by Ferdinand. It's noticeable, however, that Sunderland were becoming the stronger outfit as the legs began to tire, and if a winner was coming, it was to be theirs.

Zayatte had his mad moment - there's one of these per game now - out on City's left and Cisse robbed him, reached the byline and crossed for Jones' run to the near post. Jones was noticeable angry at his failure to score, but Turner's interception and the awarding of a corner showcased the real reason the ball didn't end up in Myhill's net. Jones then went down like the proverbail sack of spuds as Sam Ricketts barged him off the ball and was told, curtly no doubt, to get back to his feet. Ricketts got away with this one, but it wouldn't be his lucky afternoon for much longer.

Barmby was withdrawn for Stelios Giannakopoulos with 20 minutes left. He managed the full whack at Liverpool last week and, despite being 34, one should be able to assume he can manage 90 minutes once a week. It was both a pity and a mystery to withdraw the Tigers' most industrious, creative force, and although one can't pin City's collapse on Barmby's withdrawal, it was easy to spot that a sparkle had gone from the Tigers' attack.

Ricketts takes a booking for a daft late tackle before King and Geovanni prompt City's latest - and by now, rare - attack and give Cousin a chance which he puts away, though the offside flag had long since gone up, correctly. Sunderland wipe their brows and Cisse gets Myhill working his fists again, as the City custodian double-punches away a vicious shot on the run. A minute later, and Sunderland had regained their advantage.

Their acquisition of possession in defence was a little fortuitous, but quickly it was presented to Richardson who, in the absence of a challenge, was able to get within range for his unerring left foot, and a chronically unfortunate Zayatte got a shin in the way of the shot and left Myhill entirely stranded.

It's a major blow, but it's not over. Memories of Middlesbrough taking the lead at the same stage a fortnight earlier immediately flooded back, and City went on to score twice and win. However, Ricketts plunges into a second daft tackle and gets the inevitable second yellow and consequent red from Mr Riley.

Mr Riley has well-recalled history with red cards at the KC, having overseen the madness which saw Caleb Folan and Jay Jay Okocha, plus two Burnley counterparts, all get their marching orders in a Championship match last season. It was a crazy situation but it was hard to argue, by law if not by spirit, against his decisions. On this occasion, there is little doubt that the Sunderland players involved in Ricketts' challenges were auditioning for repertory theatre in their reactions - illustrated by their jumping to their feet as soon as punishment was confirmed - but Ricketts was a fool to dive in on both occasions, not being in exceptionally dangerous territory for either incident and especially once the first had earned him yellow. He'll now serve a one-match ban, and with Andy Dawson still not quite ready to return, City have a left back issue to solve. Peter Taylor always wanted two left backs ahead of cover for any other position on the reasonable understanding that it's the hardest position on the pitch to fill if it's not naturally suited to you. If Dawson isn't ready, then maybe young Nathan Doyle will finally have his leash removed and be set on the Premier League.

City had no chance after going down to ten. Doyle was on the bench but with City a goal adrift, organising defensive cover was largely futile and Brown instead elected to send on Peter Halmosi for the tireless George Boateng. That said, Sunderland exploited their advantage magnificently, putting away two further goals and ruining City's manageable goal difference in the process. Malbranque broke clear to give Jones a simple headed finish and then as the injury time board went up, Mendy gave the ball away to Malbranque, who sent Cisse clear on Myhill's goal and this time he had no trouble finding the corner of the net.

City had two free kicks in injury time, both of which were wildly skewered wide by Geovanni and King respectively. They were a beaten, bruised team and Brown has some work to do in picking them up. Aston Villa's resurgence makes the next home game as arduous a task as any, meaning that Boxing Day's visit to Manchester City, with all their faux woes, delusions and Brazilian egos, is ever important.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Garcia (Cousin 57), Ashbee, Boateng (Halmosi 81), Geovanni, Barmby (Giannakopoulos 68), King. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Windass, Marney.

: Fulop, Bardsley, Nosworthy, Ferdinand, Collins, Malbranque, Tainio (Leadbitter 79), Richardson (Edwards 89), Reid (Whitehead 74), Jones, Cisse. Subs not used: Colgan, Murphy, Yorke, Healy.