Saturday, 25 April 2009

34: Hull City 1 - 3 Liverpool - 25/04/2009

This doesn't look like a relegated team to me. The spirit, the upsurge in quality and the determination of Hull City to pull off a shock result when all had, justifiably, written them off, suggests the points required for Premier League safety will come from somewhere.

A long shot it may have been to expect something against a Liverpool side still aiming for top spot, but the Tigers had a go nonetheless and, until a bit of idiocy from one player made an already hard job touch the boundaries of impossibility, the chance to upset an understrength and underwhelming Liverpool was certainly there.

Phil Brown asked for commitment rather a lot in his programme notes. This is precisely what he got. Perhaps this was most telling in the way that Fernando Torres was reduced to the role of spectator, taking the odd distant snap shot, for much of the proceedings. The best centre forward in the world didn't seem to be interested. Attitude on his part aside, this does Hull City's defence a great credit.

Liverpool tend to rely heavily on Steven Gerrard and Torres, but with one injured and the other playing like he may as well have been, there was little to suggest they were a team who could capture their first title in 19 long seasons. Xabi Alonso is a wonderful midfield leader, but the rest didn't seem at the races.

Brown picked Nick Barmby, mercifully, to play behind Caleb Folan up front, with Daniel Cousin still only able to cameo if required and Manucho, all silky skills and clanging finishes, forced to sit beside him on the bench. Andy Dawson's training injury meant that Kevin Kilbane dropped back into defence.

City enjoyed the early possession in brilliant East Yorkshire sunshine but it was Liverpool, and the inventive Yossi Benayoun, who created the first chance, with the Israeli weaving through the centre with the ball tied to his toes prior to finding Torres on the edge of the box, whose shot was tipped over comfortably by Boaz Myhill.

Benayoun then showed willing again, cutting inside Sam Ricketts and curling a right footer over Myhill and on to the roof. Both were reasonable chances but their distance encapsulated City's willingness to squeeze the opposition attack, reduce the available killer balls and prompt potshots of little substance instead.

City's first mild sniff of goal came when the maligned Dean Marney, enjoying himself more than usual, hit a low left footer which Jose Reina carefully watched wide. Soon afterwards, a Ricketts long throw was headed partially clear to Geovanni, with the Brazilian's technique in glorious slow motion as he got his foot over the bouncing ball and crashed a superb dipping volley inches over Reina's crossbar.

The Brazilian then swung in a dangerous corner which Marney won to head goalwards, only for the ricochet to favour Liverpool, and Jamie Carragher managed to hack it away as both Kamil Zayatte thundered in for the scraps. Michael Turner won another Ricketts chucker shortly afterwards but the header dropped just too close to Reina for anyone in black and amber to benefit.

This was good stuff from City. Endeavour, combined with enough quality to make an underperforming Liverpool backtrack, allowed them to dominate the rest of the half, although Lucas Leiva had time to put a half-chance wide from 20 yards, without any real danger to the Tigers, and the excellent Dirk Kuyt hit a shot from the corner of the area which was deflected for a corner that came to nothing.

As half time approached, the axe was swung down on City, initially by refereeing confusion, then by Spanish brilliance. Martin Atkinson played advantage after Marney's foul on benayoun - for which he later booked the Tigers midfielder - but then gave a free kick for a lesser challenge by George Boateng on Javier Mascherano in a much more dangerous position. As we contemplated the possibility that Liverpool got rather too much advantage, given the softness of the free kick eventually given, Alonso was hitting his shot into a well constructed City wall. We were still applauding the rearguard as the ball flew back to the Spaniard, who promptly sent a fizzing and undoubtedly exceptional volley past Myhill before the keeper could blink.

For the second week in a row we had conceded a highly dubious goal right on half time.

Kilbane swung in an injury time free kick at which Reina flapped, earning himself a dubious free kick in the process. Despite the feeling of injustice, the ovation was long, loud and upright as the Tigers sauntered from the field, a goal down but heads up. Getting anything from Liverpool was only ever going to be a tall order, and perhaps more so now that a goal had gone into Myhill's net. But there was hope, purely from the resourcefulness and commitment - Brown's word of the day - in the performance.

The second half started brighter for the visitors, but Torres was remarkably profligate. He fired high and wide, from distance again, after excellent work from Benayoun and didn't look entirely bothered all day. Mascherano then had another dip from distance which whizzed over the bar as Liverpool again seemed content to bide their time and just take the odd speculative dig at Myhill.

Alvaro Arbeloa then found room after fantastic work in a tight corner from Kuyt to give Torres something more presentable, but again he swatted the shot way too high.

So as the hour approached, City were again restricting their illustrious visitors to distance shooting. It just needed some becalming, influential football from the attack to get the Tigers back on course.

Instead, they got a Folan brainstorm.

Mr Atkinson was crucified verbally by all when he issued the red card at the City striker. But at closer quarters, it was clear that Folan had, beyond all brainlessness, had a kick at Martin Skrtel as the centre back tried to block his path to the ball. Skrtel went down as if he had dropped dead, but overreaction notwithstanding, the red card was correct. It was also stupid, and given the paucity of strikers already at City's disposal, a three match ban with only four games left for one of the few available reeks of careless, petulant selfishness on Folan's part.

Craig Fagan, as peripheral as he had ever been, then had a chop at Skrtel the moment the defender returned to the fray and was booked. Brown sensibly substituted him without a second thought. Fagan's chippiness is - along with his appalling first touch - his own worst enemy and the last thing City needed was two attacking players suspended. Folan had played relatively well without ever being a serious goal threat, and the crueller breed of City fan would suggest that ten men on the park counts for as much as eleven men if one of the eleven is Folan.

Fagan was replaced by Bernard Mendy and, gratifyingly, Cousin finally returned to action, replacing the unhappy Barmby. Before either could prepare to make an impact, Liverpool had inflicted further punishment when Benayoun crossed from the right and Skrtel, of all people directed a header goalwards which Kuyt's forehead finished off deftly.

The seething Tiger Nation became, now, incandescent with rage. However, the response from the players was more productive, to the extent that they had soon pulled one back, and in a most artistic manner too. Mendy hit a swinging crossfield ball on to the toe of Cousin, who used all his strength to power past two Liverpool defenders and pull the ball across Reina's reach for Geovanni to put into a net very empty. Hope was reignited, even bereft of a man, and City seemed more than willing to just have a right go at Liverpool.

Liverpool maintained a level of calm, and Lucas had a half-chance on his left foot which he promptly ruined by trying to scoop it with his right. Torres then came close - the only time he did so - when he climbed highest on to Kuyt's cross and smacked the header against the crossbar.

Brown went for broke, slinging on Manucho for the tireless Boateng, and the nearest City would come to equalising was when Geovanni swerved in a smart free kick from the left which Reina, under severe pressure from the Angolan, managed to punch semi-clear prior to his outfield colleagues getting rid properly.

For all City's possession, the opportunities to score were scarce for the Tigers and soon it became clear that Liverpool were closing the game down entirely. This they did as effectively as they ever could when Myhill could only beat away an Arbeloa drive and Kuyt finished the task with his second, capping a fine personal performance.

Nobody expected a thing from the game, and while those expectations bore fruit as far as points were concerned, the desire and commitment which Brown demanded in his notes was there in abundance. A fraction of this, with a good dollop of discipline, should be enough to add to the quality and show and find the points necessary to maintain a Premier League place. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Hull City: Myhill, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Kilbane, Fagan (Mendy 62), Marney, Boateng (Manucho 79), Barmby (Cousin 62), Geovanni, Folan. Subs not used: Duke, Hughes, Halmosi, Garcia.

Liverpool: Reina, Torres, Alonso, Benayoun (Agger 87), Arbeloa, Kuyt (Dossena 90), Mascherano (El Zhar 85), Leiva, Insua, Carragher, Skrtel. Subs not used: Cavalieri, Riera, Aurelio, Ngog.