Tuesday, 24 February 2009

26: Hull City 1 - 2 Tottenham Hotspur 23/02/2009

Old habits die hard, including bad ones. Hull City are slowly becoming the sort of team everyone feared they'd end up, even in the headier days of the autumn - the team which dominates, fails to rubberstamp that domination with goals, and then loses.

Jonathan Woodgate's 86th minute winner for Tottenham Hotspur told an old story of the Tigers. On a number of occasions now, the Tigers have lost their shape or concentration in the closing minutes and been roundly, devastatingly punished in a way the Premier League always punishes. And yet Spurs will feel immsense relief at this haul of point in their own quest for survival as they often looked second best.

Phil Brown has to shuffle a shrunken pack this week, with three home matches in the space of six days with which to contend. Although one eye was unlikely to be on the FA Cup replay against Sheffield United 72 hours later, some of his options clearly were designed to give City a fighting chance of winning that replay and still being able to shuffle again for Blackburn Rovers. However, with hindsight but also an element of science, it was clear he got his selections wrong.

Daniel Cousin's return after a knee operation was welcome, especially as Craig Fagan's own surgery, Caleb Folan's blind spot with the offside rule and Manucho's total lack of impact meant that the Gabonese striker was Hobson's choice. However, despite msart touches and one vicious shot which Carlo Cudicini watched fly an inch over his bar, he was tremendously off the pace, especially as no natural partner was made available to him. Richard Garcia played the makeshift role and put in a good effort, but with Nick Barmby providing yet another more natural option from the wings, it was hard to understand why Cousin wasn't given more help.

Absent was Bernard Mendy, which we later discovered was due to a late return to the city after flying back to France for urgent family reasons. He made the bench, and was supposedly still getting his suit and tie off when the game kicked off. That's fine - football does just sometimes need to come second - but Geovanni's omission was the most bamboozling. His shooting boots have deserted him wholly, but his performance at Chelsea, plus the premature completion of Jimmy Bullard's season, seemed a pair of gimme reasons to have him in the side. He too, however, started from the bench.

Brown brought Ian Ashbee back but kept Kamil Zayatte in midfield, providing extra screen for Dean Marney to make his runs but there was a lack of real quality, especially as Zayatte's limitations on the ball in simple circumstances were, for the second game in a row, obvious to all. Tottenham, with their underperforming but still cultured internationals, were a stark contrast. And yet they began the game as the lower-placed side and were trying to avoid what they would regard as an embarrassing double defeat.

Garcia had the first chance, taking a Zayatte flick and running across Woodgate who got a sturdy block on the on-target shot. Andy Dawson swung in the corner, Garcia flicked across and Anthony Gardner, finally on show at the KC again after an eternity, managed to spoon the ball back into play as Spurs panicked. It came back to Dawson who had stars in the eyes but got the shot all wrong, conceding even a throw-in in the process.

Dawson's change in fortune since the visit to White Hart Lane is as clear as anyone's. He had a wondrous game against Aaron Lennon in October, a week after that tackle on Theo Walcott and a heroic game of such defensive prowess made him even more of an icon than his City history already permitted. This time, he was given such early runarounds by the rejuvenated Lennon that he had committed two fouls in the opening seven minutes and earned a booking. He never quite got the measure of the England winger for the rest of the game.

City continued to exert early pressure, and it was remarkable to see that even Cudicini, once an exceptional goalkeeper in the immediate pre-Abramovich era at Chelsea, is susffering from the epidemic of dodgy keeper syndrome engulfing Tottenham. Countless times he flapped at or dropped crosses and set-pieces, and nearly embarrassed Woodgate when the defender guided a gentle back header towards his keeper, only for Cudicini to be caught out of position and have to scramble back and pouch the ball a yard from goal.

So, a good start from City - therefore it was inevitable that Tottenham would score first. A short corner routine between Luka Mdric and Jermaine Jenas wasn't closed down, and Lennon had room to thump an excellent 20-yard drive beyond Matt Duke. He can miss from two yards for England in a World Cup quarter final, but score from 20 at the KC. Hmmm.

A setback, then. City react instantly and Zayatte is put through by Marney, using his electric pace to take him beyond the last defender, and his crowbar touch to take the ball way too close to Cudicini, spuring a good opportunity.

The game began to slow down, but the Tigers were still enjoying most of the possession. Marney was especially resourceful, while Garcia - maligned for not being a striker but having to pretend so - was having one of his more productive outings.

Controversy then came when Gardner seemed to batter into Cudicini as both challenged for a high set-piece. No free kick was awarded, and City got a corner which Dawson swerved over. Cudicini again suffered - this time legitimately in all ways - from Gardner's aerisal presence and the ball ricocheted towards goal where Michael Turner followed up to make sure it crossed the line.

An equaliser entirely justified.

Instantly, City nearly got a second. Duke's high punt was killed by Garcia who, visibly gaining in confidence, found Cousin whose lack of mobility hadn't blunted his instinct for goal, and the 25-yard drive was vicious and swift, and just a foot too high.

It was good stuff, this. City were clearly in charge, but Tottenham fans could be consoled by the knoweldge that they had players who were capable of pulling something from the hat, and it was obvious even to the casual watcher that one thing the Tigers lacked was finishing prowess. A second goal was predictable; it was just hard to predict which side would actually score it.

Woodgate stabbed a Modric cross over the bar before Sam Ricketts, playing probably the best attacking game of his mixed season, embarked on a flowing, athletic counter attack which seemed set to end with a shot, but instead he fed Marney's overlap before hurtling after the instant cross and flashing his header wide. Dawson then put a free kick over the bar after Modric fouled Kevin Kilbane, earning the Croat a booking.

The second half continued to the same pattern as the first, and indeed became more end-to-end, with midfields being bypassed more and defences working harder than ever. Darren Bent turned elegantly to dispatch a powerful shot goalwards which Duke held well; then Gardner twice had opportunities from Marney's corner to find the target, but the ball eventually diverted to Kilbane whose shot was blocked.

Gardner's effort at the other end remained unflinching too, taking a Wilson Palacios shot full in the stomach after a chronic pass by Zayatte put City under needless pressure. Modric then swung over a free kick and Vedran Corluka headed on to the bar and over.

Brown withdrew Cousin, regrettably but understandably, and chucked on Mendy. This meant that there was now no specialist centre forward on the park, with Garcia thanklessly poloughing a lone furrowq up front and hoping for help from Marney and Mendy wherever possible.

Zayatte, totally unconvincing on the deck, nonetheless nearly shrouded his struggles with the ball for the second game in a row when he won a header from Dawson's corner but, unlike at Sheffield United, the ball refused to enter the net, touching the post and bouncing away.

The last ten minutes approached and Manucho was slung on for Garcia as Brown, true to form, made a change aimed at grasping a winner. Instead, the majority of the closing period was all Spurs, with Jenas making room for a pulsating drive which Gardner blocked as Duke dived to smother.

The winner came when Gardner chose to follow Benoit Assou-Ekotto's run, leaving too much space in the box, and Woodgate clambered above Dawson to direct a firm, flying header beyond Duke's reach. City were caught out of position and slow on the uptake, and were roundly punished. Woodgate was instantly substituted with blood pouring from an eye wound, leaving the pitch a hero to one corner of the KC.

Geovanni immediately replaced Zayatte but there was nothing in the tank, and the final whistle heralded a thoroughly despondent mood among the Tiger Nation. This game was not only winnable, but to fail to do so in such dramatic fashion thanks to their own indiscipline is infuriating and frightening. That the defeat was to a side almost certain to prove that a relegation battle was not for them is scant consolation, and while some doom-merchants now claim City will not win again this season, all we can do is maintain some faith and hope Brown picks the next team correctly. And tell the morons claiming he's finished to keep quiet.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Dawson, Marney, Ashbee, Zayatte (Geovanni 87), Kilbane, Garcia (Manucho 79), Cousin (Mendy 67). Subs not used: Myhill, Doyle, Barmby, Halmosi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Cudicini, Corluka, Woodgate (Dawson 89), King, Assou-Ekotto, Lennon (Zokora 87), Jenas, Palacios, Modric, Keane, Bent (Pavlyuchenko 72). Subs not used: Gomes, Bentley, Huddlestone, Chimbonda.