Saturday, 14 March 2009

29: Hull City 1 - 1 Newcastle United - 14/03/2009

It was Newcastle United's supposed "Cup final" and, as a lot of Cup finals have drearily proved in recent years, there seemed unlikely to be a winner. If you wanted to see two sides more anxious not to lose than they were to win, this was as a good an exercise as any.

The win at Fulham was terrific but one wonders how inspirational it proved given that it was ten days ago and the Tigers have had the chance to go rusty if they weren't looked after in the right way. On the other hand, the game at Craven Cottage represented a fourth match in nine hectic, breathless days and the break was necessary.

Phil Brown resisted the temptation to make the heroes of that win, Richard Garcia and Manucho, into starters for the visit of the managerless and rudderless Newcastle, and for good measure he kept Andy Dawson on the bench after the flawless full back completed his one-match ban. The starting XI was precisely that of Craven Cottage and quickly it was evident it was the right thing to do.

Newcastle may have an England legend in Michael Owen and a World Cup Select XI player of the past in Nicky Butt, but they haven't a great deal more. Their quality in midfield is, frankly, a disgrace for this level and their defence, aside from the shaggy-haired Fabricio Coloccini, is more than penetrable. City can feel that while the game evened out as the nerves took hold, it should have been won by half time.

The Tigers took the lead after just nine minutes when a fine counter attack sent Craig Fagan racing down the left. Fagan has apologists and detractors alike, but one thing they've all generally agreed on is that for a frequently deployed wide man, his crossing has always been less than competent. However, on this occasion, he bent a pearler of a centre beyond Steve Harper's grasp for Geovanni to crane his neck muscles at and nod in at the far post. It was a smashing goal.

It should have been complemented with another. City were ascendant in the extreme and Newcastle were disorganised and had their fans, loyal and loud but also among the most deluded and fickle of them all, having a real pop at their defensive sluggishness. Yet it was the visitors who, eventually, began to create the better chances once the match re-settled.

Obafemi Martins - who, judging by the chants from the visiting support, seems more popular than strike partner Owen - made room for a shot which he blundered over the bar after Geremi and Butt had created the opening. Then, after Fagan hooked over the bar a chance he wasn't expecting and Geovanni swerved a free kick inches past the post after being fouled, an equaliser came.

It was all a bit pedestrian from the Tigers and Brown won't be happy. Butt had too much room to look up after a half-cleared set-piece and put in a ball which Steven Taylor swung his leg at. His shin made contact and the ball looped over and round Matt Duke and in the far corner.

So, 1-1 and City had chucked away the dominance that their early goal had seemingly handed them. Daniel Cousin, industrious but entirely luckless, beat off Coloccini's challenge for a slide rule pass and curled one high and wide while Newcastle waited for a whistle because Coloccini had stayed down.

City forced an injury time free kick after a foul on Geovanni, which Kevin Kilbane swung in and Michael Turner headed back across. Fagan chested it down but his overhead kick attempt was high and wide.

Half time came and went, as did Cousin. He managed fewer than ten minutes of unimpressive scampering across the visiting back line before Brown hauled him off and sent Manucho on. The cheer was great for the Angolan and presumably the expectation on him was too.

Instantly he got a half chance as a Newcastle free kick was cleared and a fine counter attack involving Sam Ricketts and Bernard Mendy offered the awkward centre forward a sight of goal, but after turning nicely he shot right at Harper.

Such opportunities became more scarce, at either end. Martins found space on the right to put a dangerous low ball in which went behind Owen and reached Jonas Gutierrez who blasted it wastefully over the bar and incurred the wrath of unforgiving away supporters in the process.

Martins then got between Ricketts and Turner - no mean feat - but was off balance in doing so and scuffed his shot a long way adrift from a reasonable position.

City's best chance of the half didn't really happen, in a way. Fagan swivelled elegantly and sent Mendy haring clear but the Frenchman is really out of sorts at the moment and the low cross which should have given the unmarked Manucho a simple tap-in was aimed too close to Harper, who fell on it with some gratitude.

Brown slung Garcia on for Fagan, and the Aussie sub nearly made a quick impact when he challenged Harper strongly for Kilbane's inswinging corner, but the ball fell dead on the turf and the Newcastle keeper managed to get a hold.

Mendy was replaced by Nick Barmby with 20 minutes to go but even with such a substantial chunk of playing time left, both teams seemed happy with a point and nothing of note was created. Garcia could have won a late free-kick in Geovanni range in injury time, but referee Howard Webb inexplicably booked him for diving instead.

So, a draw, but one which at least looks welcoming when judged against the results elsewhere in the bottom section of the Premier League. A trip to Wigan Athletic beckons next week and certainly we owe them one. Meanwhile, there's no harm in feeling a little comfort with the position in the table and thinking now solely about how to inflict FA Cup misery on Arsenal and gatecrash the big boys' semi-final jamboree. Don't anyone doubt for a moment that it's possible.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Gardner, Kilbane, Mendy (Barmby 80), Ashbee, Zayatte, Geovanni, Fagan (Garcia 70), Cousin (Manucho 54). Subs not used: Myhill, Dawson, Hughes, Halmosi.

Newcastle United: Harper, Steven Taylor, Coloccini, Bassong, Jose Enrique, Smith (Ryan Taylor 75), Butt, Geremi, Gutierrez, Owen (Ameobi 73), Martins. Subs not used: Forster, Duff, Lovenkrands, Edgar, Carroll.