Sunday, 27 December 2009

19: Hull City 1 - 3 Manchester United - 27/12/2009

This was a brilliant game of football, won by the right team but if Hull City can reproduce such commitment and creativity in more winnable fixtures then the future should be bright.

The problem is, the Tigers often can't do that. We'll soon see evidence of whether this applies again as Phil Brown's men venture to Bolton Wanderers on Tuesday night for a game that stands alone for the next month as one where three points are as vital as any during the course of the season.

Simple talent eventually made the difference as the Premier League champions weathered 70 minutes worth of amber-tinted storms before sealing a well-earned and hard-fought three points. The Tigers, however, were proud in defeat. And a spot of luck and composure was all that stood between City and at least a share of the spoils.

Brown made three changes, one of which was enforced when Paul McShane picked up a training injury and missed out on facing the club where he served his apprenticeship. Bernard Mendy was recalled at right back, while Jozy Altidore - not considered for the whole squad at Arsenal - was put into the team in place of the feckless Geovanni, and Seyi Olofinjana beefed up the midfield with Nick Barmby reverting to the bench. Gallingly, the defensive crisis that has hit United recently cleared up just enough for four specialists to return to the team, including the colossus Nemanja Vidic.

The champions made the first chance courtesy of a strong run down the right by Antonio Valencia, whose eventual cross was volleyed on to the roof of the net by Ryan Giggs. The United skipper then swerved a free kick into the side netting after a rather soft foul on Wayne Rooney by Kamil Zayatte.

This foul was one of many such that Alan Wiley gave the visitors' way, leading to some members of the Tiger Nation suggesting in forceful song that he was too scared of Sir Alex Ferguson after their very public disagreement earlier this season to give middling decisions the way of United's opponents. Certainly Wiley hasn't been a favourite of Brown either, though ultimately the criticisms were overblown and unfair for what was one of the more fearless refereeing performances at the KC this season.

Stephen Hunt, as willing and as niggly as ever, sent a rather unconvincing low volley the way Tomasz Kuszczak as City began to find some belief in themselves. This was helped by defending that was desperate and heroic but also awe-inspiring, especially when Zayatte chucked himself whole at Darren Fletcher's shot, deflecting the chance to Rooney who was foiled by an equally brave Mendy.

The referee could have given City a penalty when Richard Garcia, suddenly playing at the sort of level that galvanised some of his performances in the latter part of last season, was sent through the inside left channel and was caught by Wes Brown. Contact with the ball was distinctly unproven but the protests from City's players weren't over vociferous, although replays later showed it was a clear foul.

Olofinjana forced a good save from Kuszczak from distance and then Boaz Myhill had to be alert to tip a Rooney drive over the bar after Dimitar Berbatov had put his strike partner through. Trading chances, although thus far the real opportunities had been crafted by the champions.

Then Garcia broke through two challenges in style and sent Craig Fagan scampering clear. Rarely does Fagan deliver first time crosses with panache and accuracy - this is an understatement - but on this occasion the curling ball was exceptionally delivered on to the boot of the late-arriving Olofinjana, whose volley into the ground was well kept out by an exposed Kuszczak. Easily the best chance of the game, and one that City need to capitalise upon when they come round.

Myhill collected Rooney's low curler without too much strife but then miskicked a straightforward back pass while entirely unchallenged. Giggs found Rooney with the suddenly loose ball but although chaos ensued for a short while afterwards, the Tigers defence was back in place quickly enough to ensure no shot was aimed at goal. The City keeper looked suitably relieved.

Another good chance came City's way when Olofinjana shook off a protesting Rooney and fed Hunt to the left, with the Irishman trying to guide a low shot in at Kuszczak's far post, missing by inches. Again a big, big chance had gone begging as the half time whistle approached.

Berbatov hit the side netting from a tight angle and then Myhill saved miraculously from Rafael as the youthful full back started and ended a bright passing move but, befitting an inexperienced defender in a forward position, hurried his shot when served with the chance. Anthony Gardner then kept his wits about him to deny Berbatov a shot from a counter attack, but from the corner the ball was cleared to Fletcher wide on the right, and his centre was touched on by Giggs and steered in by Rooney.

Two minutes of added time had elapsed and it was a total sickener. Altidore still had time to tee up a distant shot which stung Kuszczak's fingertips but the whistle sounded with City feeling hard done by and the champions in the ascendancy.

The early part of the second half was most memorable for the unkind chants aimed Wiley's way as he gave a cluster of half and half decisions in favour of United, although few of them were as dubious as the Tiger Nation claimed. Eventually City's spell of mini-pressure told as Rooney played a chronically underhit back pass which Fagan intercepted and, having been forced wide by Kuszczak, chipped to Altidore at the far post, with the American being clattered to the ground by Rafael. The penalty was given, Rafael was booked and Fagan coolly sent the Polish keeper the wrong way in precisely the manner Geovanni abjectly failed to execute a week before at Arsenal.

Now there was a game on. Michael Carrick aimed a fizzing drive from long range which Myhill had to fingertip wide, then Brown flicked Giggs' corner goalwards and the City keeper needed more fingertips to deny Rooney underneath his own bar.

City rallied after United made their first change - Ji Sung Park coming on for Valencia - and Hunt's persistence won a corner which he swung in himself, and Garcia won the header strongly but aimed it inches wide.

It was all happening in a breathlessly open and exciting match. Patrice Evra avoided a second yellow card - he'd been booked in the first half for tripping Garcia - when he caught Fagan's ankles on a counter attack, instead getting a stern lecture which Wiley requested his skipper Giggs witnessed. Berbatov then headed wide from Park's cross as United turned the screw.

They retook the lead in devastating fashion, clearing a Tigers corner which allowed Berbatov to set Giggs going on the right. Rooney made the run down the inside right channel and aimed the low ball for Park, and a desperate Andy Dawson turned the ball into his own net as he tried to prevent the Korean tapping into an open goal. Rooney's leap towards the travelling United faithful suggested one very relieved player.

Brown slung on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for the excellent Garcia as City threw a bigger presence into attack but soon it was dead as a contest when Myhill's goal kick was headed a long way clear for Rooney to chase into the box, and his exquisite low ball nutmegged Gardner, rendered Myhill a spectator and gave Berbatov one of the simplest finishes of his career.

As the ball hit the net, Kamel Ghilas and Geovanni were both waiting to come on, and Brown still gave them their minutes on the park, even though they were now essentially facing a dead rubber instead of a salvageable game. George Boateng and Altidore made way for them.

City nearly set up an onslaught to finish when Mendy and Vennegoor of Hesselink combined superbly - the big Dutchman's backheel was divine - but Mendy's final effort went wide. Fagan hit a vicious shot past Kuszczak's post after a free kick was cleared high into the air towards him, and City were in possession, seeking a goal for the more respectable scoreline when the final whistle shrilled.

United will be grateful for the points and will know they have been in a game. For the Tigers, it immediately asks questions about whether they have the motivation, energy and desire to replicate such a spirited and indefatigable display when taking to the Reebok Stadium pitch in 48 hours against a major rival at the foot of the table. One would really like to think so, as it would make this game hold some relevance beyond merely gaining a few extra admirers. Ultimately, no points were gained and when your team is second bottom, they are somewhat crucial. But it was a cracking match from beginning to end.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Boateng (Geovanni 83), Olofinjana, Hunt, Garcia (Vennegoor of Hesselink 77), Altidore (Ghilas 83), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Cairney, Barmby.

Manchester United: Kuszczak, Rafael, Evra, Vidic, Brown, Fletcher, Carrick, Valencia (Park 63), Giggs (Obertan 78), Berbatov, Rooney. Subs not used: Foster, Fabio, De Laet, Owen, Welbeck.