Sunday, 24 January 2010

22: Manchester United 4 - 0 Hull City - 23/01/2010

Wayne Rooney. The only difference between the sides in more than 180 minutes of football between Hull City and Manchester United. Put the two games together and you get a 7-1 aggregate win for the Premier League champions - and Rooney scored six of them.

Few Manchester United supporters, be they heartfelt types from Eccles or the depressingly growing number who wouldn't know a Rusholme curry house or a Deansgate pawnbrokers if photos of such establishments were tattooed on their eroding chins, would admit they are a one-man team. Yet in these games, the bankers, they really are. Because only Rooney, when professional competence is called into question, passes the test.

The Tigers can feel aggrieved and proud in equal measure. With 80 minutes on the watch the scoreline was still only 1-0 thanks to an early strike from the Liverpudlian wretch and City had given it all they could to equalise. A lack of positional sense in the penalty area and firepower in general was, again, the problem. Phil Brown had picked Craig Fagan, the least threatening goalscorer ever asked to score goals for his weekly wage, as the lone frontman yet again, and this became ever more frustrating when the introduction of Bernard Mendy as a second half substitute began to create havoc and chaos among an autopilotted United defence.

Indeed, Brown went for the same XI that began at Tottenham Hotspur last week, despite some artless, immature complaints from Spurs fans that it was so unfair that smaller, less wealthy and less skilful teams had shown such audacity in defending their goal for 100 minutes of football - and succeeded. These people really should learn that football starts, figuratively and literally, on a level playing field and each time has the basic right to try to make it at least end as such too. Otherwise we may as well hand over the points and save the train fare.

It meant that Fagan ploughed his lone furrow with as much help as Geovanni, Nick Barmby and Richard Garcia could give. This was, sadly, not much. Geovanni is finding it hard to mesmerise in a team designed to frustrate, while Barmby seems uncertain as to exactly what his role is. Garcia is, however, showing optimism in possession and a real desire to take on his man, irrespective of what limited expectation exists around him. They should all drop to the feet of Stephen Hunt, who has the attitude that the rest should ape - just play. Do what you are good at, which in Hunt's case is running, harrying, chipping away at the opposition and giving everyone - teammates, adversaries, officials, even fans - food for thought. If he is still a City player by the time Chelsea come north on February 2nd we should be very happy.

United decided that failing, dimensionless performers like Michael Owen and Nani should play, and both were wasteful throughout the game. Owen had the first chance when Rooney broke the offside trap down the left and laid it into his path but Anthony Gardner, colossal in all senses, got a sturdy deflection on the ball to send it wide. It was a mild let-off but given how much such early failures had hardened the City collective a week earlier in north London, it was a necessary one.

Then United scored.

Paul Scholes, from a semi-cleared set-piece, had time to look up and batter one of his definitive shots from distance towards the target. Boaz Myhill managed to slap it away but did so too narrowly and Rooney, left alone a little too much, had ample opportunity to steady himself and pick his spot from the rebound.

It could have opened the floodgates but conversely, Rooney's goal simply showed up how little United's other players regard Premier League matches that form part of the housework and little more. Hull City at home is not a game that will etch on the memory unless they actually lose it. At 1-0 up it was easy for them to step back and save their breath for the next occasion. To them, the game was won. And anyone who disagrees with this view should not try to use the further chances created as any kind of riposte, as they were half-heartedly finished and, consequently, didn't go in.

Nani crossed from the right and Ji-Sung Park, waiting, headed well wide after Paul McShane put him under pressure at the moment of contact. Rio Ferdinand touched a Nani corner horribly wide at the near post. Good chances, great chances, both of which were not converted because the players involved didn't think they needed to try too hard to do so.

Then, a glimmer for City. A combination of Scholes and Jonny Evans gave possession away with poor back headers and Barmby nipped in. The angle was tight but he managed to sweep in an instant shot that Edwin Van der Sar blocked with his feet. From the considerable distance involved it was impossible to tell just how little of the goal Barmby could see, but it felt like a chance.

Nani crossed from the right again and Rooney, on the turn, flashed a half volley just wide. He then flicked divinely to put Owen through but Andy Dawson got in a tremendous sliding challenge on the fringes of the six yard area as the chance set itself up. City were resolute but riding their luck, not least when Kamil Zayatte and McShane both blocked shots in the box before Darren Fletcher's third go, a spinning and awkward drive, was palmed away by Myhill.

Gardner headed out a Nani cross under severe pressure after more exceptional work by Rooney, then a free kick from the Scouse striker fell just wide with Myhill rooted to his spot. Scholes then sent Nani away on the right again and Gardner cutely heeled the cross away while furiously tracking back. Scholes slipped the follow-up to Rooney but he put the final chance wide.

Rooney was dominant and totally alone in this. It was gratifying to see that his initial success in front of goal was not being matched by either himself or his teammates and the frustration grew when Garcia neatly robbed him of possession to free Hunt who was promptly chopped down in a cloud of red mist by the embarrassed Rooney. A yellow card and a few choice words from Hunt, and cheers from the Tiger Nation. But while the catcalls aimed Rooney's way were justified and fun, it also made him more human and understanding of how football should be than anyone else dressed in red on the pitch (or, indeed, a good number of those dressed in red in the seats - or yellow and green, the colour of the anti-Glazer protests going on around the ground. What local window repairers have done so wrong is beyond us).

Owen is playing terribly at this point, to the extent that the cries of "City reject" from the droller element of the Tiger Nation rang more truly than the initial japery of such a chant suggests. Put through exquisitely by Scholes, he tried a dinking shot over Myhill and got no chip on the ball at all, allowing the City custodian to fall gratefully on a very weak and bleak effort. He then headed equally as unforcefully at Myhill from a Fletcher cross after Rafael had gone on a winding run down the flank. There is nothing left for Owen and those hacks who maintain he needs to play for England are now doing so only to embarrass an Italian coach than to promote an English centre forward whose best days are years and years behind him, never to return.

Half time, 1-0, and much to be positive about. It could have been more, but it wasn't thanks to United's own shoddy attitude and City's brand of committed defending that had, on two occasions, involved the throwing of entire bodies in the path of the ball. It was heroic and hopeful in equal measure.

The early second half was a non-event aside from when Fagan and Patrice Evra went into a touchline challenge and completely took out the linesman keeping up with play. The official hurtled down the shallow moat that separates the pitch from the supporters and evidently was quite shaken up, judging by the length of time it took for the two club physios to get him to his feet and fit to flag Fagan offside again.

The delay seemed to give City time to regroup and begin a new phase of real assault on the United goal. Garcia, grafting yet cultured and just maybe starting to convince his harder critics, forced a corner which Hunt swung in low and Evra missed entirely, forcing Van der Sar to test his reflexes for a catch he didn't expect to make. United responded with a Nani shot spilled by Myhill and cleared by Zayatte, then another Nani curler across goal that aimed Rooney's way but was just too far ahead for his touch. In the midst of this, Brown withdrew Barmby and gave Mendy his chance.

We got the Mendy we need. Shorn of defensive responsibilities, the Frenchman became an outlet on the flank that gave Evra all the problems in the world to the extent that Fletcher or Scholes would often come across to help their colleague when the ball was at Mendy's feet. He forced a corner with a driving run the moment he came on, which Hunt swung in and everyone missed. Kamel Ghilas then replaced Garcia, despite the total non-appearance of Geovanni at Old Trafford, and the Algerian immediately took advantage of the lack of offside from a throw to stand on the byline, take McShane's chucker into his stride and cross for Hunt to head across goal, agonisingly behind Gardner's hooking left foot.

McShane then fed Mendy again, and he weaved in and out of two defenders to make room for a left footer that was too high, then the two combined in opposite manner thanks to Mendy's smart ball and McShane's run. The cross reached Ghilas on the edge of the six yard box and he managed to turn but prod a shot across Van der Sar and beyond the far post. It was probably the best chance City had to equalise.

A corner was forced but quickly cleared and the counter attack nearly earned United their second, but substitute Darron Gibson chipped over and wide from distance. Geovanni was finally off by this time, but despite Tom Cairney's presence on the bench, Brown put the more prosaic Kevin Kilbane on instead. Exactly how replacing one player with a teammate who was his total opposite on the progressive and creative front was supposed to aid the quest for an equaliser against the Premier League champions is anyone's guess. Cairney must be considerably hacked off at not getting a game again.

With ten minutes left, Kilbane conceded a free kick. The decision was dubious; the efforts of Myhill to keep out Nani's targetted but tame shot was far more so. The ball popped into his hands, popped out again, hit the bar and chaos took over in the area. City got a partial clearance but seconds later it was swept across to Rooney who took full advantage of the turmoil in the box (and the lack of whistle for the prostrate Dawson's head injury) to batter the ball in and win the match. What will be will be. Dawson doesn't play for Manchester United so perhaps his skull is not regarded as enough of an asset to a match to prompt a referee to stop the match. Had Rooney gone down there would have been a request for a chopper from Lancashire Air Ambulance to hover over Salford, just in case. And the game would have been stopped even if the Tigers were about to tap into an open net. It's not bleating. But there is your difference, right in front of us all.

It thrust a stake through Tiger hearts and Rooney completed his hat-trick with a poked finish after Nani crossed well. Mendy had another go thanks to Kilbane's ball down the flank and did over the defence again but Ghilas was beaten to the cross by Rafael.

The United fourth came during five minutes of injury time when a long ball was allowed to bounce once too often by a dizzied Tigers defence and Rooney steered the ball in. The second goal was harsh for its being permitted; the third and fourth were harsh for what it did, superficially, to opinion about City's performance. Defeat was inevitable and for United, victory was deserved, but 4-0 told entirely the wrong story for the contribution and endeavour that the Tigers showed on the day. Kilbane, who will never score, should have done with pretty much the last kick when a corner fell on to his left foot but his meaty shot essentially hit Van der Sar in the midriff and stuck.

The real business begins next weekend when Wolverhampton Wanderers come to the KC Stadium. The attempt to cut it alongside wannabe biggies like Spurs and genuine biggies like Manchester United needs to be replicated against similarly sized and positioned sides around us, and a home game against Wolves is the epitome of this. Hull City never make things easy though, and next week will be a different animal entirely. Let's hope it still roars and bears its teeth as much as it has over the last two weekends.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Zayatte, Gardner, Boateng, Hunt, Barmby (Mendy 57), Garcia (Ghilas 70), Geovanni (Kilbane 74), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Mouyokolo, Cairney, Vennegoor of Hesselink.
Manchester United: Van der Sar, Rafael, Evra (Fabio 87), Ferdinand, Evans, Fletcher, Scholes (Gibson 72), Nani, Park, Rooney, Owen (Berbatov 72). Subs not used: Kuszczak, Brown, Carrick, Valencia.