The hope, the despair, the inevitability. A second half dominated by such emotions as defeat always felt like it could happen at any minute. In the end, it was the 77th minute but despite the lack of points, this was the kind of performance that gives Hull City AFC real hope for the remainder of the season.
The fixture list between now and Wembley Day’s seventh anniversary is daunting, to say the least. Yet application and attitude was on show in abundance against the best team in the land, and nearly proved enough to earn a point. Identical application and attitude might be enough to sort out the allegedly more winnable games – Swansea, Crystal Palace, Burnley – and permit City another season – an unprecedented third on the spin – in the Premier League. It’s never that cut and dried, of course, and some of City’s most egregious displays this season have been against sides in the bottom half of the table, but it’s pretty much the safest hope we can employ for the remainder of this campaign.
Steve Bruce made two enforced changes, with Tom Huddlestone suspended and Nikica Jelavić sadly out for the season with a knee injury, tweaking the formation to allow David Meyler a return to the holding role and Abel Hernández a big opportunity to reaffirm his credentials up front. The space on the bench meant a last resort seat was vacant for Yannick Sagbo, while it was heartening to see Liam Rosenior and Robbie Brady available for action again.
City thus had a 3-5-2 card that detailed McGregor; Dawson, Bruce, McShane; Elmohamady, Livermore, Meyler, Ramírez, Robertson; N’Doye, Hernández.
Chelsea lined up with their usual duo of spoilers, trio of marauders and one evil meathead up front. Diego Costa, let us be clear, is no hardpan. He kicks, gouges, niggles, elbows. But when it’s dished out, he looks to team-mates and officials to back him up. He’s football’s worst kind of coward, he’s a hypocrite, he’s a cheat, he’s a fine centre forward. You can imagine his manager congratulating him personally each week on the number of opponents he has managed to incriminate or stitch up and the quantity of supporters who have wasted good soup or sturdy metatarsals in expressing their anger his way.
One minute and 18 seconds in, and Chelsea were ahead. City didn’t cope well with the immediate pace of the attack from kick off and Eden Hazard, a genuinely thrilling footballer to watch, danced with self-created ease through gaps and challenges to despatch a fine, swerving shot from the edge of the box which Allan McGregor had not a prayer of reaching.
Gulp, tough going this. But City had a seriously big chance to cool the uneasiness when an N’Doye flick, unexpected by a Chelsea defence that hadn’t quite stepped up for offside, put Hernández clean through. The ball was in his complete command and only Thibaut Courtois to beat. An imposing goalkeeper, yes, but it’s a one-on-one. Centre forwards of repute have these chances as an amuse-bouche. And so Hernández battered his shot straight into the keeper’s chest and out again.
What a ridiculously wasteful moment it was, rendered more so when Cesc Fàbregas arced a ball over to Costa on the left, and the target man showed uncharacteristic panache, aided by City demonstrably not wanting to make a hasty challenge, to edge towards the side of the area and then curl one well beyond McGregor’s palm and into the corner. It was a sublime goal. It was also a darkly frightening one. A serious pummelling and a hefty raid on our goal difference ratio now felt on.
We reckoned without Jose Mourinho’s joyless policy of sticking to what you know, however, and his anti-football stance from a winning position served City well. As did a surprising but absolutely wonderful renaissance from the home side, which put Chelsea under serious pressure for the next 20 minutes.
Dame N’Doye, giving a masterclass in centre forward play that may have had the perma-benched Sagbo scribbling notes in his best Franglais, won a free kick on the corner of the box which he then took himself. Courtois pushed out his near-post effort at full stretch and then caught the volley from the same striker as Chelsea failed to guard him at the corner.
City maintained a majority of the possession and some powdery defending as Andy Robertson zigzagged around a succession of opponents got the KC crowd on the edge, which then progressed to on their feet as the young Scot’s low centre killed off all defensive options and allowed Ahmed Elmohamady to steer it in. The game was back on.
The record for the shortest gaps between goals this season (previously held by Chelsea, natch) was then bust by a laughably bad touch from Courtois as he half-tried to find Branislav Ivanović in the area, but the burly Serb had turned his back, and Hernández finally got his goal. It was a gift, it was unmissable, but it was thoroughly welcome, both for the completion of City’s comeback and the Uruguayan’s own confidence.
As Chelsea tried to regroup, Costa chased a ball towards the flag in the south west corner and was upended, via a clean recovery of the ball, by Alex Bruce. Nothing was given, and Costa sat in a heap remonstrating with the linesman whereas a proper centre forward would have offered his detractor outside (figuratively) something he was able to do as Bruce happily trotted away at no breakneck speed. Centre backs are often warned by attack-minded pundits about challenges like these; it’s time proper defending – hard, fair, without malice aforethought and without a moment’s concern for the standing of the opponent – was protected and encouraged more. Bruce, along with Paul McShane, represent an old school of defending, which given that they’re only 30 and 29 respectively, hardly singles them out as dinosaurs.
Gastón Ramírez then saw a free kick deflected over after City broke again with N’Doye kicked by Ivanović, before the half time whistle signalled rightful applause of considerable raucousness. It had been a stunning, draining, emotional 45 minutes of football.
Hope, despair, inevitability. They come into it here. How much did Chelsea need the half time break, and how much did City need the game to just go on and on and on? The opinions expressed during ablutions were largely identical; Mourinho will sort Chelsea out and City won’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. That’s football, at its top table. The two teams on show are where they are for a reason. The question wasn’t whether City could hang on, but how long they could hang on before Chelsea did what Chelsea were always going to do.
And yet, despite the champions-elect returning with their eyes open again, for a good while it stayed equal, with only Fàbregas spurning a chance to put Chelsea ahead again. And City were staggeringly unlucky not to take the lead courtesy of an all-too-rare triple save from Courtois, the sort of see-it-to-believe-it moment that defines seasons for all concerned.
Elmohamady was first to be thwarted, hitting a cross shot that Courtois managed to paw away to the edge of the area. Jake Livermore followed it up with a vicious drive for the top corner that the keeper managed to divert upwards and to the left. Ramírez was the last to try, with a left-foot volley that was on target but, aided by the height being handy as the ball hit the ground and popped up, Courtois again managed to get a glove to it, forcing it over the bar. All around him was chaos. And City’s big moment had, one felt, been and gone.
Hernández was beaten by a plunging Cahill to a demonic cross from Elmohamady as City tried again, but when Costa limped off and Loic Remy came on, Chelsea instantly made it count. The sub had been on less than two minutes when he finished off a smart move involving Hazard and Willian, though his stabbed effort could have been kept out by McGregor, who let it squirm under his body. Hope, despair, inevitability.
City sent for the cavalry – no, this didn’t include Sagbo – with Brady, Stephen Quinn and Sone Aluko all slung on, and there was enough enterprise from everyone on the pitch to allow faint hope of an equaliser (hope again you see, it gets everywhere). Elmohamady headed an Aluko cross over the bar and N’Doye saw a shot from a corner deflected wide.
The full time whistle produced sporting applause and a thumbs-up to our manager from Chelsea’s, and with the news that QPR had lost against Everton, the damage done this weekend was non-existent. The international break now allows City to get more bodies ready again, with James Chester and Mohamed Diamé expected to be fit for our visit to Swansea in 13 days’ time. The task ahead remains ominous but if we can pretend everyone is Chelsea between now and the woollen anniversary of Deano’s finest hour, then it’ll be simple. But wait, this is City, and, well, oh you know…