Saturday, 3 April 2010

32: Stoke City 2 - 0 Hull City - 03/04/2010

There were a lot of rumours flying around the concourses of the Britannia Stadium about Jozy Altidore's perceived indiscretion in training during the week. He had insulted the manager, goosed his wife, urinated in his petrol tank or set fire to his clipboard. And worse.

Something unspeakable must have happened anyway, as there could be no other rational explanation for Iain Dowie leaving him out in favour of Caleb Folan.

When one remembers how Altidore took Fulham on pretty much on his own at times last week, winning endless free kicks and instigating cautionable fouls one after another, it goes beyond all footballing sensibility to then conclude that a team trying to bring to a halt a period of more than a year without an away win, within a nerve-racking fight against relegation, would be better served by the preening, strutting and unproductive Folan instead of the young American.

But Dowie thought Folan was the better option. We knew he was wrong, and he realised it himself more than an hour into the game. He made the change, and instantly Altidore held of two Stoke defenders enjoying a game in their dinner jackets to set up City's first shots on goal.

That it took so long for any sort of chance to come showed just how toothless City were. Dowie picked Paul McShane to play in the centre of defence and his terrible error as he allowed the ball to bounce behind him let the rampaging Ricardo Fuller in for a simple opener after just six minutes. He injured himself in the process and had to be replaced at the break.

The goal set the tone for the game, as Stoke rarely looked bothered about extending their lead - indeed, only when Rory Delap was hurling in his long throws did they look inclined to try - while City's performance in the first half was dreadful, patterned with poor control, wayward passes and niggly fouls.

Only Glenn Whelan came close to making it 2-0, when City struggled on a Delap howitzer and he chested down the chance but then volleyed over. City forced one corner, right at the end, and Thomas Sorensen caught Jimmy Bullard's delivery under negligible pressure.

City started the second half better, and the largely frustrating Richard Garcia won three free kicks as he briefly found his touch, but Stoke's towering defence dealt with all three as Bullard's deliveries failed to find their target.

Dowie threw on Geovanni to rapturous cheers - the Brazilian has not been seen for a while - and withdrew the hardworking but bypassed Dean Marney, and then Folan was put out of our misery in place of Altidore, who immediately took on two men to get to the byline and went down. The referee waved play on as Geovanni took possession and laid the ball back for Craig Fagan to shoot, but it was blocked. George Boateng followed up but his shot too hit a Stoke body. But at last there was some urgency in the Tigers' play.

Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink
then came on for Garcia and suddenly there were proven attacking footballers all working together. There was a real opportunity, especially as Bernard Mendy was starting to creep forward from right back and provide real danger on the flank that Garcia had not. But the last ball rarely found its target.

At the other end, Boaz Myhill saved well at the feet of Liam Lawrence after the ball broke to the Irishman from a Delap throw, then on the next Stoke attack Boateng flung himself at a cross and headed away but took a boot in the face in the process and was down for eight minutes before he was stretchered straight to an ambulance and away to hospital. With the subs already on, City had to end the match with ten men and simply didn't really have the guts or craft to manage it. There was only one chance, which Fagan crossed in after overlapping Mendy and Kevin Kilbane's stretching volley was too high.

Stoke won it in the last minute of normal time when Tuncay and Matthew Etherington swept passes along the area to the overlapping Lawrence who steered a precise shot into Myhill's far corner. Eight minutes were added and neither side felt the need to do anything productive with them.

So, another defeat, the wait goes on for a win on the road, but ultimately this season's destiny remains about the home matches. There are four still to come, with only two more away, and so events at the KC will shape the Tigers' future, and with Burnley arriving next week the timing could not, potentially, be better. Defeats like this are demoralising but with the situation around the Tigers concerning the lion's share of home games and the one extra fixture in hand, it is possible to forget this one and move on to one that actually matters. And hope Dowie doesn't let his odd fascination with Folan cloud his judgement again.

And well done to Stoke. An adversary very hard to love but their progress should be greeted with nothing but pure respect.

Stoke City: Sorensen, Higginbotham, Huth, Collins, Faye, Whelan (Whitehead 72), Etherington, Lawrence, Delap, Fuller (Tuncay 46), Kitson (Sadibe 84). Subs not used: Begovic, Shawcross, Wilkinson, Pugh.

Hull City: Myhill, Mendy, McShane, Mouyokolo, Kilbane, Boateng, Marney (Geovanni 58), Garcia (Vennegoor of Hesselink 72), Bullard, Folan (Altidore 64), Fagan. Subs not used: Duke, Dawson, Olofinjana, Barmby.