PREVIEW: West Ham v City

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Erratic form. Injury woes of such magnitude as to, for once, deserve the term “crisis”. Barely any fit strikers. A wretched record at Upton Park. Ee, it’s all glamour this Premier League lark, isn’t it?

It won’t be for the faint-hearted, this one. Not at a preposterous £43, and with Sky Sports preparing to beam the gory details into the nation’s living rooms. But while we can feel a little down in the dumps, we must raise the team. And they must raise themselves, because however unpromising the circumstances, we no longer have the luxury of writing games off and waiting for easier ones – largely because we invariably lose the easier ones anyway (Burnley, Swansea, Leicester, West Brom…), but mainly last weekend’s grim outing combined unhappily with other results to deposit us back in the bottom three. Points are needed, not just next month when everyone’s fit, but right now.

The task, then. West Ham are having a stellar season, vying with Southampton for the most unexpectedly impressive ascent of the table. They currently lie 8th, on the cusp of European qualification, and with fears of the bottom three long extinguished. A hefty 33 points have already been amassed, 20 of them at home, and their view is upwards, not downwards.

Avoiding defeat has been a hallmark of their season. Three at home will be a slight disappointment, but with only three away as well, they regularly add to their points tally. 16 goals from 11 home matches isn’t amazing (though it compares well to City’s paltry 10), but a relatively miserly concession of 10 suggests our makeshift attack will need to exceed expectations just to register once.

That there’s been talk of putting Harry Maguire up front is a sign of City’s desperate situation, though Sone Aluko and Gastón Ramírez may be fit to play. For West Ham, Winston Reid and Guy Demel may return to action after recent injuries. Though presumably a little jaded after their epic midweek Cup game against Everton, they’ll at least have the confidence boost of emerging successfully from it. Their form has actually dipped a little lately, and they’re winless in the first four Premier League games.

Set against that is City’s ghastly record at Upton Park. The Tigers have lost the last five trips there, including a 7-1 thrashing in 1990 – the same year in which our last victory came there. Nor is our overall record against the Hammers much better, with last season’s 1-0 win at home the only success in eight. Crumbs of comfort are sadly lacking. But the incentive’s a good one. Today’s results weren’t bad for City, meaning that a win would elevate us to 14th (or 13th if it’s by four goals…) – that’s a 9/2 shot with the bookies. The draw that’d lift us to 16th is 11/4 – but a home win is just 3/4. Hm. C’mon City.

To Wembley…

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For those who remember Raich, Ken and Chris, and thought time was running out…
For those who carried a coffin through Hull…
For those who stood heartbroken at Burnley…
For those who suffered the dog days of Fish/Dolan and still stood firm…
For those who loyally stood on empty terraces while the rest of the world mocked…
For those who threw coins into a blanket to pay the players…
For those who saw us collapse to bottom of the Football League…
For those who said No to the Boulevard, and No to Hull Tigers…
For those who never gave up and always believed our day would come…
For those whose journey is just beginning, and for whom tomorrow will ignite a lifetime of love…

See you all at Wembley.

For the FA Cup Final.

PREVIEW: Cardiff v City

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Interest in this game is pretty widespread on a national scale but, for the fans of the two teams at least, that interest will be largely restricted to events on the pitch. That both outfits have ludicrous owners with egos the size of the Serengeti and destructive plans that will marmalise the very fabric of their clubs is a side issue on a local level, as football still, when it has the grace to turn up, comes first.

Cardiff City’s mad bloke in residence is currently trying to undermine the efforts of the previous manager with the effect, it seems, of putting needless pressure on the new one. Gratifyingly, our manager and his position – and, indeed, his team – have not been involved nor affected by events involving the hypocritical maniac in charge of Hull City, but nevertheless his own activities, brought to a head with a new revelatory piece of self-absorbed bullying just this week, make this fixture a high-profile one even among clubs without much of a top flight pedigree.

Both teams could do with the win; Cardiff have just one from their last ten in the Premier League while the Tigers have just one in 2014. For City, it commences an especially big 72 hours of the season with Brighton on the way up to the KC on Monday night for the FA Cup fifth round replay that will put one team within 90 minutes of a Wembley semi-final.

Steve Bruce may have much-needed defensive options returning in James Chester and Liam Rosenior, who have just about recovered from hamstring and thigh injuries, but he is without Paul McShane and Robbie Brady. Transfer window investments Shane Long and Nikica Jelavić are back after being cup-tied at Brighton on Monday night.

Cardiff have lost Mark Hudson for the rest of the season with a hamstring injury, while midfielder Gary Medel and veteran striker Craig Bellamy are injured and suspended respectively.

It’ll be on Bruce’s ticksheet, this one; the bookies have City at 7/4 to take the points in the Welsh capital. Cardiff are priced at 17/10 and it’s 11/5 for the draw. It’s on our ticksheet too with green highlighter right through it. C’mon City.

 

PREVIEW: Brighton v City

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So, we know what our reward for victory tomorrow will be: Sunderland at home.

Will that impact upon Steve Bruce’s team selection? It should certainly compel him to take his strongest possible side to the South Coast tomorrow, for we are now just two victories against lowlier sides away from the FA Cup semi-finals for only the second time in our entire 110 year existence. History beckons for City, and to throw that away would be a desperate pity.

What we do know is that the manager will be without Shane Long and Nikica Jelavić, both ruled out of because the ludicrously archaic cup-tied rule – seriously, in an age when the Cup’s lustre has never been dimmer, who cares whether a player turned out for someone else in an earlier round? Whether they’d have been selected is immaterial, it’s an idiotic regulation that needs scrapping.

Available for selection is Sone Aluko, whose return to fitness has allowed him to make appearances from the subs’ bench in the last two Premier League games. Might this be the perfect opportunity to give him a start? It’d work for two reasons: we’re more likely to win with him in the attack, and it’ll build up his match fitness for the run-in. Allan McGregor has also served his recent ban and can play again; whether he is brought straight back in or Steve Harper keeps the gloves is an interesting question.

Brighton’s approach to this game will also be a quandary for them. They’ll fancy beating both City and Sunderland, and not without justification. It’s hard to imagine them not playing their strongest possible side. Will Buckley and ex-Tiger Keith Andrews are both fit again, should Seagulls boss Óscar García require them.

It’s been a decent season for Brighton so far. They’re currently 7th in the Championship, just one point away from the play-off places in which they finished in 2012/13. Their record at the Amex Stadium is a little mixed, with seven wins from 15 matches and a slightly disappointing return of 21 goals in those games. That said, City’s record on the road is hardly stellar, with two League wins supplemented by Cup wins at Middlesbrough and Southend.

We also have a staggeringly terrible record at Brighton, wherever they’ve played. None of our last twenty matches at the Goldstone/Priestfield/Withdean/Amex have seen us win; you must go all the way back to August 1965 for the time that Brighton v Hull City ended in an away win, an incredible sequence that also included an FA Cup loss in 1985. And of course, this unfathomably dreadful sequence began before any of the current squad were even born, but as supporters, we’re long accustomed to East Sussex bringing footballing despair.

That’s one of the reasons Brighton start as favourites, the announcement of the sides notwithstanding – they’re 7/5 to win, while City are as long as 12/5. A draw neither side would appreciate is also 12/5. So, to Brighton we go. Defeat would not be a disaster, but not taking it seriously would be.

PREVIEW: City v Southampton

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Ooh, to win two games in a row, now, eh? That would be very handy and very timely indeed. And with the visit of Southampton to the Circle tonight, we’re allowed to think it possible.

City have, after a wretched start to 2014, come into a semblance of form. A creditable draw against Tottenham Hotspur followed by a destructive, utterly dominant victory at Sunderland makes the Tigers notable and noticeable again, and Southampton won’t take this one lightly. A likeable club with gallant fans and a good team, they’ll do what a lot of clubs who’ve fallen by our wayside this season haven’t done, and take us seriously.

It has potential to be a smashing game, with two progressive, high-pressing, forward thinking sides who each have a smattering of England wannabes for the summer in their ranks (though Saints have more chance at the moment of getting a player in the squad than City). Southampton are at the bottom of the “safe” section of the Premier League with City (jointly) top of the “less safe” section. There are nine points in between but only two places and all games that don’t involve the Champions League contenders feel winnable, especially at home.

Steve Bruce has to make one alteration from the side that started at the Stadium Of Light, as Liam Rosenior suffered a thigh injury on Wearside, hence his non-appearance for the second half. It feels improbable that Ahmed Elmohamady’s potency will be nullified by a stint at right back, so maybe the wing back system will come back into force, allowing a return for either Robbie Brady or Alex Bruce, the latter of which would shift Maynor Figueroa into the advanced wide role. Sone Aluko will again edge his way back into contention via a cameo from the bench.

It’s also an important occasion for Steve Harper, who has impressed in goal during Allan McGregor’s suspension and may give Bruce a problem with selection with a good performance tonight, as McGregor is eligible again afterwards.

Southampton have no fresh injury concerns following their 2-2 home draw with Stoke at the weekend, but remain without long-term absentees Dejan Lovren and Gaston Ramirez. They’ll be aiming for a double tonight, having cuffed City 4-1 in November in what was arguably the Tigers’ poorest performance of the season.

City have won one, drawn one and lost two against Saints at the Circle. Turf accountants have laid odds of 7/4 on City, with Saints priced at 13/8 and the draw 9/4. Two wins in a row, as the Premier League squeezes itself even tighter: how nice would that be? And just in time for a Premier League break too. It’s doable. It’s tonight. C’mon City.

PREVIEW: Sunderland v City

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When friends become enemies. It’s something of a running theme for tomorrow’s visit to Sunderland as City aim for a first win for ages and a first away win for …. ever, really. You could throw in the stats if you so wished (it’s five Premier League games without a win; 19 without an away win) but there is something much more urgent about City’s form that mere numbers only manage to dilute. And as we troop up to the Stadium of Light, one feels like a score or two on a personal note need settling too.

City have three ex-Sunderland players in the current starting XI, Sunderland currently have two ex-Tigers in theirs (albeit their two were only loanees for City). Above all, however, there is the spectre of a returning, slightly scorned former Sunderland manager. Steve Bruce had a shocking closing spell in charge on Wearside before getting the boot, with his reputation so tarnished that he was out of work for over a year before his appointment at the KC. While he is generous and astute enough to play down the significance, stating he has never been back to Sunderland since they gave him his cards and (of course) it’s all such a long time ago, one can’t help but feel he really wants to turn his old employees over on Saturday.

He won’t be alone. Ahmed Elmohamady never cut it with the Sunderland faithful, David Meyler was peripheral and Paul McShane is regarded as one of their many joke players of the recent past, and all of them will be mad keen to show their true worth as Premier League performers. All three are likely to start the game too, making this very spicy of fixtures even spicier. Throw in Vito Mannone, who was excellent when he played for City, and Jozy Altidore, who wasn’t, and the number of poachers turned gamekeepers is remarkably high.

The game will be a real old test for City. Sunderland are on form, having climbed out of the bottom three under Gus Poyet and reached the League Cup final. However, they are still susceptible in defence and with Altidore up front instead of the much more proven Steven Fletcher, are having to find their goals from more unorthodox routes. Adam Johnson, touted for an England recall, is currently in his best form since joining the club and with Roy Hodgson in attendance, the time is right for City to also impress. The game is always hot-tempered – there have been six red cards in the last seven meetings between these two – and has had its emotional days too, such as Michael Turner’s (temporarily) scoring debut for the Mackems against City three days after leaving one club for the other.

Bruce has no new injury worries but will be thrilled that Sone Aluko sparkled for the stiffs for a whole hour in midweek and can take a place on the bench. Steve Harper continues in goal and will be guaranteed a hostile anti-Geordie welcome from the hosts that may almost match that reserved for the City boss himself. George Boyd may feel he has a strong claim to begin the game but it feels likely that Bruce won’t alter the starting XI that drew with Spurs last week beyond a recall for Jake Livermore. Sunderland haven’t got Fletcher due to an Achilles injury but otherwise also have no further injury concerns.

A win for City will complete a first Premier League double since beating Fulham in March 2009 and also acquire the first ever points at the Stadium of Light, having lost on all three previous occasions going back to 2006/7. Sunderland are priced at 11/10 to win, with City at 11/4 and the draw set at 9/4. Tyne and Wear has been the only happy hunter for City this season in the Premier League, so having done the Tyne, there’s just 50% of it left to conquer.

PREVIEW: City v Tottenham

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The big news straightaway is that while Jake Livermore can’t play for City tomorrow, he also won’t be playing for Tottenham. National newspaper speculation on transfer deadline day has, not for the first time, proved to be utterly false.

The prospect of seeing Livermore line up for his parent club this weekend would have been tough to bear, especially as City are in a rotten run of Premier League form and wouldn’t care to be denied one of the more influential players in a struggling squad.

Tottenham, though improved under Tim Sherwood’s quintessential Englishness in his coaching methods, come to the KC utterly stung, and this will make them dangerous. They were throttled 5-1 at home by Manchester City in midweek and will want someone on whom to take out their irritation. Up steps City, with one win in ten and five straight defeats in the Premier League, to provide the target.

That’s the theory, anyway, one which will be shared by presumptive types in the national press. But City’s run of disappointing form needs to end somewhere. More than that, it needs to end soon. Tottenham represent a tough test but they’re not impenetrable and City have only succumbed to Spurs this season through one badly awarded penalty and one badly taken penalty.

Livermore’s absence presents an opportunity for Steve Bruce to alter the formation and perhaps utilise a flat back four, or maintain the 3-5-2 set-up and bring in Robert Koren or Stephen Quinn. Robbie Brady is also ready again – he missed the loss at Palace in midweek because he was attending the birth of his first child – and new strikeforce Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long will each make their home debuts. The other definite change involves the goalkeeper, with Allan McGregor’s three match ban allowing a chance for Steve Harper.

Jan Vertonghen and Paulinho are fit to return for Spurs after injury and full back Danny Rose is available after his midweek red card against Manchester City was overturned on appeal.

City have never beaten Spurs at the Circle – defeats in 2008/9 and 2009/10 remain memorable because of Jonathan Woodgate’s late winner in the first and Jermain Defoe’s phenomenal hat-trick in the second – and the last home win against Tottenham came in the autumn of 1977.

The bookies have City at 11/4 to win this, with Spurs at 11/10 and the draw priced at 23/10. With the bottom half of the table tight as a noose, it’s time City reminded everyone – including themselves – just how impressive they can be.

PREVIEW: Crystal Palace v City

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Big night tonight, after the fun and games of progress in the FA Cup in a proper football ground without any of the Premier League banality. That said, Selhurst Park is a traditional and atmospheric footballing venue too, and City need to react to that accordingly.

Steve Bruce will make changes to the team but more than that, will make clear to them that a return to winning ways is necessary. City are well placed positionally but not on points, with the bottom half of the table squeezed to levels of tightness bordering on the idiotic. City have won one in nine and lost the last three in the Premier League and while dips in form are expected, they cannot be prolonged.

Losing to Norwich ten days ago means that defeat tonight is unthinkable. Zero points from these two games would be hideous notion, with February and March looking especially tricky, and beyond that, Palace are now a mean, ruthless, unglamorous outfit befitting of Tony Pulis, the man whose renowned brand of percentage football has had the desired effect since he took over.

Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long will start up front and there will be room again for Ahmed Elmohamady, Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, Curtis Davies and Allan McGregor. Those who impressed at Southend will undoubtedly be kept in the loop in south London tonight too as Bruce finds himself trying to put one over yet another former club.

City haven’t won at Selhurst Park for 28 seasons and drew four in a row prior to last season’s 4-2 defeat as both teams eventually gained promotion. Ex-Tiger Damien Delaney will be in Palace’s defence tonight but they are without Jonathan Parr, who was carried off in their FA Cup defeat at Wigan with concussion.

The bookies back Palace for this one at 6/4, with City – one away win all season and no goals in the last three Premier League games – priced at 2/1. The draw is 11/5. A draw may do just to stop the rot and keep Palace themselves at bay, but really it’s about time City won again.

PREVIEW: Southend v City

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The last time Hull City went to Southend, they twice trailed on an enthralling Hallowe’en night at Roots Hall before winning 3-2. An awful lot has happened to both clubs since then but even though the recent memories of beanos to the Essex coast are good, there’ll be nothing quite like a victory this weekend.

A trip there in the FA Cup sees the sides now three divisions apart. The Shrimpers have suffered two relegations, threats of administration and numerous transfer embargoes since that 2006/7 Championship season, while City have been, albeit with frightening off-field skirmishes, upwardly mobile. With the added spice of the not so bashful Southend manager taking on the club with which he is most associated, mouths are watering for this weekend’s tie.

So for City, victory will be big. It’ll provide some respite from disappointing Premier League form, avoid the humiliation of a major upset, reduce Phil Brown’s grin to one of pride rather than glee and, of course, put the Tigers in the fifth round of the FA Cup for only the second time since 1989.

Nationally, focus will be on Brown, just as he likes it. He was City’s first team coach at Roots Hall on October 31st 2006, having been appointed the day before, and within six weeks he was manager, quickly becoming the most successful in the club’s history. Bitterness surrounded his departure and the fallout from it, though mainly directed at those that employed him, and time has healed the sores well. The man currently getting closer to surpassing Brown’s achievements, Steve Bruce, will be anxious to put one over him this weekend…

… though will he? After all, Bruce bemoaned the League Cup earlier this season and his selection at Middlesbrough in the third round of the FA Cup suggested his appreciation of this more prestigious knockout competition – one he won twice as a player – is equally as limited. Mind you, circumstance has since dictated that he’ll have to pick a stronger side. Aaron Mclean and Nick Proschwitz, scorers of the goals at the Riverside, have both since exited; Mclean has joined Bradford and Proschwitz went out on loan to Barnsley just yesterday.

Bruce’s choices are further limited by injuries to Sone Aluko, Robbie Brady and James Chester, the ineligibility of Nikica Jelavic, Shane Long, Danny Graham and Jack Hobbs, (recalled yesterday as cover for Chester) and suspension for Tom Huddlestone. It’s pretty obvious that some Premier League shoo-ins like Yannick Sagbo and Curtis Davies will start as there aren’t the alternatives available, especially if the manager wants to play three at the back or two up front, or both. Those normally seen on the subs bench – Steve Harper, Abdoulaye Faye, Stephen Quinn, George Boyd, Matt Fryatt – should expect a starting berth. Jake Livermore is allowed to play as Tottenham are out of the competition, though may still be rested anyway, while Paul McShane – the only survivor of Brown’s era at City – is back after an ankle injury.

Southend, currently sitting pretty in a play-off place, have one other City connection in the shape of Will Atkinson, the winger from the ranks at the KC who has scored the same number of Premier League goals for the Tigers as Graham. They have Freddy Eastwood in their squad again, who was their star player seven seasons ago and scored against City that night, and has returned to Roots Hall after not fulfilling his potential at Wolves and Coventry.

The managers will enjoy the Geordie v Mackem stuff that acts as a sideshow to this game, but ultimately the team Bruce puts out should be strong enough and motivated enough to win. As the form of the side hits a rocky spell, there may well be places at Crystal Palace on Tuesday night for the better performers to play for, as well as the prestige that goes with putting the Tigers into the last 16 of the FA Cup, a feat Brown managed in 2009 (indeed, he got City to the quarter finals that season for the first time since 1971). The fifth round is the furthest Southend have ever been in their 108 year history, having got to the last 16 five times, the last being in 1992/3 when they lost to eventual finalists Sheffield Wednesday.

Prior to the Championship season of 2006/7, these two did basement division battle for six straight seasons until 2003/4, with City winning two, drawing two and losing two at Roots Hall. Prior to then, City’s record there wasn’t great, though the title-winning side of 1966 did win 2-0. Regionalisation, and the equally inferior status of both clubs, meant the two never played each other until 1958/9. There have been two League Cup ties; Southend won on aggregate in 1964/5 and City were victorious in a one-off second round tie under Brown at the KC in 2009/10, a game remembered for a goal on his debut for Tom Cairney and one of only two strikes in a City shirt for Jozy Altidore. This weekend’s match will be the first ever between the two in the FA Cup.

PREVIEW: Norwich v City

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Most seasons have a section earmarked as the crucial bit that can make or break a season, and 2013/4 is no different. As of this weekend, we’ll be in it. Away games against two teams in the bottom six over the next ten days could yield a points haul that will keep City clear of the drowning pack, or a points deficit that drags Steve Bruce’s men into it. And it begins with a trip to Norwich tomorrow.

Bruce, of course, can throw in two new, proven centre forwards at Carrow Road. The timing of the signings is impeccable, the identity of them is exciting. Nikica Jelavić and Shane Long may start together but even if they don’t, they will each play a part in proceedings against a Norwich side keeping their heads just above water in 15th place.

Jelavić has a World Cup place to play for and so his personal incentive to deliver could prove decisive for City. He has trained with his new team-mates this week, having signed earlier than long, and will probably start the game alongside Yannick Sagbo. Long, who signed little more than 24 hours before kick-off, hasn’t trained with the squad yet and therefore will likely begin on the bench.

Bruce has no other changes to make, with George Boyd reverting to the bench to allow for Jelavić’s arrival. Robbie Brady and Paul McShane are still injured. Norwich, whom Bruce served with distinction in the 1980s as player and skipper, have their own impressive new signing in Jonas Gutierrez available and welcome back from injury Anthony Pilkington and Alex Tettey.

A City win would complete a first double of the season, having beaten the Canaries 1-0 with ten men at the Circle back in August. City did win in their previous visit to Norwich back in September 2010 and generally fare well at Carrow Road but haven’t done a double over the Canaries since 1970/1. City’s odds on winning are 21/10, with Norwich’s chances rated at 7/5 and the draw, which has been a common result between these two, at 11/5. With all the invective and argument raging again this week about the club owner’s insane plans for the future, it once again is something of a relief to have a match to concentrate on. C’mon City.