Tuesday, 30 December 2008

20: Hull City 0 - 1 Aston Villa - 30/12/2008

This was Hull City's seventh defeat of the season, and arguably the first one they simply have not deserved. This hurt, really hurt. By some distance the better side against a fluid, pacey, admirable but entirely out-thought Aston Villa, the lack of firepower from City's insightful new line-up, a chronic piece of poor luck at the other end and some spectacularly weak refereeing did for Phil Brown's side.

A superb, enchanted year has ended with three straight defeats and maybe 2009 will herald something connected with relegation, if not an actual relegation battle. Five more wins should be enough. But losing is a habit, as we know too well from our darkest days of the 1990s, and it can be tough at the top as well as the bottom.

As this blog accurately estimated, remarkably so given its historically abject record for reading Brown's mind, the manager decided to freshen his charges up. Out went the unlucky Marlon King, the pressured Geovanni, the pooped George Boateng, the wavering Dean Marney and the unusable Dean Windass (whose appearance to make the half time draw seemed to be as much about saying goodbye to the Tiger Nation as it was about earning someone a few quid or a bottle of champagne). Daniel Cousin, castigated for lax and lazy demeanour of late, spearheaded a line-up which had Nick Barmby hovering behind him, Richard Garcia providing vision in the very centre and, with Villa bereft of fit full backs, Bernard Mendy and Peter Halmosi were given natural wide positions and licence to charge.

And this was they key to City's success in spirit if not in scoreline. Halmosi and Mendy were the Tigers' prime source of attack, deliberately calculating that the two makeshift full backs in Villa's side, while not incompetent footballers, would have less of a tuxedo-wearing time if guys who have eaten better defenders for breakfast in their time were stampeding towards them. Halmosi is out-and-out, a dying breed of wideman whose sole purpose is to make full backs' lives a misery. Make him cut inside or go wandering away from the touchline and he is largely pointless. Force him to help defend and he may as well be off the pitch. But give him the ball and tell him to aim for the corner flag and he's utter dynamite.

Mendy, of course, is a law unto himself and this unpredictability is going to be vital if City are to embark upon a new sequence of progress in 2009. As he doesn't know what he's going to do, and his team-mates have given up trying to instruct him, it's obvious that defenders have no idea whatsoever.

So away we go, another capacity crowd despite the Sky cameras making the prospect of watching the game on a comfy settee rather than in -1c East Yorkshire ice quite tempting. Immediately, controversy struck. Mendy crossed, Cousin headed the ball straight up in the air and Barmby challenged Brad Friedel gamely (given the immense contrast in bulk between a diddy striker and a muscular American keeper in padded clothing) before forcing the ball over the line. Inevitably and wrongly, referee Steve Bennett assumed it was a foul because Friedel managed to fall into a heap. lest we forget that goalkeepers cannot even be looked at these days. No wonder Chris Chilton doesn't go to games any more.

Of course, Villa do wingplay well too. Ashley Young's pace and positivity is as watchable as his tendency to cry like a girl and stay grounded after being breathed upon is sickening. He gave Paul McShane a hard old time down the City right in the early stages, the first of which ending with a whipping cross that Michael Turner, pretty much unwittingly, blocked with a colder area of his anatomy, conceding the corner. The flag kick was dealt with, but Villa then got a free kick which was half-cleared to Gareth Barry whose volley could have been perilous, except it's on his standing right foot and we assumed it was going to miss. It did.

It doesn't pay to be too cocky about Barry's right foot. Last time Villa came to the KC he scored the only goal of the game with it, albeit via a deflection so great the magnetic field thought there was an emergency shift of gravity. That was an FA Cup third round tie three seasons ago.

City get a feel for the game, and Cousin is dividing folk. Some think he's lazy and egotistical; otherwise think he's a terrific player for maintaining the ball while awaiing assistance from deeper-lying players. I hold the latter opinion, I think he's ace. His work in fending off immeasurable attempts from Villa defenders to get the ball off him hile he waited for Halmosi was tremendous. In the end, he used the Hungarian as a decoy to get his own cross in. It's nodded out to Ian Ashbee, who goes down under a challenge; no appeal is made, and the loose ball finally gets to Mendy whose delicate chip is headed golwards but meekly by Halmosi. No real test of Friedel, but good stuff nonetheless.

Mendy then tortures Luke Young - an England right back having to play on the left - with a sly, excellent run and cross which evades Friedel but Halmosi's sliding effort to finish takes him to within inches of a decent touch, and the ball flies all the way across, undeflected.

Barry headed over a cross from the probing, impressive James Milner before City cause real panic thanks to - gasp - a penetrating, inviting cross from Ashbee which Curtis Davies hurriedly heads just wide of his own keeper and post as Cousin snarls behind him. Kamil Zayatte then fouls green-booted Gabriel Agbonlahor and, having already been booked, gets a stern lecture (which he won't have understood) from Bennett who correctly and refreshingly believes the foul wasn't bookable.

Half time, goalless, enticing, enjoyable. The restart maintains the motif of wingplay dominating both sets of attack, with Sam Ricketts and Halmosi making a mug of Nigel Reo-Coker and producing a corner. Barmby whips it in and Garcia wins the header but steers it wide.

Stilian Petrov, awarded as much possession as Milner but unable to be as creative, fires in a shot and then complains justifiably to Bennett when the ovious deflection isn't noticed and a goalkick is given. He gets a yellow card, with hoots of derision - via different viewpoints - sounding from all areas of the KC.

No matter. City return to the other end, with Davies courageously getting his chilly thighs in the way of a hefty Halmosi shot after fine tee-up play and tomfoolery from Mendy. Turner then plays a low clearance to Cousin and follows up his pass, eventually getting on the end of intricate wok through Mendy, Barmby and Cousin, but the centre back has to stretch a little too much and skies his shot.

There are 20 minutes to go and Cousin is freezing and floundering, so King is brought on to a big reception. He immediately panics Davies - again - as Turner heads Halmosi's dipping corner back across goal, forcing the Villa defender to clear from under his own bar.

City still pile it on, urged forward by an impressed Tiger Nation. This was the response we needed after Manchester City made us look eejits. King flies on to Mendy's inside ball, tidily works his way inside Zat Knight and feeds the onrushing Ashbee. We all knew where the ball would end up - yes, way over the bar - but the endeavour and craft was excellent. Surely it was coming?

Ricketts overlaps Halmosi, gets the ball and sweeps in a wicked cross which Barmby throws himself at; he connects but the header is deflected wide.

With five minutes left, despite the domination, percentages are called for and Brown slings on Bryan Hughes to provide stoic calm in the centre, withdrawing the engaging Garcia who, despite the odd misplaced pass, made the most of an important occasion for him. He may not be sold in January on the strength of this display.

Villa attack, for the first time in a while, as City respond to the substitution with some natural retreating. Ashley Young heads Barry's cross well wide, then Turner dives in the way, magnificently, of Petrov's humdinging low shot which Boaz Myhill may have struggled to paw out. Three minutes remain and Villa are turning the screw.

The wingers had ben sullied and restricted by City but, alas, for once Ashley Young got the room on Riketts - having swapped flanks from the first half - to get to the byline. Agbonlahor aimed his run for the near post and Zayatte got in the way as the cross came in, diverting the ball heartbreakingly beyond Myhill and into the net.

Bother and blast. We didn't deserve that. We deserved to lose - just - at Old Trafford, and the defeats at Manchester City and home to Wigan were certainly as merited as any guff we served up in the bottom division. But this was harsh. And it epitomised what the Premier League is based on - taking your hances. If you don't, your opponents will certainly take their. We only gave them one, and even scored it for them, though the gutted Zayatte can't be hard on himself. Myhill conceded a goal without having a shot from a Villa player to save.

But it still wasn't quite over. Brown slings on Craig Fagan, leaving Geovanni on the bench, and City go on the offensive. Villa repel the wave of long balls with panache as the board for three minutes of added time goes up. Then, a corner is forced.

Myhill goes up for it, Halmosi takes, Ashbee heads goalwards and the ball bounces away from around the crossbar area. The crowd holler for handball by Ashley Young and Bennett gives it. Penalty! Yet a heavy-duty protest from Villa's players leads Bennett, inexplicably, to chat to his assistant whose position was, seemingly, worse than the referee's when able to decide upon the source of the ball's blockade. It wasn't a hand, it was the crossbar, it seemed. TV replays proved this, but irrespective of the decision, no referee should make a decision and then double check it purely bcause big-name footballers tell him to. Bennett should take no consolation from getting the verdict techincally right, as in doing so he essentially admitted he was a) unsure of his authority and b) susceptible to pressure.

And so that was that. And that was 2008 too. It has ended with three straight defeats, but there is considerable solace in the performance which pushed Villa, wannabes for the Champions League, all the way. They'll be relieved and will even, privately, admit to luck. For all the realistic worries about a slump into the bottom half, especially with Everton and Arsenal due in January, there's no doubt that a handful of displays like this will see City right in 2009. And it'll be a joy to see it happen.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts, Mendy, Garcia (Fagan 89), Ashbee, Halmosi, Barmby (Hughes 85), Cousin (King 69). Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, Geovanni, Giannakopoulos.

Aston Villa: Friedel, Reo-Coker, Knight, Davies, Luke Young, Milner, Sidwell (Gardner 86), Petrov, Barry, Ashley Young, Agbonlahor. Subs not used: Guzan, Harewood, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey, Osbourne.