Sunday, 11 January 2009

21: Everton 2 - 0 Hull City - 10/01/2009

If Hull City do get sucked down into the regions of the Premier League where the game's professors and eminent observers feel they belong, then days like this will be the reason for it.

You'd never believe the side which turned out at Goodison Park was one which had only lost two away games thus far in their maiden Premier League campaign, because it didn't look capable of kicking a ball in the right direction, never mind maintaining a form of travelling superiority.

Everton rarely needed to scrap - though they chose to anyway thanks to a couple of players whose vileness was beyond both reproach and, seemingly, the wrath of a weak referee - and ultimately they were worthy winners, barely cantering to the three points and making it four defeats in succession for the Tigers.

Phil Brown went for a 4-5-1, though the inclusion within the midfield quintet of both Nick Barmby and Geovanni suggested he was hoping there would be some fluidity within the structure, and these two would be able to support Marlon King as and when pattern of play allowed. Sadly, Geovanni offered next to nothing and Barmby, not shirking as far as effort was concerned, had little more to bring along.

Barmby had the first chance, scuffing a bobbly shot well away from Tim Howard's goal after his own flick had been returned to him by King. A counter attack begun by the blameless (and, at times, genuinely creative) Ian Ashbee led to a corner which King then swung in and Michael Turner headed too high.

Neither incident was anything to get too churned up about, but it was a start. Sadly, little more progress was made as Everton's midfield, led by the industrious Leon Osman and the resourceful but filthy Marouane Fellaini, took total command. Fellaini's elbows caused all sorts of unlawful problems but referee Martin Atkinson, one of the officials namechecked by ranting Rafael Benitez 24 hours earlier, somehow concluded that the Belgian had not committed an offence, even one punishable by a yellow card. Then, as if the salt wasn't digging into the gaping wound enough, Fellaini rose highest to nod home Leighton Baines' cross despite very, very offside. Mr Atkinson gave the goal and Everton's noses had pushed themselves frontwards thanks to one player whose contribution had, in order, been to flail his elbows into his opponents' faces, complain bitterly about nothing and then score a goal which shouldn't have been allowed. A charmed existence he doth lead.

City were dumbfounded and never recovered, even slightly, from the lack of justice on offer. Osman weaved through three defenders from the byline as if they didn't exist before sending a low ball in which, mercifully, got no form of deflection whatsoever. A subsequent ball in was met by Fellaini's auto-permed nut again, but the ball this time trundled wide. City's possessional spells were short and guileless, with too many players - Geovanni, Dean Marney, Bernard Mendy - unwilling or unable to do anything even remotely constructive with the ball.

Half time approaches and it's fortunate that 1-0 is the scoreline, as there is a game plan to be cooked up for a right go in the second half. That is soon shredded and discarded as Turner fouls Tim Cahill and the free kick, extremely central, goes through City's butter-like wall from Mikel Arteta's boot and flies comprehensively into the back of Boaz Myhill's net. No goalkeeper in the world would have got near it, but a better defensive wall would have made sure it wasn't an issue. Bad show.

City therefore trail by two as the players trudge indoors for linament and argument, and upon recommencement it's clear that Everton feel their work is done, as they choose to maintain possession, stifle City's sluggish attempts to make inroads and sporadically commit bad fouls, such as the one Cahill, a disgusting individual on occasions, manages with his studs as Myhill slides down to take a low through ball. Fortunately, he manages to take evasive action as Cahill's hanging boot, with the player knowing perfectly well the ball is simply not in the equation, comes close to the City keeper's face. Just before this, Fellaini finally gets the booking he deserves - his tenth of the season - but he should have had it, and more, long ago and the stable door may as well be shut again.

Ashbee tackles Osman superbly as the midfielder breaks and manages to procrastinate a little too much as the City area approaches, then the same Evertonian shoots over the bar after Victor Anichebe's smart link-up play makes a mockery of City's defensive positioning, prior to his own appalling dive in the box which, as it went unpunished, makes a mockery of the clampdown on simulation.

Late flurries from City hide the true picture, but nonetheless Turner is unlucky to be pulled for a foul as he challenges strongly for King's deep cross; then Ashbee sends an injury time volley well over the bar.

The final whistle heralds a professional and cynical performance from the home side and a worryingly lower-league display from the Tigers. With just seven points separating City from the relegation zone (albeit the lofty eighth position intact thanks to the neutralised nature of the division this season), Brown and his players have to embark on a rethink. New blood is required and a new - or recycled - attitude too. This doesn't feel like the same squad which took Premier League points in September and October than nobody in their right mind would have predicted. And only the squad themselves can regain that feeling.

Everton: Howard, Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines, Osman, Arteta (Rodwell 90), Neville, Pienaar, Fellaini, Cahill (Anichebe 73). Subs not used: Nash, Van der Meyde, Castillo, Jutkiewicz, Gosling.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane (Halmosi 79), Zayatte, Turner, Ricketts, Mendy, Ashbee, Marney (Fagan 54), Geovanni (Cousin 66), Barmby, King. Subs not used: Duke, Doyle, France, Boateng.