Saturday, 14 February 2009

FA Cup fifth round: Sheffield United 1 - 1 Hull City

Given that we always, always, always lose at Sheffield United, this result was a blessed relief. It was also a chance missed. For once, the Tigers looked a class above their hosts at Bramall Lane but were unable to make second half chances count and an unwelcome replay now needs to be accommodated into a packed calendar.

If Hull City are to achieve a first FA Cup quarter final since 1971 or even a first semi-final since 1930 then they're going about it in precisely the wrong way. An exciting way, yes. An eventful way, definitely. But a complicated, expensive, risky way. This competition is allegedly a distraction to Premier League clubs, and the usual policy is either to sack it off in the third round or get through each round without fuss or hindrance. City are doing neither. The Blades will come to the KC for the replay feeling they can win; City will go into the same game adamant that they have to.

Phil Brown made some positive team selections while still deciding that Jimmy Bullard should wait until the occasion demands it, while other big-hitters like Daniel Cousin and Ian Ashbee were also absent. Bernard Mendy returned from his ban, Boaz Myhill got a blue-shirted stint in nets and Caleb Folan was installed up front. In the absence of Ashbee (and long-term injury victim George Boateng), the captaincy went to Dean Marney. Best sight of all was Anthony Gardner returing to the defence after 371 years out with a thigh injury, a resurrection which allowed Kamil Zayatte to move into Ashbee's spoiling role.

Bramall Lane, a tip on the outside but maintaining a fierce and fabulous atmosphere within, was not quite full although the away allocation had sold out easily and conclusively, despite the attractions of Valentines Day. And the home side, featuring plenty of household names despite pre-match complaints of a massive absentee list, started the game far better.

Maybe he was more lagged than others after the warm weather jolly in Dubai, but Andy Dawson was given a hard time, harder than he ever got from Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon, by David Cotterill on the right flank while Greg Halford, playing as a makeshift centre forward, made sure Gardner was given an ample test on his resuscitative return. Halford and the ever-lively Lee Hendrie made the first opening for the hosts after just two minutes, with Hendrie gliding a low ball through the entire City defence and with only poor luck stopping any red and white striped body getting on the end of it.

Within another five minutes, the lead had been snaffled as City still tried to work out their shape. Cotterill made more room on the unaware Dawson, and his high cross was nodded in at the far post by Halford with consummate ease. Claims of climbing were half-hearted and duly ignored. City had conceded a bad goal, and done so early. The same old story of Bramall Lane was beginning to be told again.

As if jolted by this shock, City began to play. It was soon clear, despite the reasonably even possessional ratio, which was the Premier League side on show. The work of the full backs, especially the excellent Sam Ricketts, was productive and incessant and the likes of Marney and Mendy got plenty of ball and saw plenty of options as a result. Marney likes games like this - he is allowed space to look up and spray the ball effectively. He knows that he has a brief chance to shine while Geovanni is off-form and Bullard still waits to be utterly, totally ready.

Marney fed Folan who went on something of a gallop in and out of defenders with great industry but little direction, yet forced a corner. Dawson took it, Zayatte headed it over. That combination would soon prove more lethal.

Halford then does something rarely accomplished by more feared individuals - he gets the better of Michael Turner for strength and reach as the Blades clear long towards him, but the shot his burl makes room for is weak and straight at Myhill.

Geovanni then has a shot which loops wide and high - typifying the awful time the Brazilian is currently having with his range - but an equaliser is forthcoming. Ricketts overlaps the influential Mendy, gets decked near the corner flag for a free kick, and Zayatte thunders a header past Paddy Kenny from Dawson's wicked inswinger.

So it's level and rightly so. Only the start was dire from City; now they were on top and displaying a proper appetite for the occasion. Chances to take the lead come and go - the clearest sees Mendy find the side netting from Folan's astute flick - but largely the half peters out and the evenness of the scoreline is disguised by the strength with which the Tigers end the half.

The second half was almost all City, although it wasn't replenished with gilt-edged chance after chance. Few of those clear-cut opportunities were crafted, but certainly the possession and desire categories were fulfilled by the Tigers, possibly horrified at the thought of a replay, for once.

Folan had an early penalty shout waved away as Halford sliced away at him from Geovanni's nicely flicked pass, then Richard Garcia - a player who does so much that nobody tends to notice - mistakenly opted for a low header from Ricketts peachily delivered cross and directed the ball right at Kenny.

Zayatte then went on a rampaging counter which was aided by Mendy's overlap. Breath was held fast as the Frenchman whipped in a dangerous ball towards Folan, but a defensive foot just got there first.

Mendy's got the bit now, and takes two players on at once, successfully of course, and then cracks a low drive which Kenny does well to block with his large feet.

It's good, if not exceptional, Cup tie stuff from City. Certainly ascendant but not all-compelling in their domination, and Sheffield United, mainly through the very impressive Cotterill, still make the defence work. Yet Myhill rarely has anything to do. With ten minutes left, Manucho comes on for Garcia and begins to show touches of pleasing deftness for a man so ungainly, but ultimately he robs City of their best chance when he takes Ricketts' cross off Marney's ideally placed foot and ruins everything. He needed a shout. He probably got one but didn't understand it.

Blades sub Brian Howard spooned one decent injury time chance wide for the home side but a stalemate seemed inevitable and was duly confirmed shortly afterwards by the final whistle.

So, a replay a week on Thursday, with mega-important Premier League fixtures at the KC three days either side. It's going to be a dear and busy time for all connected with Hull City. However, it isn't too much to ask for four points from six and a victory in the replay - we're good enough and capable enough, after all. Whether the Tigers see Cup glory as too much of a risk when Tottenham Hotspur and Blackburn Rovers are due in town too is something which remains to be seen. Still, we are in a sixth round draw for the first time in 38 years, and that feels really rather good.

Sheffield United: Kenny, Jihai (Naughton 60), Morgan (Webber 31), Kilgallon, Naysmith, Cotterill, Montgomery, Quinn, Hendrie (Howard 73), Halford, Sharp. Subs not used: Bennett, Walker.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Dawson, Mendy (France 88), Marney, Zayatte, Garcia (Manucho 79), Geovanni (Barmby 73), Folan. Subs not used: Warner, Doyle, Halmosi, Featherstone.