Two. Two. Three. Four.
By numbers, City’s defence has steadily worsened in recent weeks. It’s cost us two leads, three wins, five Premier League points and qualification to the Fourth Round of the League Cup.
Yet, this one felt significantly less troubling than the rest, even if the quantity of concessions was the greatest yet. Yesterday’s visitors have spent an astonishing sum of money to assemble a dauntingly powerful side, and unlike recent times, we came away have scored our seemingly customary pair of goals without winning, but feeling fairly content.
City made ten changes to the side that slid to a dismaying late defeat at West Brom in midweek, as Steve Bruce carded: McGregor; Rosenior, Davies, Dawson, Robertson; Elmohamady, Livermore, Huddlestone, Diamé; Hernández, Jelavić.
That meant just one change to last weekend’s draw at Newcastle, with Quinn losing his League place to Rosenior, while Elmohamady pushed up to the right wing as Steve Bruce continued with his much-discussed 4-4-2.
Also the topic of considerable debate were the prices for this fixture. At £50 for an adult ticket, this was the costliest Hull City AFC home fixture in history, and that isn’t a proud boast. As a consequence, empty seats were visible in the home stands, and a gate of under 23,000 for the visit of the English champions demonstrates that whatever its revenue-raising abilities, charging fifty pounds for a single game will put a lot of people off.
The visitors had sold out their allocation, wedged into the north-east corner, and were in decent voice at the outset –nearly more so when Sergio Agüero blatted a shot at McGregor from a tight angle with less than a minute on the clock – luckily McGregor opted to stand up and Agüero declined a square pass to an unmarked team-mate.
The game pivoted in the sixth minute, when a Livermore cross from the left picked out Jelavić – he’d punctured the Mancs’ offside trap but his outstretched leg failed to divert the ball on target. Seconds later, we trailed.
Edin Džeko found space amid City’s wobbling defence, and though his shot was blocked the ball was transferred to Agüero, who very adroitly steered the ball high past McGregor. 0-1, and in truth it’d been coming – the away side had started extremely brightly and looked too fleet of foot for City’s troubled defence.
It got worse before it got better. With just ten minutes gone Silva found space on the left, swapped the ball inside to Džeko, whose 25 yard effort flew past McGregor and in.
Or did it fly through him? It was a good shot, but McGregor seemed slow to move and the paw he flailed at the ball seemed oddly unconvincing. Might he have done better? That may be harsh, but from the East Stand it didn’t seem unsaveable.
That desperately deflated everyone, as jubilant Mancunian cries filled the air. To their credit, City fans in both north and east attempted to remain upbeat, and despite the exasperating removal of the time from the scoreboards a minute beforehand, 19’04” was met in the now-traditional manner, with a gratifying lack of anti-City-song sentiment.
The scoreboard hadn’t yet been returned to its correct purpose when it required updating. Rosenior found space on the right and sent in an early cross to where Jelavić was lurking – however, before the ball could reach him Eliaquim Mangala very helpfully intervened to glance the ball past his own keeper. 1-2, a little lucky and a little out of the blue, but it had a remarkable effect upon the game.
From being a case of how many City would concede, genuine belief coursed through the side. Having previous looked so assured, the expensively-assembled champions began to seem peculiarly uncertain – passes went astray, often under City pressure, but sometimes through sheer nerves. It galvanised the home crowd, who sensed something could be rescued from an afternoon that’d previously been going badly wrong.
As the half wore on, City levelled. Diamé tried to feed Hernández inside the area, but before he could fasten onto possession Mangala clumsily barged into him from behind. The crowd howled for a penalty, and referee Anthony Taylor duly obliged.
If we liked clichés we’d probably say that Hernández dusted himself down to take it himself; anti-dust equipment was not in evidence, but a calm demeanour was as the Uruguayuan calmly sent the keeper the wrong way to make it 2-2.
Crumbs. City were actually on top at this point, with the visitors looking as bemused as the rest of us about the startling turnabout in the game’s direction. They threatened occasionally – they’re too good not to – but even their attacks began to lack conviction and City made it to the interval level.
Remarkable. Concourse conversations suggested that even a defeat would not be a disaster, for City would have the concrete achievement of pegging back the champions of England from two goals down. The mood was happy, buoyant, optimistic. It felt good.
It continued to look good on the pitch as well. Neither side made a change at half-time, though one fancies that Manuel Pellegrini’s observations at the break were on the uncompromising side. They had the first sight on goal in the second half when a blockbuster from Toure whacked squarely into McGregor’s right-hand post and back out. Phew.
As the half went along, Man City began to clear their heads a little, and while still competitive and admirably combative, City began to find glimpses of their opponents’ goal grow increasingly infrequent. That said, forays into City’s area had grown uncommon too – it was largely a midfield affair, though a perfectly watchable one. The City fans were certainly enjoying it, though our near-namesakes had stood largely muted for some time.
Things were to improve for them though. Pellegrini swapped Fernandinho for Jesús Navas on 65, and three minutes later they led. Džeko cottoned onto a ball from Silva, and his low shot crept past McGregor and in.
That felt like the decisive moment in the game, though Bruce refused to submit, sending on Gastón Ramírez and Hatem Ben Arfa for Livermore and Hernández in response to Pellegrini bringing on Frank Lampard for Agüero. City nearly equalised again when a shot by Huddlestone took a horrible deflection and looped up past the Manchester keeper – it looked for a second as though it was going in, but span a foot over.
The visitors made the game safe late on when the wide spaces caused by City’s attacking urgency were ruthlessly exploited, Zabaleta squaring for Lampard, who fired unerringly past McGregor.
City wilted a little, and the prospect of a thoroughly unfair fifth goal looked possible as though less committed supporters prioritised traffic over £50 football – as it was, both sides seemed wound down the tempo in the closing minutes and the game meandered to a 2-4 conclusion.
Harsh on City, though it’s tough to argue with the result. After a frightening opening to the game, in which something in the order of a five or six goal defeat seemed all too plausible, City’s fightback was rousing. Two goals were scored against the champions, and while recent non-victories have concerned, this broadly encouraged.
Liam Rosenior took his opportunity admirably, Tom Huddlestone shrugged off a little of his recent torpor, Robertson excelled against excellence, but particular plaudits must go to Nikica Jelavić. Some feared he’d be lost without Shane Long, but if anything he’s prospering. His running is not only tireless but crafty, always looking to worm into space and he seems to be genuinely relishing leading the City attack.
So, defensive worries notwithstanding and the unacceptable cost of entry aside, this was an entertaining afternoon in which City fought hard, played some fine football and were ultimately undone by the sheer attacking quality that unimaginable riches can provide. Things to improve. Plenty to repeat though.