Saturday, 4 April 2009

31: Hull City 0 - 0 Portsmouth - 04/04/2009

A game which was dominated by nerves more than anything, despite the trio of England starters on show and the knowledge that one big result, one extra effort, could be enough to keep the spectre of relegation at bay for the remainder of the campaign.

While the agony prolongs for both Hull City and Portsmouth after a goalless stalemate, a draw is still acceptable to both clubs, with a couple of results going their way below and the sunlight still separating them from the relegation zone.

Portsmouth could have won it, City probably should. The Tigers' form at the KC has been lukewarm for some time now but in most of the recent setbacks before their own support, the opportunities have been there and either lack of luck or a brief lapse in concentration has done for the chance of three points.

Against a Portsmouth side which has some tremendous players who have suffered through lack of organisation and inspiration off the park, the paucity in concentration nearly happened again in the final minute of injury time when Hermann Hreidarsson headed a free kick against Matt Duke's far post. However, maybe the luck was on the Tigers' side when the ball bounced away to safety rather than slipping nonchalantly into the net.

Phil Brown picked a side which most had anticipated - Ian Ashbee was back after his hamstring strain and Dean Marney dumped on the bench following his bad showing at Wigan. A surprise or two was still in the offing - Bernard Mendy kept his place despite the strongest possible challenge for the right hand side berth from Richard Garcia (only Garcia's commitment to a long round trip to represent Australia could have forced Brown to stick with Mendy here) while Nick Barmby got a rare and welcome start in place of Kevin Kilbane.

After some bright, chanceless football from both teams, England's finest (or finest available, anyway) combined for Portsmouth when Glen Johnson crossed from the right for Peter Crouch to head firmly goalwards but way too close to Duke. City's first chance came on 20 minutes after some patient possession football, Geovanni had a smidgeon of room to whap a 20 yard shot well wide of David James, again wearing an amber and green jersey which looked a little too similar to City's kit.

Barmby's intelligent inside right run allowed Sam Ricketts to find him, and his flick backwards gave Mendy room to swing a curling low cross on to the boot of Manucho, who volleyed wide. A slightly disappointing finish but good football from City. It's a rare attack, with the nervousness on and off the field obvious, but occasional flourishes do show themselves.

Johnson committed a frustrated foul on Kamil Zayatte and, after a chipping from Craig Fagan, was booked. Fagan is slowly becoming better known as someone who can wilily wind up opponents than he has ever been for scoring goals or beating defenders. Johnson stayed on a knife-edge when he fouled Geovanni within seconds, and referee Chris Foy rightly refrained from booking the full back again, instead proffering a stern lecture with captain Sol Campbell told to keep his charge calm.

From the Brazilian's resulting free kick, Manucho and Michael Turner both threw themselves ballwards but neither got a worthwhile connection and Campbell hacked it clear from the six yard box.

Geovanni then won another free kick close to the corner flag, and the goalward swipe from the Brazilian nearly caught James on the hop, but the England keeper managed to fist the ball off his own goal line. Portsmouth then missed a super chance when Crouch won the aerial duel from a corner and David Nugent sent his free header over Duke's bar.

Interplay of good quality from Mendy and Barmby gave Manucho another shooting chance but the distance was too much and he spooned it high and wide. Half time arrived, with the chances few and far between and the butterflies almost visibly emerging from stomachs as other interval scores were learned.

Immediately from the restart, Ashbee sent Fagan through to round James, but he was forced wide and his attempt to cross the ball was anticipated by the fast-recovering keeper, who caught the ball before it could cause any damage.

Crouch managed to send a dangerous ball goalwards which Geovanni, showing a work ethic which belies his country's stereotype, managed to hack clear from his own six yard area as Younes Kaboul came in for the scraps.

Mendy's cross is then headed over by an off-balance Barmby, and Ashbee volleys high and wide after Geovanni's cross from touch is only half-cleared.

City's best chance came just after the hour when a cross is badly dealt with by the Portsmouth defence and an ill-judged back header is reached by Fagan's own forehead but James acrobatically tipped it clear.

Niko Kranjcar, unnervingly quiet through the game to this point, then begins to exercise some influence. Having forced a corner, he then gets a second go at delivering the right ball and fizzes a low cross through the mass of legs with nobody on either side able to get a meaningful touch.

By this stage, Johnson had committed two more fouls but neither, rightly, had been deemed serious enough for a yellow card by Mr Foy, irrespective of the booking the full back was already on. A foul on sub Kilbane - just on for Fagan - also goes unpunished. But then he trips Marney, who himself had just come on for Barmby, and the nature of this one - Johnson clearly overrunning the ball into the City midfielder's path but going in for the challenge anyway - finally makes Mr Foy decide that enough was enough. Protests from Crouch about Marney over-egging the situation fell on deaf ears and Johnson was heading down the tunnel.

Wanting the points, Brown withdrew Ricketts and threw on Caleb Folan to add an extra body in attack, prompting Mendy to drop into the back four. Mendy, his deep position allocating him more room to roam, had one fine run which made space for a shot but fired it yards wide.

The three minutes of added time nearly produced a winner with Hreidarsson's header but a goalless draw - City's first at home in the League for more than a year - was the inevitable outcome and neither side will be greatly troubled by it. For City, there was probably a target of four to seven points from these three all-compassing matches against sides beneath them - and it's a trip to a toothless, almost wholly doomed Middlesbrough next week. Bring it on.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts (Folan 85), Zayatte, Turner, Dawson, Mendy, Ashbee, Barmby (Marney 74), Geovanni, Manucho, Fagan (Kilbane 71). Subs: Myhill, Garcia, Halmosi, Featherstone.

: James, Kaboul, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson, Johnson, Mullins, Hughes, Nugent (Kanu 64), Kranjcar (Belhadj 76), Crouch. Subs: Begovic, Pennant, Belhadj, Basinas, Pamarot, Utaka.