Thursday, 29 January 2009

23: West Ham United 2 - 0 Hull City - 28/01/2009

Altogether now... it's a relegation battle. The fact that it's a relegation battle that is being fought from tenth spot in the Premier League and therefore contains ten more teams is neither here nor there. If Hull City continue in this vein of form then eventually the handy and fortunate propensity for other teams not to take advantage will cease, and the Tigers will plummet right down the table.

Through this appalling sequence of defeats, there has been mitigation and some light at the end of the tunnel. City were excellent for large parts of the defeat to Arsenal two weeks ago, and only lost in the last ten minutes to a couple of classy touches. The defeat to Aston Villa was demonstrably unlucky. Yet two of the defeats - away to Manchester City and Everton - were bleak, crass examples of the little side going into a game feeling and playing as such. Now this latest setback at Upton Park was probably the worst of the lot. Lord knows what the television audience made of it.

Phil Brown will need to ask himself the searching questions which many members of the Tiger Nation were asking when the teams were announced, and certainly when a truly terrible, unforgivable first half display was not alleviated by making changes at the interval. Matt Duke is a fine goalkeeper, and proved it as he pulled on Premier League gloves for the first time, but ultimately there has to be a sinister reason for not picking Boaz Myhill beyond the unconvincing line that Duke was good and just deserved a go. Duke has now done more than enough to start the next match, but that could be as much about Myhill's long-term future as it is about Duke's credibility for the job.

Jimmy Bullard didn't start, which was acceptable given the viral condition which has vastly curtailed his training regime in the days either side of his transfer. But given that he is a matchwinner, a showbiz player of extra zest and zing, why was he not introduced until the team was on its knees, beaten and waving a white flag? That Bullard did come on and achieved more in half an hour than the rest of the outfield put together is testament to the quality of signing he will hopefully prove, but it's pointless unless you give him half a chance to earn a share of the game. City were 2-0 down and playing awfully when he was summoned.

It's a long old slog ahead now. West Ham are a polished side under Gianfranco Zola, pacey and resourceful, with a hardworking midfield and in Carlton Cole, a striker who has a lengthy list of detractors but currently stands proud as the form goalscorer in the division. But for Duke and some woodwork intervention, they would have been clear and lighting the post-match Cuban cigar by half time.

With Bullard on the bench, Brown opted to play Dean Marney and Geovanni in midfield behind a strikeforce of the blustering, lanky Manucho and the blustering, lanky Daniel Cousin. Cousin is a workhorse and forgivable on a bad day where Manucho is clearly not and not, but irrespective of their varying capacities for industry, they were way too similar and leaden-footed to cause much strife to West Ham's back four. They weren't helped by a lacklustre midfield, for whom Ian Ashbee was a disaster and Marney, for all his willingness, not much further ahead.

The game took a while to settle, even though it was the home side who were claiming the best of the possession. Ex-City loanee Mark Noble swung in an early corner from which David Di Michele shot at Duke, then the same player tried an outrageous curling shot from long range which did Duke all ends up and cannoned back off the post.

These early opportunities, though not resulting in goals, did epitomise how the game was going to go. West Ham were allowed unspeakably high quantities of possession while City had next to no response - other than to lose the ball cheaply - when it did come their way. Andy Dawson made a good clearance from in his own box from the ever-dangerous Di Michele after he made a fine weaving run through semi-interested challenges, then James Collins sent a free header from a Noble corner wide.

The cracks eventually had to force a collapse, and it seemed to do just that when Sam Ricketts fouled Cole in the box as he tried to find room following a set-piece melee. Noble - whose penalty record is very good indeed - stepped up but Duke repeated his heroics at Swansea City by guessing correctly and batting the ball out high to his left. A tremendous save.

It should, beyond that, have been inspirational too. A penalty save, live on television, from your former cancer patient reserve goalkeeper making his first ever Premier League appearance? If you aren't inspired to do well after that then you're not worth the shirt.

City weren't inspired to do well after that.

Di Michele screwed a ridiculously bad shot wide of Duke's post after Noble's deflected through ball fortuitously sent him clear, but soon afterwards got his reward when Cole's angled shot was pushed aside by Duke but pretty much hit the Italian as he diligently followed up, forcing the ball in.

It's 1-0 to the Hammers, and the only surprise is how long it's taken so to be. The Tigers can thank Duke and the woodwork for that. As if to prove they were on the pitch, City pressed forward and Cousin crossed for Manucho to head straight at Robert Green. A cursory chance, worthy of just a cursory mention here.

West Ham fancy another. Di Michele's neat run and cross is met by Jack Collison who just misses the target by hitting the near post. City win a throw-in which Ricketts, rarely for him or his team, hurls long. Michael Turner manages a flick and Cousin's hooked volley is on target but, again, it's straight at Green.

There isn't a shred of confidence or positivity in the Hull City side. Marney is getting plenty of ball but can't find his targets, and is roundly turned upon by the away support when he fails to track back. Ashbee's tracking back remains sound, only the timing of his tackling and distribution - even in the simplest of Ashbee terms - is weak. Geovanni and Kevin Kilbane are strangers to the game, especially Kilbane, whose lack of involvement was noticeable to even the casual observer. Too many players are wearing a shirt which demands endeavour, spirit and fight, especially when they've worked so hard to reach this level, and they are unable to respond.

Except for Duke, that is. When Cole is put through one on one with him, the expectation from all is for a 2-0 half time scoreline. Cole hits a powerful shot goalwards, Duke responds with a fantastic parry with a meaty gloved hand and as the ball trundles away to safety, Cole is holding his head tight with both hands, totally mortified that he didn't score from such a gimme of a position. For all his form right now, inability to wrap up chances such as this will be what marks him out as an average striker rather than an international class one.

The half time whistle and it's only 1-0. City will actually be happier at this, given the luck they've had, the form of their alleged reserve keeper and the talent they have a-waiting on the bench. Aside from Bullard, there's also Bernard Mendy waiting for a call-up, a renowned game changer. We confidently expect both to be introduced for the start of the second half.

They aren't. And although City create the first chance of the half when Cousin gets a firm header on to Ricketts' long throw but - again, tiresomely - aims it right at Green, we pay for our lack of willingness to accept when it's all gone wrong.

West Ham surge forward again and Collison has room to fly by Ricketts and shoot at Duke's near post. It hits the inside and rolls angularly across the six yard box for Cole to tap home with comfort. It's 2-0 with still 40 minutes left, and only now is Bullard introduced. Craig Fagan is summoned too, but not Mendy. Geovanni (invisible) and Manucho (disgraceful) are given the shepherd's crook.

In five minutes, we see the evidence as to why Bullard should have been involved from half time (or better still, from the beginning). Dawson and Fagan pass intelligently between one another on the left edge of the box for the latter to lay back to his fellow sub, who hit a considered, powerful low drive which Green stretched every sinew to reach and tip away. Immediate class from the new player.

Marney, whose presence on the pitch after two substitutions did surprise people, picked up his game a little and hit one elegant shot goalwards which a deflection took further wide of Green's grasp, forcing a corner. Shortly afterwards, Marney has room to look for a run into the box and the cross seems ideal for Kilbane to hurl himself at, but the Irishman decides he won't be able to reach it and so leaves it entirely, much to the Tiger Nation's chagrin.

With 20 minutes left, after Cole had been given a clear run on goal but seen his shot deflected off Turner for a corner, Brown introduced Mendy for Marney. Despite the stick he took, Marney is afforded a generous ovation off the park as he at least had the class, unlike the previous two withdrawn players, to applaud the travelling fans while he made his way to the bench. On came Mendy, presumably with a brief to cause a nuisance to the opposition, something he does with aplomb whether told to or not.

Duke backpedalled furiously to tip a sublime Noble lob over the bar, prior to West Ham's introduction of Luis Boa Morte, a player barracked on to the pitch by the Tiger Nation for turning down a move to the KC earlier this month. He is probably quite relieved at his decision.

Julien Faubert tried a late shot which Duke saved well prior to a meaningless bit of injury time and a final whistle greeted with apathy by both sets of fans. West Ham are on a fine run but their supporters had little more than professionalism to cheer due to the appalling performance of their opponents. City were, with the exception of Duke, as dire as we feared we may be when all the sniping about Derby County Mk II was being aimed at us following Wembley.

The grumbles overheard as we joined the 62-mile long police-cordoned queue at Upton Park tube station mainly declared that the team which ended the game - Bullard, Fagan and Mendy on; Geovanni, Manucho and Marney off - was the one which should have started. It certainly should be the team when West Bromwich Albion come to the KC at the weekend - any my God, how wretched and scared and ridiculed we will feel if we lose that one.

West Ham United: Green, Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Collison (Faubert 71), Noble (Boa Morte 84), Di Michele (Nsereko 86), Cole. Subs not used: Lastuvka, Tristan, Tomkins, Sears.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Marney (Mendy 73), Ashbee, Kilbane, Geovanni (Bullard 53), Cousin, Manucho (Fagan 53). Subs not used: Myhill, Garcia, Halmosi, Folan.