Saturday, 30 January 2010

23: Hull City 2 - 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers - 30/01/2010

A seriously big opportunity thrown away. The lead was twice relinquished as Hull City's thriving forward play was let down by poor decision-making in defence, and in the end it was a fortunate point as Wolves nearly snaffled it.

After the days out in north London and Manchester, it was a long-awaited home clash which was singled out as the one truly winnable game of the month of January. A big occasion too, thanks to the bad weather of the early weeks putting paid to the fixture against Chelsea and therefore the KC Stadium crowd was ripe and ready for a first game at home since Manchester United's win just after Christmas.

Phil Brown showed his appreciation of the occasion too by tearing up his teamsheet and starting again. Kamil Zayatte's training injury made room in defence for Steven Mouyokolo, while Bernard Mendy, Jozy Altidore, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and, most pleasingly, Tom Cairney all began the game. Mendy's inclusion along with Wolves target Stephen Hunt - afforded a roaring welcome by a Tiger Nation desperate for him to stay - meant that there were two genuine wide men out there, with two big centre forwards to aim for. Cairney's chance has been long, long overdue, and he was entrusted with the midfield creator's role on his Premier League debut with George Boateng acting as his support. New signing Amr Zaki was on the bench.

Kevin Foley had the first chance of the game after some hesitation from Anthony Gardner at the back, but the angle was too tight and he skanked the chance wide. It was the first aberration of the day from Gardner, and would not be the last.

Altidore made room for a tame shot after fine work on the flank from the powerful Vennegoor of Hesselink, but soon this weighty combination would produce the goods. Altidore had room to draw two challenges and lay a neat smart ball to his left for the mighty Dutchman, who took one touch before drilling a super low drive beyond Marcus Hahnemann's hand and into the corner. A 20 yard shot, on the run, with his left foot. Proof that Vennegoor of Hesselink has more to his armoury than height and close range finishes.

Instantly, and perhaps greedily, a second goal was expected as Wolves seemed shellshocked. They had set themselves up fairly defensively and were relying on potent set-pieces to provide them with chances. At these, they were very dangerous and City struggled. Jody Craddock headed one fractionally wide from Stephen Ward's swerving free kick, then Foley also flicked one beyond the post as a corner from Matt Jarvis caused all sorts of strife in the box.

Hunt, industrious and chippy but also perhaps affected by the speculation surrounding the opposition's interest in his services, played an over-ambitious ball across the midfield which Mendy, its intended target, couldn't collect before Ward interceded and sized up the chance. The shot flew wide.

City reset themselves and Mendy began to have an effect, chipping one delicious ball to the far post which Hahnemann had to fingertip away as Altidore closed in. It was brief respite, however, as Wolves forced another corner which Jarvis took, Andrew Surman flicked on and Christophe Berra missed by inches as he threw his whole self at the whizzing ball.

Vennegoor of Hesselink then headed wide from a Paul McShane cross before sublime passing between Hunt, Boateng, Cairney and the big Dutchman nearly sent Altidore away, before Andy Dawson regained possession from Wolves imperfect clearance and crossed for a pressured Altidore at the far post, with the youthful American unable to get a proper connection on the ball.

Cairney was spreading the ball well but seemed a little lost with the pace at times, but there was much reason to be grateful to him when he strongly blocked a goalbound shot from Karl Henry, who had far too much room and a clear view of Boaz Myhill's goal. Half time came and City had survived some real pressure and looked good for the lead.

At Molineux in August, the last farewell for Michael Turner, City scored early in the game and then conceded a soft equaliser very soon after the second half got underway before escaping with a point after flying by the seat of their collective pants. Well, guess what...

The second half soon restored parity. Hunt chases a ball he didn't need to chase and succeeded in preventing the throw-in but also in giving possession to Ronald Zubar, whose low curling cross was miskicked over Myhill's head and into the net by the hapless Gardner. How this could happen to one of our centre backs again - Zayatte's shanker against Everton leaps to mind - when they are programmed to get boots through less dangerous balls like this is anyone's guess. It was a shocker from the ex-England defender, and he would be affected by it for the rest of the game.

Still, Hunt needed to take some blame and his half generally suggested that the newsprint wasted on his future had got to him a bit. City are adamant they won't sell but it remains hard to say this when the money on offer would make a major contribution to alleviating the burden of debt placed upon the Tigers by Paul Duffen's excesses.

His chance to make up for his error came quickly after the equaliser when Zubar climbed all over Altidore from Mendy's cross and, in the absence of Craig Fagan, it was left to the Irishman to restore the Tigers' lead. He did in style, though Hahnemann did guess correctly and get close. So Gardner appeared to have been let off, for the moment. It was 2-1 and City really needed to trust their attacking instincts and go for the third.

Dawson hit a high diagonal ball which Vennegoor of Hesselink climbed well to reach but his header had little purchase and drifted wide. At the other end, a counter gave the impressive Kevin Doyle the chance to draw Mouyokolo and free David Jones to his left, but Myhill saved well at the post.

Then the big chance for the third. A ball down the left for Altidore to chase and his strength and rapidity shook off the puffing Craddock, giving the American a one-on-one. Hahnemann narrowed the angle and Altidore's effort hits the keeper's midriff. Such a great chance for a player who has done so much of what is expected of him - except score a goal. And to add to his woe, Wolves are level again within two minutes.

It was a horrendous experience to observe, as at least four times the Tigers had a chance to put a foot through the ball from serious Wolves pressure and didn't. Gardner was culpable especially as he chose to take on two men instead of clearing high and long, eventually hitting the ball low and only to an opponent on halfway. Finally, the ball was played across goal, sucking in McShane at the far post, and Jarvis got the opportunity to cut in and aim a low right foot shot past Myhill, perhaps with a very slight deflection.

Brown withdrew the luckless Altidore and introduced the stocky Zaki. Vennegoor of Hesselink, now with real skill as well as power alongside him, flicked another set-piece wide before Foley smashed a terrific shot inches wide from an impossible angle after a ricochet from Jones' run came his way. Both sides could win it, neither looked like they would.

Gardner headed straight at Hahnemann from Hunt's free kick, then the Irishman won another set-piece near the byline and swung in an beast of a cross which Wolves couldn't find and evaded Mouyokolo by a hair's breadth. By now, Richard Garcia had replaced Mendy but the spark had gone from City, while Wolves seemed happy with the point judging by the trio of late, defensively minded substitutions they made. That said, sub Geoffrey Mujangi Bia nearly won it injury time when a free kick was partkially defended and fell to him in the box, but the excellent Mouyokolo got in the way.

It was a point celebrated more by the visitors than by City, but ultimately it may do neither any good. The hope for both is that there still could easily be three teams elsewhere in the tight scrap for points at the bottom of the Premier League that are worse than them. But perhaps that belief, or assumption, or hope, becomes a little more forlorn when performances against one of those teams don't give you the points.

For the Tigers, it was the really winnable home game as two more rear their heads over the next week against sides who only fools would not back to win. Chelsea and Manchester City come to the KC with riches and ruthlessness in equal measure. City certainly aren't rich, nor are they ruthless. And when you prove this against the lesser sides, you begin to wonder about your destiny. A point means it could have been worse, and certainly individual performances offer hope, but it is a big, big chance missed.

Hull City: Myhill, McShane, Dawson, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Boateng, Cairney, Mendy (Garcia 80), Hunt, Altidore (Zaki 69), Vennegoor of Hesselink. Subs not used: Duke, Kilbane, Barmby, Geovanni, Fagan.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Hahnemann, Craddock, Ward (Stearman 90), Berra, Zubar, Mancienne, Foley (Guedioura 90), Jones, Jarvis (Mujangi Bia 90), Henry, Doyle. Subs not used: Hennessey, Milijas, Vokes, Ebanks-Blake.