The cheer of Christmas and the prospect of turning over an old gaffer on Boxing Day have been there since the fixtures were announced, but as that very Boxing Day and the official beginning of the second half of the season approaches, we are doing it all from the lofty height of second place.
The achievements of Steve Bruce and his men so far are tremendous, of course, but naturally he and they would say they are also without foundation unless the momentum can be continued. This site agrees, declaring as it did after the win at Derby County that we are now officially challenging to win the title, and lift a trophy that many of the greatest skippers to kick a ball on this soil have risen above their heads in triumph.
Of course, these great skippers led great teams that were cajoled and structured by great managers, and if our team and manager want this dual honour (albeit allowing for the trophy now going to the winners of the second tier) then only victory over teams such as Leicester City will make them worthy of it. If there is a minor – and it is so minor it’s actually only ascertainable with an electron microscope – concern with City thus far, it is that they have only managed to beat one of the top six around them. And among the teams that has given the Tigers a bit of a cuffing this season is Leicester City.
Nigel Pearson is an imposing presence, physically and figuratively, and while the dust has long settled on his untidy exit from the Circle over a year ago, a good number of City fans still want to beat Leicester for reasons aimed squarely at the gaffer, and even the more reasoned, worldly-wise followers like the idea of bloodying his nose again. It was achieved last season with style and drama, to the extent that it has a place in the Circle’s ten finest games, and the opportunity to repeat that feat this season and maybe push closer to looking down on everyone else in the table by the time 2013 takes off its shoes is one to make the tastebuds tingle.
Is Bruce a better manager than Pearson? Goodness knows. Though both were uncompromising defenders in their day, Pearson is the only one who has pasted his role as rearguard pragmatist into his managerial philosophy, while Bruce believes a little more in attacking football and surprising the opponent. You can’t imagine Pearson playing with wing backs, or chucking on forwards until there was barely a midfield left as the urge for points became more stark. He was and is a more considered, more technical plotter of victories; Bruce just likes to go after goals if the players are available who can get them. But City didn’t concede many under Pearson, whereas a clean sheet for a Bruce team is a rarity. That hardly matters for as long as the greater number of goals are going in at the other end, naturally, but when we get a drought (none of our centre forwards are scoring at all at the moment), the emphasis on protecting the goal at the other end – something we knew didn’t trouble Pearson in the slightest – will test Bruce’s capabilities to the full. The two have their obvious plus points, and the battle of tactician versus improviser will be as intriguing as the individual square-ups taking place on the pitch.
Bruce won’t alter the formation, but there are decisions to make over the personnel. He has to replace David Meyler, who is suspended after five cautions and is halfway up the A19 back to Wearside anyway. Seyi Olofinjana is the next in line, but Bruce could instead keep the Nigerian on the bench – which many would prefer, especially as his non-displays of late have still not put him below the unfairly forgotten Paul McKenna in the pecking order – and drop Robert Koren into a more familiar deep central role. This is doable because of Sone Aluko’s return after injury, and the City top scorer’s absence has been both bemoaned and unnoticed thanks to City’s perfect sequence of results while he underwent his treatment.
Aluko needs to be installed to the front line, however, as no striker has found the net while he has been out, with City’s goalscoring coming via Koren and Meyler, plus some ruthless usage of set-pieces. Jay Simpson has put in the work and contributed tangibly to the winning run, but hasn’t scored and rarely has looked like doing so. As we’ve seen, however, he seems to find a second wind as a centre forward when the Nigerian is beside him.
Pearson has a decision to make about his strikers as Martyn Waghorn, briefly a resourceful loanee at the KC last season, has returned after an appendix operation, but otherwise is expected to stick with the team that lost narrowly to leaders Cardiff City on Saturday.
Koren’s injury time winner last season gave the Tigers a famous win but generally the recent history of this fixture is pretty even, with four wins each and a pair of draws since the teams got together in 2005/6 for the first time in 15 seasons. Last season’s glorious finale notwithstanding, the games at Leicester are generally more eventful than those in Hull, and the Foxes were last victorious at the Circle on New Years Day 2011 courtesy of a solitary goal by Darius Vassell.
The situation for City is much more promising than at this point of the 2007/8 season, and with absolutely nobody to fear in the division the scene is set for Bruce and his charges to make themselves club legends. The one thing that will aid them in their quest is good results against the teams around them in the division, and Leicester are one of those clubs. The bookies have Leicester at 13/8 for a win, with City at 17/10 and the draw at 11/5, prices that suggest they aren’t massively sure how to call it. You’d hope, however, that the team with home advantage and four straight wins behind them would be too strong for the team lower in the table who have just lost two on the spin. C’mon City.