Sunday, 14 March 2010

29: Hull City 1 - 2 Arsenal - 13/03/2010

The ball must have had a vicious swerve or taken a deflection not visible to the naked eyes within the KC Stadium. There must be a reason why Boaz Myhill chose to parry back into the danger zone a less than credible shot that gifted Arsenal an injury time victory they didn't deserve.

He might have been able to catch it. He certainly should have been able to push it sideways, away from obvious and immediate peril. That he chose to just push the ball from Denilson's effort back ahead of him, allowing Nicklas Bendtner a tap-in that released the Gunners from their jail sentence, was as sickening a blow as Hull City could have suffered.

This was as superhuman an effort as any recallable struggle in recent Tigers history. Only the fact that it ended in defeat prevents it from being the greatest ever. City were at 1-1 and had been a man down for the entire second half. The ten remaining players had battled and grappled and fought as Arsenal's cultural machine took a slow but evident stranglehold on the game. Right until the six minutes of added time were announced, there seemed a sense of inevitability that Arsenal would score. And yet that inevitability seemed to pass when the injury time began. So obviously, they put one away.

It could have been such a crucial point. At the most now, we can hope that this astonishing team performance can be replicated in the next three home games as they are winnable encounters against Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland. It fulfils the arcane City fan's adage of typical City that they quite possibly won't, and the Arsenal heroics will be seen as a rise to the big occasion rather than an example of what is required from all remaining games to stay in the Premier League. Teams that can play this well against such a pedigree side shouldn't be relegated. It remains a stark fact, however, that City could still be, and easily so.

Phil Brown
rung the changes and located his guts and brains by reverting to 4-4-2, despite fears over Jimmy Bullard's capacity to operate in such a system just yet. The surprises were still there, with Dean Marney's return from the cold - and a calf injury which few have believed was ever thus - to midfield alongside Bullard and George Boateng, with Tom Cairney missing out. One assumes that the talented youngster's absence from the bench meant he wasn't dropped, but unavailable.

Craig Fagan, with a sense of dread, was also back after his ban and the authentic duo of Jozy Altidore and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink were back up front as they should always be. Andy Dawson was restored to left back after illness and Bernard Mendy was given licence to be dreadful and dreamy in equal measure at right back.

The Tigers started nervously and Arsenal enjoyed sumptuous possession but little damage was done. Altidore was soon ejoying the challenge of facing the experienced but slowing Sol Campbell, and the first battle between the two saw the American shake off and turn the ex-England defender but then scuff his shot wide.

Arsenal can, of course, pass and create at will, with deft touches and a sturdy work ethic to go with a brand of football that just looks like nature at work. When on the receiving end of this it is hard to appreciate but it is quite extraordinary when one's emotions are cleared. The Tigers worked and harassed in the way that lowlier teams have to in such circumstances, but eventually the ballwork was always going to win.

The opening goal came when Emmanuel Eboué and Bacary Sagna swapped passes on the right to give Bendtner room to edge across the area and find Andrey Arshavin. The impish Russian casually nipped between two City defenders to find Myhill in front of him and he happily steered his shot home.

Scripts state that Arsenal will then take control, pass and move to their heart's content and take their opponents entirely for granted. This didn't quite happen. Tellingly, for now and the rest of the season, no heads dropped and City maintained their restricted but visible defiance, and got back into the match.

The equaliser was deserved; it could have brought more City's way than just a goal. Bullard's low ball to the edge of the area was flicked sideways by Marney and Vennegoor of Hesselink had a yard on Campbell, possibly an offside yard at that. The Dutchman crashed to the ground, the penalty was given and Campbell saw yellow. Vennegoor of Hesselink was in a position to focus on goal, thereby it was a clear goalscoring opportunity and so the absence of a red card was a talking point. It didn't take much attention initially however as Bullard had a penalty to take. He thumped it beyond Manuel Almunia's right hand and parity was restored.

The game began to get tasty afterwards. Fagan was being a pest, but in a refreshingly controlled way. Boateng was chasing everything, Altidore was utterly possessed in his desire to show Brown that dropping him in recent weeks was the act of a lamebrain. Arsenal still created but were in a match, and being given a lesson in the other brand of football - the one that claims that hard work and desire to suppress is as worthwhile as pretty passing and vision.

Abou Diaby climed highest to head a Denilson free kick wide, then Sagna overlapped as City appealed for a ball in touch and crossed for Bendtner who was followed by Eboué in being unable due to amber-shirted aggressors, to get a shot in. Arshavin got the last go and sliced it over.

Fagan was fouled on the right and a free kick was awarded, but then Bendtner and Boateng had an altercation that seemed little more than daft handbag stuff, but each were given yellow. This would be significant later.

Arshavin swiped another shot wide and high after being teed up by Eboué who had nutmegged Bullard in making the chance. It was a terrific spectacle and the second half was set to be a pearler. Then just as two added minutes were announced, Boateng went in high on Sagna as each chased a bouncing ball and got his second booking. Unlike at Blackburn Rovers, there will be no grounds for appeal here. He was careless and had to go, and the immediate thought was to get into the dressing room level and wonder how on earth the Tigers were going to deal with being down to ten against this terrific football team.

A half time change in personnel was expected, bearing in mind the presence of spoilers like Kevin Kilbane and Seyi Olofinjana who could do Boateng's admirable job. None was made, interestingly. City were going to restart the game a man light, with two strikers still on the pitch, a midfielder returning to fitness and another severely lacking match practice. Altidore went wider a little more but it seemed to be the only concession. Marney, catcalled at times by the unforgiving Tiger Nation but never hiding as a consequence, shook off the paucity of his own recent involvement in the squad to put in one of his shifts of immense work. It just began to look hopeful, though only just.

Vennegoor of Hesselink headed a Marney cross wide and then Altidore made a fabulous flowing run but chose to release a clearly offside Vennegoor of Hesselink instead of continuing his run and maybe having a dig. City won it back through Kamil Zayatte from Arsenal's clearing free kick and he decided one of his rampaging dashes was in order, but Campbell brought it to an end with a crunching tackle which was fair but extremely hard. Zayatte was stricken, helped from the field, helped back on and then finally collapsed to the extent that he needed a stretcher. Liam Cooper was introduced.

So let's re-assess the situation. City were playing Arsenal with ten men and two 20 year old centre backs who had never before been in partnership. Not exactly a scenario to presume a point was possible. Yet Cooper, along with the excellent Steven Mouyokolo, was immaculate. Beautiful, at times. His reading of the game and ability to be where he needed to be to head or hack away the ball was the action of a special young defender.

City carried on. Altidore broke away from Campbell again and fed Bullard square, and the mercurial midfielder had room to shoot as Arsenal backed away, but aimed the shot a yard too high. Arsenal threw on Theo Walcott, giving Dawson the chance to replicate the exceptional display of the Emirates last season that no member of the Tiger Nation will forget. Walcott was influential and quick and delivered ample dangerous balls but the finishing was wayward from the Gunners, with Arshavin especially profligate.

Bendtner hooked a half chance over before Brown withdrew the flagging Vennegoor of Hesselink and introduced Richard Garcia as City began to adopt pragmatism as a point became a clear possibility. Mendy hurriedly got rid of a Walcott cross from his own six yard box and managed to clear the whole stadium in doing so, before Cooper made a magnificent block at close range from Bendtner who had the goal at his mercy from another Walcott centre.

Walcott tried again, scuffing a shot woefully wide as the squeeze on City's rearguard tightened more. Cooper then got across Walcott before the ball was even played into the England player's run, and took it away from him with a stunning bit of reading of the game. It was impeccable.

Kilbane came on for Altidore as City essentially went 4-5-0. Six minutes were signalled to account for Zayatte's fall and Myhill held a Gael Clichy shot before his heartbreaking flap, maybe with wind assistance or partial vision, or both, put Denilson's shot into Bendtner's gleeful path.

It's as disheartening a defeat as one can remember, following one of the most stirring performances that makes one forgive the bleakness of City's recent showings in the Premier League. That it came so near to a big point and yet ended up so far away could prove crucial in the long term as well as soul-destroying in the short term. City are three points adrift of safety now, simple as. And displays like this against a colossus of the game are unlikely to be repeated against the beatable sides we have still to play - Portsmouth, Burnley, Sunderland, Wigan Athletic. That's the tragic thing.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, Dawson, Zayatte (Cooper 55), Mouyokolo, Boateng, Marney, Bullard, Fagan, Altidore (Kilbane 82), Vennegoor of Hesselink (Garcia 73). Subs not used: Duke, Olofinjana, Barmby, Zaki.
Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Clichy, Vermaelen, Campbell, Denilson, Diaby, Eboué (Walcott 65), Nasri (Eduardo 76), Arshavin, Bendtner. Subs not used: Fabianski, Silvestre, Traore, Eastmond, Merida.