Sunday, 22 March 2009

30: Wigan Athletic 1 - 0 Hull City - 22/03/2009

Yet again fate rather than form seems to be the key component in City's quest to confirm a second Premier League season. Sorry defeat to Wigan Athletic in certainly one of the more lifeless adventures of the campaign has, mercifully, done little harm in terms of position in the table.

What an abject game of football this was. Wigan were better, but only just, which sums up their ambition now that they have found themselves in an admirable top half position. It took a dual mistake from two City players late on to give them their goal, just when the fitting goalless draw looked set to be rubberstamped as the true valuation of a totally sparse encounter.

Phil Brown had no skipper, and boy did it show. Well, he did have a skipper - he chose Kevin Kilbane for the role on his return to the club who sold him to us two months ago - but he didn't have a leader. Ian Ashbee's hamstring strain which prompted his half time withdrawal at Arsenal in midweek, meant City lacked cohesion and organisation, not to mention spirit, in midfield.

Brown was also unable to call upon Anthony Gardner after his back whack in the final minutes at the Emirates, but at least Michael Turner was declared fit. Despite his heroics at Arsenal, there was no place for Nick Barmby, with Bernard Mendy and Dean Marney returning to midfield and Peter Halmosi dropping to the bench to allow for Kilbane's return.

Again the bench was devoid of Daniel Cousin, and again whispers began about whether we'd see him again this season.

The JJB is one of the easier on the eye nu-grounds of the 1990s, though it isn't helped well by the gaps in each corner and the fact that nobody in Wigan wants to watch football. The lack of atmosphere off the pitch and the lack of quality on it made it a deeply unappetising spectacle for the people who had chosen to tune in via the live Sky coverage, though unlike those in attendance, they could walk away and do something more stimulating at any time. We were stuck with it.

Had a fortuitous effort gone into City's net in the very first minute we have seen a different type of game, albeit one which still might not have done the Tigers any favours. Maynor Figueroa - all five vowels present and correct in that surname - attempted a cross from the right which swirled and swerved and left Matt Duke totally flat-footed, smacking the outside of post and crossbar on its way out.

From Charles N'Zogbia's corner, the same player headed just wide. An early escape for City, but not for the game itself.

Marney had a poor return to the fray after his three-match ban. His industry and willingness to stay involved will always be virtuous but today was one of those frustrating Marney days which puts the whole team in peril. When he's good he's excellent; when he isn't he's easy to scorn.

After six minutes he lost the ball on the halfway line and Wigan countered rapidly. Paul Scharner got to the byline where the good side of Marney, albeit one trying to clear up his own mess, did its job by blocking his cross; but a second ball did go in and avoid Duke, two attackers and Sam Ricketts all on the line. A touch, any touch would have sufficed.

Three minutes on and Scharner is again to the fore, nutmegging Kamil Zayatte on the byline but being deprived of further options by Turner's covering challenge.

City weren't doing much. Wigan were in possession, in command and looking far more likely to open the scoring Ben Watson hit a snapshot low from distance which Duke held easily enough, and only such untesting finishing from the home side was preventing them taking a lead which the game probably needed.

The Tigers went so far as to create nothing at all in the first half. Wigan kept the squeeze on but it was hardly the alamo, it was just dishwater stuff. Mido twice shot wildly over the bar, Hugo Rodallega swerved a free kick right into Duke's grip and then the same player forced a better, sprawling save from the Tigers custodian, who then got to his feet to block Scharner's follow up.

The only noteworthy thing from City was the withdrawal of Andy Dawson through injury and Richard Garcia's introduction. This prompted a shuffle involving Mendy and Ricketts, which surprised people assuming that Kilbane would just shift back into Dawson's role and disrupt the shape as little as possible. Perhaps the fact that the existing shape had done pretty much nothing of note led to the more convaluted change prompted by Dawson's knock.

The half time whistle was nothing but a boon. It meant Brown could sort out the tepidity of City's performance and we could find an alternative source of entertainment on the concourses.

And the second half was certainly better. City did crazy things like passing the ball, keeping it, attacking their opponents' end of the field. Given the first half vacuum of activity, it was certainly a step up. And, for a while, it looked like it could reap tangible reward.

The closest chance was the first. Craig Fagan forced a corner with a sharp, penetrating run and Marney delivered a wicked kick on to Manucho's head. It was on target and meaty enough but Chris Kirkland defied natural human reflex to fling up a hand and palm it over. Turner headed the second Marney corner over the bar.

City attacked, buoyed by this early upturn in fortune. Geovanni got to the edge of the area and played a ball towards Manucho which couldn't quite reach its target, but the clearance landed to Marney who skied the volley with his left foot.

Zayatte had taken a severe clout in the first half as he and Ricketts dually tackled Rodallega and the three of them all felt the impact. Ricketts had been deemed the culprit and had received a yellow card but Zayatte was hurt. His withdrawal on the hour brought Caleb Folan, curiously, into the play with Ricketts shifting into the middle of defence and Kilbane now, at last, dropping back.

Folan's introduction was curious because, well, he isn't cut out for this level. The absence of Cousin and the patience required over Manucho means he remains part of the scene but ultimately he is proving, as he did in his own spell with Wigan, that although a capable Championship performer and exceptional third tier player (as he was with Chesterfield before Wigan tried him for size) he simply hasn't the class to make the final step up. When he has been involved, his season has been about his rather lax attitude to chasing (he could learn so much from Cousin on this) and his propensity for getting caught offside a hell of a lot. Plus we'd lost a defender and Nathan Doyle, chastened by his experiences of starting games lately, was on the bench and ready.

Compare this with Garcia, like Folan thought to be maybe taking a step beyond the level his ability would carry him, but currently a genuine form player and one who absolutely should be knocking on his manager's door demanding a starting place. His industry and touch has never been in doubt, but in this second half of football he also showed a rare but pleasing grit on the ball, taking challenges with the force with which they were intended, maintaining control and possession while earning yards for City with some smart runs. He is looking as good as he has ever looked.

Duke had to block Watson's close range effort after a miscued shot from Mido fell conveniently into the redhead's path, then Scharner headed over after City can only half-clear a free kick.

As the midway point of the second half, Garcia is City's best player but the opportunities are dwindling. He manages one shot which goes too high but by now Wigan have regrasped the nettle, and City are starting to tire on one of the wider pitches in the Premier League.

Watson hits the side netting in one of those semi-comical moments which are celebrated as a goal from the blind side of the pitch. City try to respond with Garcia and Kilbane both raining in crosses which are cleared and then hit over by Marney respectively. Rodallega comes closest yet for Wigan with a header that smacks the woodwork. Goalless draws have certainly been better than this.

Brown slings on Halmosi for Fagan, clearly an effort to win the match, as always. But within four minutes of this last dice throw, the home side have broken the deadlock. Duke flaps Mario Melchiot's long throw but still the danger could have been cleared by Marney, to whom the ball lands. His attempted overhead clearance is charged down by Watson who then guides a raised shot over Duke and in, despite Ricketts' best efforts on the line.

The remaining few minutes, plus injury time, are only notable for Folan flicking a Mendy cross wide and the referee going off injured, leading to a literal cry of "you're not fit to referee" towards Mr Marriner. All very witty but this was a bad, bad day. City have played worse than this, but it was an occasion where they just didn't seem to do anything, within a game as a whole that will be unlikely to get a DVD release from either club shop.

Saving grace? The results around us have barely changed the table. We're still four points and five places clear of the drop. Our next three games are against sides all around us in that zone and yes, some proper spoils would be most welcome. Meanwhile, let's just forget about this one.

Wigan Athletic
: Kirkland, Melchiot, Bramble, Boyce, Figueroa, Watson, Brown, Scharner (Kapo 77), N'Zogbia (De Ridder 46), Rodallega, Mido (Zaki 72). Subs not used: Kingson, Pollitt, Edman, Cho.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Zayatte (Folan 61), Turner, Dawson (Garcia 38), Mendy, Marney, Kilbane, Geovanni, Manucho, Fagan (Halmosi 82). Subs not used: Myhill, Doyle, Barmby, France.