Thursday, 22 April 2010

35: Hull City 0 - 2 Aston Villa - 21/04/2010

And so another nail takes a hammering. The game in hand has gone and with it, almost certainly, Hull City's status as a Premier League club.

Yet again we proved that the team isn't good enough, the risk on a new manager hasn't paid off and the future generally looks bleak. While there is much to be had from competing equally in the Championship and making the process of watching one's team fun again, there is a lot of doom and gloom abound after digesting Adam Pearson's programme notes. He criticised Paul Duffen again, which was both welcome and expected. But he left enough rope therein to allow a self-hanging in the summer if the anticipated relegation becomes reality. There is trouble ahead for the Tigers.

This knowledge almost makes the nature of last night's defeat to a polished but cynical Aston Villa side unimportant. Villa were better than City, as befitting of a side chasing a place in Europe's elite while steadfastly refusing to have anything resembling a squad big enough. Meanwhile, the Tigers sink merrily deeper, seemingly unaware of just how awful the football is despite the presence of a handful of players whose wages are far exceeding the level of talent or commitment on display.

Iain Dowie is going to fail. He won't accept that, but one suspects he knows it. One is certain that the chairman who took a spin on him knows it too, and is getting his retaliation in first. Pearson is a club legend forever but is unspeakably dreadful at picking managers, and yet it will still be his job to pick another in the summer. And even if, via a miracle that would make the burning bush extinguish itself in shame, the Tigers take nine points from the last three matches and survive, Dowie cannot stay.

He picked the 4-5-1 that did so well at Birmingham City and quite rightly. Yet once more he failed to turn it into a 4-4-2 when the state of the occasion demanded that the Tigers chanced their arm and attacked a little more. And, frankly, 4-4-2 is hardly taking a chance, is it? It's the natural formation. Dowie was unlucky to lose Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink to a vile head injury - the big Dutchman was unconscious before he hit the ground after the foreheads of he and Richard Dunne made sickening contact - and so Jozy Altidore's introduction was unavoidably like for like. But when, with the score only 1-0 to Villa, Geovanni was summoned, it was the impishly brilliant Tom Cairney instead of the woefully short - of skill, pace, direction, touch, you name it - Kevin Kilbane who was dragged off. And the catcalls from the Tiger Nation were loud and long and fierce for it.

Soon afterwards, Villa got their second and were strolling to a win that they didn't really have to work too hard for. City began to embarrass us all, with touches going awry and tackles being missed and passes being not just misplaced, but largely invisible full stop. Paul McShane has never played a worse game of football in his life, and plenty of Sunderland fans will laugh at that thought. Craig Fagan was all kill and no skill, everything that creates despair in him. Jimmy Bullard reverted to his deeper position and looked for full backs only. The centre backs, less culpable than anyone else, were devoid of assistance as Villa chose, sometimes, to go for more goals. It wasn't as bad as Burnley but that is more from the caveat of who the opposition were rather than from any real improvement.

Villa had the first chance of the game when Carlos Cuellar headed right at Matt Duke from a Stewart Downing set-piece. City responded with Kilbane spooning a reasonable chance far, far over the crossbar after Vennegoor of Hesselink had nodded an Andy Dawson cross into his path.

Cairney lost the ball in midfield for the only time in the game but nearly cost City dear as James Milner charged on to the loose ball and exploited the space but screwed his shot wide. It wasn't going to take long, it seemed, for Villa to get their opening goal, though they did so through circumstances that all of the travelling Villa fans - and how few of those there were - would have found richly comical.

A ball was played into the Tigers box. Ibrahima Sonko tried to clear and hit a Villa body. It went to McShane and he tried to clear and it hit a Villa body, again. The ball ricocheted wide for Gabriel Agbonlahor who collected, sized up where the space on a quickly guarded goal was and promptly found it, with Duke's hand and two leaping outfield players each beaten by the accuracy of the shot.

A fantastic finish, but a chance that should never have even remotely gone Agbonlahor's way.

Stiliyan Petrov then tested Duke's fingertips from distance before City responded with their only real spell of pressure. George Boateng won a splendid tackle to release Kilbane, who got Vennegoor of Hesselink in on goal. Brad Friedel blocked but Kilbane followed up, hit one shot at a covering defender, a second at another defender, and then the third, with the ball now in front of goal, at the one Villa player left on the goalline with everyone else on the deck. Kilbane essentially was one on one with a player who wasn't allowed to handle the ball. He failed.

Dawson tried a free kick which cleared the wall and hit the target but was easily clutched by the astute Friedel, who knew where it was going before it was kicked.

A chunk of the first half remained with no chances resulting and lots of delaying tactics from Villa players, with Stephen Warnock and Ashley Young especially guilty. It was frustrating stuff but Villa have form for this sort of thing, and they remain the most cynical and deceitful team at this level, getting away with much of it because they have English players at the forefront of it. Warnock was especially loathsome.

The second half started with Cairney enjoying a fine run in and out of three players before giving Fagan a crossing chance that ended up as a corner. It came to nothing, but Sonko's long throws proved a semi-effective weapon thereafter, and Vennegoor of Hesselink hit a volley into the ground from one such howitzer that Friedel tipped over. From the corner, Vennegoor of Hesselink suffered his head injury.

There was a ten minute delay, caused as much by the slowness of the stretcher bearers in actually getting to the stricken player as by the injury itself. Altidore eventually came on and 4-5-1 was maintained, but little else. Sonko chucked in more throws, Dunne dealt with them simply and confidently. Cairney took one gorgeous corner that Steven Mouyokolo headed wide, then a counter-attacking Agbonlahor went for the long-range curler after John Carew's layback, but Duke did well to touch it over when it looked destined for the net.

Geovanni was seen to be getting ready to come on at this stage. Now, the Brazilian hasn't looked committed from what little football he has had of late, but even so the extra pace on the ball and vision made him seem perfect. Kilbane, unable to look the correct way, let alone make any kind of contribution as a football player, could be withdrawn and City would charge after an equaliser. At worst, Fagan could be yanked away from the scene after a particularly unpleasant evening of whinging and strutting not backed by footballing prowess.

But Dowie took off Cairney.

Cairney had been booked but had also been in total control of City's ratio of possession, more so even than Bullard. The reaction of the crowd brought back memories of how Geovanni's own withdrawal against Blackburn Rovers last season was greeted, only this time it was far more deserved. Dowie called it wrong. Dowie made a change not to improve, but to maintain. Taking off a less cultured player than Cairney may still not have worked, but it would at least have given an indication that City were trying to get back into the game. Like for like does not do this, especially when the player taken out of the equation was the one who seemed most competent on the ball.

Carew countered from another Sonko long throw and, with City struggling to get bodies back, fed Milner who reached the area, slipped inside Boateng and had his ankle taken. Penalty without argument, and Milner himself sent Duke the wrong way very neatly.

Dowie put Kilbane out of our misery afterwards and sent on Seyi Olofinjana, but the remainder of the game was played out without signs of life, hope or commitment, and that is as much a description of the Tiger Nation as it is of the team. We're beaten. We're spent. And we're down. Open the inquest now. There's no point at looking at our three remaining games, nor those of West Ham United immediately above us, as we simply will not get another point all season.

Hull City: Duke, McShane, Dawson, Sonko, Mouyokolo, Boateng, Cairney (Geovanni 70), Bullard, Kilbane (Olofinjana 84), Fagan, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Altidore 54). Subs not used: Myhill, Cooper, Barmby, Cullen.
Aston Villa: Friedel, Cuellar, Warnock, Dunne, Collins, Downing, Milner, Petrov (Sidwell 84), A.Young, Carew (Heskey 90), Agbonlahor. Subs not used: Guzan, L.Young, Beye, Reo-Coker, Delfouneso.