FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Everton 4 City 0

HuddlestoneTh

Quarter of an hour to go in an absorbing game of football, and City, a goal down, are pressing eagerly for an equaliser, only for demented referee Paul Tierney to interpret a tackle by Tom Huddlestone that is clumsy, but no worse than that, as instead a straight red-card. Off troops Tom, dejected, up perk Everton, grateful, and a second goal against our depleted ten men follows shortly afterwards, compounded by two cruelly unnecessary additions to the scoreline in added time by burly Geordie frontman Lukaku.

Ah, the injustice!

No.

NO NO NO.

No injustice. Sad to report.

True, the sending off was harsh and, who knows, maybe we’d’ve scratched our way to a point had Huddlestone been spared. But we played feebly yesterday. Shredded frequently in defence, despite the return of Curtis Davies having allowed Mr Silva to card his preferred trio of centre backs, second best from start to finish in midfield where N’Diaye was useless (again) and Markovic little better (again), and shorn of any threat up front where poor Hernandez was forced to skulk around on his own with not a scrap of service.

No, there was nothing absorbing about this game. Just as at Leicester two weeks ago, we were visibly the inferior side and had no evident idea about how to compensate for it, from start to finish. We played like a sullen and moody side destined for relegation. It’s a good job our home form has been so strong since Mr Silva’s arrival because make no mistake, we are going down if we play as meekly as this through April and May.

A grey and drizzly afternoon on Merseyside brings us a 5-4-1 (ish):

Jakupovic
Rannochia   Maguire  Davies
Elabdellaoui                                                 Robertson
Markovic  N’Diaye   Huddlestone  Clucas
Hernandez

You might think that is asking a lot of the midfield if anything other than hanging on desperately is on the agenda. And you’d be right. Though we didn’t hang on, desperately or otherwise.

It only takes the home side 8 minutes to open the scoring. We are prised apart at the back with practised ease down our left as Robertson waves in vain for an imaginary offside, the ball is squared by Tom Davies, the breaking midfielder, to the back post where one Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who sounds as if he should be a showjumper, bundles the ball home gleefully from close range.

We manage a break of our own in response, and then another, but it leads only to a Markovic shot patted high over the bar. It’s poor fare, and we give the ball away repeatedly. That can’t be the plan, and although Everton are a decent pressing side, we’ve survived in much better style than this recently at Old Trafford, the Emirates and at Stamford Bridge. The cohesion and confidence of Silva 1.0 has gone woefully adrift. In truth, and depressingly, this looks like a Mike Phelan team today – worthy enough, but horribly limited and devoid of any flair or creativity.

In midfield Tom Davies, a floppy faired fop of a youth baited mercilessly in Hull over Christmas for his frailities and petulance, appears in the space of two or so months to have been converted into a mobile pass-and-give midfielder of immense promise. Burly Geordie frontman Lukaku is a menace, strong and willing, while even Ross Barkley, the very model of the modern footballer, all flash and cash and no application, looks better than ours.

Clucas has a sniff of goal on 37 but shoots too high, and the half drifts to a close with the one crumb of consolation lying in the fact we’re just the one goal behind.

Second half, and more shapeless broken play. What a poor match.

On 52 we win two corners in a row and Robertson’s delivery is atrocious for both of them. Our performance all afternoon summed up in one brief passage of play – sloppy, inattentive and just not good enough. Why do we insist on giving away possession? The support play for the man on the ball is poor, but so is the simple business of passing. N’Diaye? Hello? Mr N’Diaye? You’re getting paid for this, I believe.

Lukaku shoots over the bar on 54. A fast paced break soon after allows the burly Geordie frontman another opportunity, hurtling in at pace from the right, but this time Jak saves, tipping a fierce shot over the crossbar.

Grosicki gets his chance, replacing Davies as we switch to an orthodox back two in central defence, but the pattern changes little. On 72 Robertson, in an advanced position inside their box, stretches for a cross but can only divert the ball into the near-side side-netting. This is so very scrappy.

Then Huddlestone gets sent off.

It is harsh. It’s yellow at best. It is also a daft challenge. It invites the referee to make a mistake.

The ten men hang tough and dogged for all of three minutes, before Valencia sweeps through a static defence, exchanges passes with burly Geordie frontman Lukaku, which sets up Valencia for a too-easy finish past the exposed Jak.

Bah. 2-0. Done. Dusted.

Abel, entitled to feel thoroughly fed up at his wasted and solitary afternoon, comes off for Dio, Markovic is replaced by Elmo.

Ball boys and home fans slow the game down by refusing to return the ball when it leaves the pitch, and City players and fans protest at the mischief. We should be protesting at ourselves. In a sense, we are.

There are four added minutes at the end of the 90 and burly Geordie frontman Lukaku scores in the first and the fourth of them: the first courtesy of a defence that has given up and simply lets him run through the middle, the second the result of a quite brilliantly weighted and directed defensive-splitting crossfield ball by, err, Elabdellaoui.

Bah. We’ve had some bad ones at Goodison in the Premier League. 2-0 when Fellaini played exclusively with his elbows, unpunished throughout, a 5-1 horsing notable for a superb Tom Cairney strike and 89 minutes of tame surrender, and now this. Bah. We trudged damply downhill from the ground to Lime Street feeling pretty morose about our prospects of staying up this season.

FEAT-BALL2

MATCH REPORT: City 2-1 Swansea

Strikers. They are what win you games. Ordinary ones cost ten million quid nowadays, good ones a great deal more than that.

Rarely has the point been made with more force than yesterday. After an hour of largely forgettable football, the score line rooted in concrete at 0-0, and Mr Silva decides to relieve Abel Hernàndez of the responsibility to lead the line on his own, and throws on Omar Niasse to keep the Uruguayan company. Just a quarter of an hour later and they have combined not once, but twice, and the points are won.

Strikers! They hunt in pairs. This game will live short in the memory, but the win is precious and the goals, both of them, prove we have got enough firepower to survive in this League, even if ‘free-scoring’ is a term that will never be applied to this squad.

I suspect Mr Silva would have started with three centre-backs if he had enough fit ones. Forced to retain an orthodox back four, he chose to make two adjustments. Elmo and Niasse paid the price for their atrociously supine displays at Leicester last week, though (I peer sternly over my glasses in the direction of Mr Marković) they were not alone in vulnerability to the axe after that calamity, and so we carded a team with changes at right back and  at centre forward:

                               Jakupović

Elabdellaloui  Rannochia  Maguire  Robertson

Marković  Huddlestone  N’Diaye  Grosicki

                                  Clucas

                               Hernàndez

Just the one up front, but with Sam Clucas allotted a roving role between midfield and Abel flying solo up front. Clucas was immediately mobile, haring up and down, from side to side and generally looking the most relevant player on the pitch.

Ah, Clucas, the colossus of the Lincolnshire Wolds. He earned plenty of attention last weekend for posting the record of scoring in each of English football’s top five Divisions, and his merit fully deserves recognition. I’ll freely confess I saw him as a squad Championship player at best – not quick enough, not strong enough and not confident enough in possession to be more than that. Wrong. So very wrong. He has been an absolute revelation this season, a proper Premier League player in all respects, and his touch on the ball and ease in finding a pass is almost Italian in its effortless simplicity. Credit Mike Phelan for loading responsibility on Clucas from the very first game of the season, at home to Leicester when he played superbly as the holding midfield player, and credit too to Mr Silva for understanding that in Clucas he has a special talent, even if it’s not yet clear what his best position really is.

It’s doubtful too whether any set-up with only one real frontman is going to trouble defences as secure as are to be found in the Premier League, but it would take an hour, and the arrival of Niasse, to emphasise that point.

Another player I had sized up as ‘Championship at best’ is Harry Maguire. Earnest, strong, intelligent enough and a great attitude, but just not quick enough to play at the highest level.  Or so I thought. Wrong, wrong again. Harry Maguire is being talked about as a potential England player: I hope it happens, both because his rise will show potential recruits the value of an association with Hull City and because his sturdy defending blended with thrilling forward maraudability has been a true highlight of the season. The lad has really improved this campaign. But last weekend and this his passing has been woeful. Harry can bring the ball forward and he is a decent passer of the ball, but Harry, don’t over-complicate, don’t be over-ambitious in distribution. You’re more Jim Holton than Jim Baxter, so keep it simple.

The game is locked into a pattern of equality. On 8 Swansea open us up, but the Jak saves well. On 25 Abel wins a free-kick invitingly perched on the edge of the box, but Clucas blats it into the defensive wall. Fernando Llorente, the large and mobile Basque forward, is Swansea-s main threat, and both our centre backs need to be alert to his occasional menace. But it is a pretty scrappy game of football. Swansea are happy to retreat ten men behind the ball when we have possession, leaving only Llorente in an advanced position, and space is stifled. Mr Silva is off the bench and animated, visibly urging our players to inject greater pace into the game, but it isn’t easy against well-drilled opposition, and Hernàndez is largely without service. That almost changes on 39 as a cross by Grosicki flies tastily towards his forehead, but Fabianski intervenes to flick it clear.

Half time beckons, dourly scoreless, and our only successes lie in the departure through injury of, first, the splendidly named Àngel Rangel and then, just before the break and more damaging to the visitors, the totemic Llorente.

Second half.

More of the same, initially.

Flashes of possibility, but mostly suffocation of footballing wit. On 47 the ball drops loose to Huddlestone on the edge of the box, but he shoots tamely straight at Fabianski. Then, on 52, the Jak throws an unconvincingly weak hand at a low cross, leading to a stramash in the penalty area and a fortunate escape as the hapless Routledge smears a good chance wildly high over the crossbar. Then the Jak saves more confidently, stretching to push away a free-kick delivered by the impressive Icelandic midfielder Sigurdsson.

The Swansea shape is good and solid, ten bodies conscientiously behind the ball, and we are not going to break them down without changes.

And so Mr Silva removes N’Diaye, who’s been better than last week but still well short of the vibrantly positive impression he created immediately on his arrival at the club, and brings on Niasse to play up front with Hernàndez.

And so we win.

Yes, that simple. More or less.

The first goal arrives on 69, a deft touch by Abel which releases Niasse in behind the Swansea back line and he shows excellent composure in striding onto the ball and smacking a confident shot past Fabianski’s left hand and just inside the post.

A flash of quality, the combined force of pairing up forwards, and now Swansea need to chase the game.

Elmo is brought on for Marković, at a moment when I was howling for the dogged industry of David Meyler, but shortly afterwards it’s 2-0 anyway. Another smart combination, and further firmer proof of the need to play with two up front if we are going to cause teams defensive problems at this level. Elmo, much happier further forward than in the right-back role which, in a flat back four, he just can’t perform, dinks a delightful chip into the box, Abel makes a right nuisance of himself, distracting the defence without himself getting more than the faintest toe end on the ball’s trajectory, and Niasse, running in behind him, gleefully thunders the ball into the back of the net from close range.

We do now get sight of Meyler. He replaces Hernàndez, who makes great play of his disenchantment at being taken off, though I presume his slow sulky gait as he left the pitch was more a means to waste a bit of time than any real show of dissent. Swansea don’t look at all likely to cause us any alarm now, but, just as the board has indicated 4 added minutes at the end of the 90, a free kick is punted into our box, where Mawson, wholly unmarked (he was Niasse’s man, I suppose), is allowed to guide a simple header into the corner of the net.

Erk.

Nerves abound, but we see it out, if not with comfort then at least without any desperate moments of danger.

It was pretty hard to plot a route to survival without victory in this fixture. So, job done, important job done. And, largely humdrum game though it was, we did deserve to win it. News of Bournemouth’s victory over West Ham was unwelcome, and we remain one of the three sides most likely to go down. But right now two are more likely to go down than we are, and we’ll probably stay up if we win most of our home games. Under Mr Silva so far we are winning most of our home games.

Steve Weatherill (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 1 Burnley 1

HuddlestoneTh

An entirely forgettable match at the KCOM saw City unbeaten though missing an opportunity to move out of the bottom three for the first time since October.

City carded:

Jakupović

Elabdellaoui Ranocchia Maguire Robertson

Elmohamady Huddlestone N’Diaye Grosicki

Maloney

Mbokani

The FA-Cup-Tossing-Off break saw players having the chance to impress Silva during the Club’s training camp in Portugal, and judging by yesterday’s starting line-up both Shaun Maloney and Dieumerci Mbokani both enjoyed their time in the sun by earning starts; Maloney playing in the hole whilst appearing to be stood in one. The side looked light in midfield, and so it turned out.

Burnley started the match charging into a series of fouls within the opening two minutes – Barnes being the serial offender – and it’s hard to imagine this was anything other than tactically deliberate. Get into them early, the ref will be lenient.

But despite (or because of) the repeated foulery City started very poorly in a game that was never going to flow. The opening ten minutes was probably the worst PL spell under Silva, and for a while was a nod back to those gloomy storm-cloud laden Phelan days.

A word for Burnley, who are as dour as their manager. They have a clear game plan – it’s to press City, relentlessly close down space, get men behind the ball at every opportunity, and leave Andre Gray up front on his tod to scamper after scraps lumped forward in his general direction. Free-flowing they are not, but disciplined they are in spades. Their tally of one away point before yesterday suggests they struggle after going behind on their travels, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re limited, albeit impressively hard-working.

The first half saw few chances at either end, with a series of free kicks thirty yards out being the relative highlights. A game of set pieces was always destined to be settled by them.

On thirteen Elab feeds Elmo, who puts in a great cross for Mbokani to head wide. It’s the best chance he’ll get all game. On the half hour a soft Mee header sees Jak mishandle the ball onto his own crossbar.

Goalless at the break, and we gnash our teeth at the big screen advertising the match sponsors of “Hull City Tigers”. Ehab, you utter tit.

When compared to the utter bilge of the first half, the second half had to improve, which it did slightly. My notes seem entirely focused on the injury status of Big Haz Maguire, with a series of fouls received, physio treatment required, and worrying limping around the field. But like those Monty Python soldiers from The Holy Grail, he’d play until his legs dropped off (“it’s only a flesh wound”).

On the hour, Burnley had a great chance to take the lead; a ball over the top allows Andre Gray to race clear before his shot slides agonisingly wide of Jak’s left post. Let off.

City press next, with Mbokani laying off to Kamel Grosicki who curls delightfully though agonisingly wide from 25 yards. It’s a rare flash of gold in a coalmine of a match.

Entirely in keeping with the match City took the lead not from free flowing football but from a scruffy penalty – both earned and executed. Keane was adjudged to have handled, and Tom Huddlestone slammed home the penalty despite the Burn netminder getting a strong hand to it and may feel a tad disappointed on reflection. So the dirty Lancastrians are behind and we can now do what every other team has done to them this season by going on to win. But of course this is City. We don’t. And within three minutes they’re level.

A corner finds its way over to the far edge of the area and City have tertally switched off allowing Keane time to drill home under Jakupović. It’s witless defending, City unable to focus for 100 seconds after the lead, and the equaliser is entirely in keeping with this scrabby match.

During injury time Barnes finally receives a second yellow for his 50th and most blatant foul of the lot – this time going through Ranocchia – and Burnley had to see out four minutes of injury time with ten men. They do this easily despite a couple of goalmouth scrambles and our Italian Frog boy blooters well over after being tee’d up.

The stats showed that City had twice as much possession as their visitors, but our nine shots on goal yielded only one on target, and that was the penalty. Therein lies the problem that Phelan could never answer and we hope Silva might.

City missed the pace of Lazar Markovic, the guile of Evandro and the Lincolnshireness of Sam Clucas, and it’s hard to imagine some of those not receiving an immediate recall once fit/unsuspended. Huddlestone played a lot deeper than recent matches – at times behind our centre backs – and as a result saw a lot of the ball but did little with it in a ProZone enhancing performance. Maloney started brightly but was totally anonymous after the break. Mbokani similarly faded badly, and it’s hard to see Oumar Niasse not starting next week.

It wasn’t a game City looked like losing, but in all honestly never did enough to win, and although it’s fair to say a home point against a bogey side is never a bad one City passed up a great opportunity to move clear of the drop zone. Silva’s post-match interviews suggested he learnt a lesson from this, and I suspect it will be a very different City side which pitches up at the cardboard-clapping home of the Champions next week.

Andy Medcalf (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 2 Liverpool 0

SilvaMarco

Probably mentioned it before, but I work among a large number of Leicester City supporters, and left for the game yesterday morning from a Leicestershire hotel, where our firms’ partners’ conference had taken place the previous day. On coming down for breakfast in my City shirt ready for a swift departure north, I sensed a certain nervousness among the Foxes supporters present, a far cry from the euphoria which oozed seemingly out of every doorway, shop window and pavement crack of the city just eight short months ago and which, as anyone familiar with the place will testify, has perceptibly retreated whence it came. Maybe it was just imagination, but were the good wishes for the forthcoming game proffered by my partners not quite as heartfelt as they might have been earlier in the season?

Whatever the answer to that question, they’ll definitely be rather more nervous this morning, thanks to a combination of several factors: their own team failing to produce, so far this season, anything approximating the scintillating form they maintained for the whole of the previous campaign culminating in yet another tonking today, the fact that Sunderland are starting to pick up points, the increased resilience injected into Swansea by Paul Clement….but, probably most of all, the arrival of Marco Silva at Hull City A.F.C.

I mean, let’s face it, with the obvious exception of the hapless Derby side of 2008, Hull City at the turn of the year were as much of a basket case as the Premier League has ever encountered, easily on a par with the awful Villa side of last season or the wretched Sunderland team of 2002/3 under the stewardship of Howard Wilkinson. Scroll forward a month, however, and the transformation that has taken place at the Circle is the subject of almost as much column space and airtime among the national media as any other footballing topic in this country.

Remember how we just had to get through the run from Hell with as little collateral damage as possible before starting on the relegation battle proper, with the visit of the Dingles at the end of this month? Ha!

Now, of course, we’re all too long in the tooth and too scarred by our regular exposure over the years to what some wryly refer to as the phenomenon of “Typical City”  to entertain even the most fleeting thought that Premier League survival this season is a given, or even that it’s more likely than not. But what we can be sure of is that, if we are to go down playing like we have been, those who do survive will have richly deserved it.

Exhilarating times, but intriguing ones too. We’ve all seen the transformation on the field, but can anyone actually put their finger on how Silva has done it? Stories abound of how the players have not been given a day off since his arrival and the banning of puddings from the squad’s diet, and no doubt most of us have seen that clip of a City training session where Silva can be seen physically dragging Michael Dawson to the spot on which he wants him to stand, so it’s clear that we now have an authoritarian man at the helm and that the players are going along with it. But there is palpably much, much more to it than wielding the metaphorical big stick.

To give probably the most visually apparent example of that, nobody could have failed to notice that Tom Huddlestone has played the finest football of his City career in the past month. Granted, his form had picked up since December but he’s kicked on even from there since Silva came. On the way home last night we were faced with a tiresome procession of pundits’ observations prefaced with the words, “No disrespect to Hull City, but….” because, as you would expect, it was all about Liverpool. The one which did catch my attention though went on to inform us that “no Hull City player out there today would have made the Liverpool team. One can only presume that whoever it was who offered that pearl of wisdom didn’t actually watch the game.

But it’s not just about one player, as the manager is frequently at pains to point out. The whole team yesterday was organised, committed and resilient, despite the fact that nearly half of them were virtual strangers. it’s been the same story throughout January, with the dishonourable exception of Fulham. Hull City has – for now – had its credibility restored.

And so the story continued yesterday. Despite the “statistics” which purport to demonstrate our visitors’ superiority in every conceivable respect in yesterday’s game, this was no fluke neither was our victory in any way undeserved. We battled, we thwarted them, we frustrated them, we ground them down. In short, we did a job on them.

Sending out a stark message to the bottom third of the Premier League were the following:-

                                        Jakupović

Elabdellaoui        Ranocchia            Maguire                Robertson

                                    Huddlestone

Grosicki            N’Diaye                  Evandro               Clucas

                                       Hernández

Substitutes:    Tymon (for Evandro, 61 minutes), Niasse (for Hernández, 65 mins), Meyler (for Grosicki, 80 mins)

So, a late and unexpected change to the line-up, as Dawson, it emerged, had injured himself in the warm-up and had to be hastily replaced by Andrea Ranocchia. Not the ideal start, and it seemed from the off as if Liverpool wanted to get their mark stamped on the game from the off, but in truth all they have to show for it is Mane clipping the leather high and wide. We warm up a bit after a somewhat pedestrian start, though and manage our first effort on target after ten minutes, Abel Hernández’s effort being without power and straight at Mignolet. There follows a further injury scare on the quarter hour, though, as Omar Elabdellaoui takes a smack in the chops (and, it later emerged, a broken nose in the process) but returns after a brief visit to the touchline and a change of shirt (did we really only have one No.14 shirt? Sort it out Johnny Eyre!).

Whilst it’s mainly them in terms of possession, when we do advance it’s with purpose and mobility, and you can sense that the Reds’ famously-flaky defence doesn’t really look all that comfortable.

Not as uncomfortable as we look on 21 though, when Eldin Jakupović, possibly impeded by Harry Maguire, flaps at a cross and the leather drops to Coutinho who scuffs it wide when he ought to have done much better.

Then five minutes later, with Andy Robertson out of position there’s more danger as the ball is played out to Mane, in the inside right channel. Maguire spots the danger and move across to cover. “You’re going to have to deal with this, Harry”, I exclaim, and he certainly does, magnificently scything his opponent down in a manner of which any of the legendary hard men of the 60s and 70s would most certainly have approved. Referee Mason, unsurprisingly, brandishes his yellow card.

But how are the new boys doing? Very encouragingly, it has to be said. Ranocchia shows his class and pedigree with a solid, uncompromising display and – according to my neighbour, who was counting – a 100% success rate in the aerial duels (the fact that the defence performed so convincingly without either of its main organisers on the field was an especially-pleasing factor throughout the afternoon), Elabdellaoui looks very competent despite having his proboscis spread across his features early on, but the one who really catches the eye for me, until he started blowing through his arse about midway through the second half, was Kamil Grosicki, who looks as though he’s going to be a real asset on the attacking side, especially when he gets himself fit enough to keep going for an entire match, skinning Milner twice in the first half hour. Our new Polish recruit is then involved in our most dangerous foray so far on 33, taking a sweet diagonal ball from the Huddster and firing in  a low cross which Mignolet does well to smother at the feet of Hernández.

Three minutes later and we are a bit naughty at the back, allowing Matip a free but thankfully wide header from a corner. More problems on 38 when they get a dodgy free on the edge of the box and attempt a laughable “training ground routine” which results in the ball being slammed into the wall and eventually we scramble it away.

The official attendance of 24,822 inevitably includes a fair number of tourists (as well as several hundred so-called Liverpool supporters from East Yorkshire, readily visible dotted about the home enclosures) and, as half-time approaches, going to the kiosk evidently becomes more important than actually watching what has become a quite absorbing -if not exactly stirring – game of football   They probably don’t give a monkeys but, their warped priorities deprive them of witnessing a quite sensational development.  After Abel is outpaced by Matip as he chases a through ball from – yet again – Huddlestone, we eventually win a corner on the right a minute before the half is up. It’s headed down and goalwards and should be Mignolet’s ball, but the away custodian, distracted more than a keeper at this level ought to be at this level by Hernández’s perfectly lawful jump, fubles the ball at the feet of Alfred N’Diaye five yards out, and our Alf will not get an easier chance if he plays till the age of 100. Scruffy goal, but who cares? Total Tiger Mayhem.

Half-time, then, and time to reflect on Ehab’s recent “interview”. Many Tigerwatchers seem to have approved – some in quite breathless tones – of this cynical little bit of PR, so for them a question: have you learned absolutely nothing at all about the Allams? It would be a happy day indeed if owners and fans were able to bury the hatchet and work together in order to take the club forward in a responsible and constructive manner, but it’s going to take much, much more than that to generate any kind of optimism that such an outcome would be possible. Like henceforth referring to the Club solely as “Hull City” in all publications and communications. Like scrapping the current pricing arrangements and introducing genuine and fair pricing concessions for senior and junior citizens and the disabled. Like paying whatever it takes to keep Silva at the Circle for at least a couple of years if he keeps us up. Like setting transfer and salary budgets for next season which will enable substantial team and squad strengthening. Like agreeing those budgets unconditionally by the final game of this season (for the summer window) and by Hogmanay (for the January window) and then just leaving the manager to get on with the recruitment. Like coming clean that they do not have, and never have had, any serious intention of selling the Club.  Like a total and irreversible end to any further acts of sabotage of the efforts of manager and players. And by an admission that they have been wrong about all the things that they have been wrong about. Chance of getting all of those (most of which other clubs just take for granted, by the way) are minus nil. Getting one of them would be a true miracle.  So please excuse me for not being convinced just yet that Ehab’s actually an all-round good egg.

Anyway, unsurprisingly the ‘Pool (do people still call them that?) come out with all guns blazing, Herr Klopp’s invective doubtless ringing in their ears. They force a succession of corners but during this spell the only shot they manage to get on target comes when Milner hooks one straight at the Jak. They go a whole lot closer on 55, though, when the City net man does brilliantly to tip away a Mane header which bounces off the top of Robertson’s head and looks to be sailing in. Think Banksie’s save from Denis Law, England v Scotland, Wembley 1967.

Their diagonal balls are causing us problems, but we keep them at bay despite now-constant pressure, amidst an atmosphere which is now starting to jump as the the clock ticks. Respite on 62 minutes when Hudd (yes, again) feeds Abel but the angle is a bit tight and he succeeds only in finding the side netting.

Then, bizarrely, it starts raining feathers from the roof (shades of rust from the Best Stand roof at the Ark whenever the ball struck it). Puzzled spectators raise their eyes to the rafters and identify the culprit, in the form of a hawk which has nabbed a pigeon and had now set about methodically plucking it prior to consumption. Sometimes you think you’ve seen everything at a football match, and then something else surprises you. This process of wild game dressing continues for the rest of the half, but at least we were spared having giblets dropped on us.

Attention quickly switches back to the pitch though as Hernández is sent haring away in space by Grosicki. A second now will probably, and sensationally, kill the game, but his first touch is over-eager and Mignolet is able to smother.

66 minutes. An almighty scramble in the box. Mane must score. He doesn’t: the leather flashes across the goal. “Can we really hold out?” I write.

71 minutes. Jak saves from Milner. A minute later and we attack, but Grosicki’s cross is just out of Alf’s reach. But we are struggling to keep possession, frequently hoofing clear and waiting for the next attack.

This is proper pressure. But Liverpool just seem to lack that bit of nous, of ingenuity, of skill or even of luck that they need to pierce the City rearguard and in fact for maybe ten minutes they don’t seriously trouble the goal for all the ball that they have, a fact borne out by the fact that they only managed five shots on target to our four.

No, they have to be shown how it’s done. Six minutes remain on the clock when Mane cuts in menacingly from the right. Robertson times his tackle to perfection. The leather finds Ranocchia, who curls an irresistible ball through to Oumar Niasse, on now for Hernández, who times and directs his run impeccably between the two defenders left at the back. Suddenly he’s away, and shows great composure to fend off the challenge of Matip and steer the leather under the advancing Mignolet and into the centre of the goal. Not the work of a man who’s a shit as Everton seem to think, if truth be told. Bedlam in the stands.

And that’s it. Jakupović plays to the gallery with a fine acrobatic save from Milner with a minute of normal time left, but we see out the 90 minutes and the five added on for a famous and well-merited victory which augurs very well for the rigours of the forthcoming relegation dog-fight. Or was it that famous? After never besting the Scousers (as they largely were for many of those days) at the Ark we have now sent them away with their tails between their legs (to say nothing of their Hull-based “fans” who turn up dutifully for their ritual humiliation) thrice in a row at the Circle.

It’s been a torrid and difficult January and early Feb and now only one game of that run from Hell remains, with four more points than we thought we’d get already chalked up. Probably asking a lot to expect anything at the Arse next Saturday, but they are definitely not in a good place at the moment, and we have nothing to lose. After a proper week’s rest for once, we might just be looking forward to this one more than they are.

Football without Fear, City.

Ian Thomson (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-FACUP

REPORT: Fulham 4 City 1 (FA Cup fourth round)

SilvaMarcoConf

The FA Cup brings in many differing memories for Hull City fans.  The moment that Alex Bruce’s header is cleared off the line that could have put City 3-0 up against Arsenal.  How about Billy Whitehurst and Keith Edwards giving City a 2-1 advantage against Liverpool at half time back in ’89?  Maybe you like to recall Duane Darby’s double hat-trick against Whitby Town.  All games that long suffering Tiger fans look back on fondly.

There is of course the other side of the coin.  The 2-0 defeat to Hednesford thanks to some criminally inept refereeing.  The fact that in the first place Whitby had taken us to a replay and was within a minute of knocking us out.  Or even the drunken Roary The Tiger stumbling around the away end at Hayes as another non-league side could have considered themselves unlucky to have not taken the Tiger scalp.

Fulham was very much in this latter group of games.  A 4-1 defeat to a side in a lower division is not what you expect of any team.  Yet that’s the fate City suffered.

Prior to the game, a pre-match pub was in buoyant mood.  Fulham is usually found to be a gentile ground to visit – given the presence of a ‘neutral section’ Fulham is probably the ideal club for the much hated half and half scarf brigade.  In our past five meetings with Fulham, we’d won four and drawn one.  So not a bad record to go into games.  However the pre-match mood turned rapidly to confusion as the various Twitter feeds sent news of the day’s team.  In much like a newspaper Sudoku, you’re given a bunch of numbers, so trying to predict their correct positions could be anybody’s guess.  But taking up the challenge, City lined up:-

Jakupović
Elabdellaoui Davies Huddlestone Robertson
Meyler Clucas
Marković Evandro Diomande
Hernández

I’m currently catching up reading the list of books I received for Christmas, so recently made a start on Ian Brunton’s rather splendid 46 and Counting book, where he recalls his family’s efforts to make it to all Hull City fixtures last season.  I’ve just passed part of the book which recounts the Bolton home game.  At the time Michael Dawson has come back into the side, having been out injured for a few weeks.  My recollections of the time that he was a fear that he’s been rushed back was confirmed when he limped off in the 85th minute to be sidelined for another period.  Against Fulham this happened to Curtis Davies.  The stand-in captain had one week earlier been withdrawn from the Chelsea match with a hamstring strain.  Back in the side a week later and within ten minutes, the injury had flared up and he was off back into the Cottage, with big Harry Maguire his replacement.

As City fans pretty much all love Big Harry, it’s easy to forget the limitations in his game.  His recent high profile performances have brought his name to the national stage.  Unfortunately whilst Big Harry is showing to be a wonderful defender, he’s not a captain or organiser.  So with the loss of Davies, the defensive organisation out on the pitch went to pieces.  Massive gaps were appearing around the City back line allowing Fulham the opportunity to exploit.

My Monday morning welcome into the office was by the Fulham supporting security guard.  His first comment was that he couldn’t believe we let that big donkey Martin score.  Yet it was Martin’s running at our defence that was causing the most panic.  It was also Martin that Tom Huddlestone brought down to concede a free kick which lead to Fulham’s opening goal.  The free kick was passed to Martin at the back post for him to nod down to Sone Aluko, with no City defender near either player, the former Tiger had plenty of time to pick his spot and powerfully volley past Jakupović.

City did have chances of their own, but with Lazar Marković and Evandro drifting in and out of the game, most of the shots are coming into the Fulham goal from a distance.  The Fulham keeper Bettinelli seems to like pushing the ball out, but with nobody following up these shots, City are not really looking to get back on level terms.

Most of City’s pressing comes from Omar Elabdellaoui’s overlapping runs.  He’s attacking Fulham well, but with Abel Hernández isolated up front on his own, frequently crosses are firstly met by Fulham defenders.  The play is then quickly shifted back to the opposite end of the pitch with Elabdellaoui not getting back to his defensive position quick enough, Fulham are exploiting further defensive frailties in the City side.

A wild challenge from Big Harry on Aluko has referee Tierney rightly play advantage as Sone keeps going.  After shooting wide, Tierney calls the big defender over giving the first booking of the game.

City do play some good attacking football whenever Adama Diomande’s allowed to advance up front to play alongside Hernández.  The Fulham keeper doesn’t hold onto many shots, still insisting on palming them out, but neither Hernández or Diomande have sufficient composure to get resulting shots on target.

Fulham’s first booking comes as a result of McDonald’s late challenge on Evandro, but predictably, City are unable to do anything with the free kick.

Elabdellaoui’s continued lack of defensive positioning allows Fulham to get the ball in the Tigers net for a second time after Sessegnon scores, but fortunately the linesman’s flag is raised against the right-back.

Soon after the half time break City manage to get themselves back on level terms.  Andy Robertson and Sam Clucas work well together up the left before Clucas crosses too deep for the inrushing Hernández, but there’s Evandro diving in head first to firmly head in the equaliser.

City then had a chance to turn the tide very much in their favour as Diomande is played in by Clucas only for Kalas to nip in and clear.

Unfortunately at the other end, the defensive organisation problems are still obvious.  First Sessegnon flashes a cross across the goal with nobody able to poke the ball home, then Sessegnon again sees a static City defence before passing to Martin to tap into an open City goal.

Hernández’s isolation is soon remedied with David Meyler being replaced by Oumar Niasse, but that doesn’t help the biggest problem in the side, as once again Sessegnon runs at the static City defence to score past Jakupović, putting Fulham 3-1 up.

With the forwards on the pitch, City do create a few good chances, but neither Niasse, Hernández nor Diomande are able to exploit.  The tiring Evandro is also replaced by Josh Tymon in the middle of City’s midfield.

Yet once again at the other end of the pitch, the static defence is nowhere near Cairney as he passes in to Johansen.  They’re also nowhere near him as a scores Fulham’s fourth.  This goal did momentarily rouse the near silent home crowd, but they soon settled back to watching the entertainment laid out in front of them.

Fulham replace Aluko with Ayite, with the former Tiger getting warm applause from all sides of the ground, including the 1,200 travelling City fans.

City are then gifted a chance to put some respectability to the score line.  Robertson attacks up the left before being brought down in the Fulham box and a penalty is awarded.  Hernández places the kick low to the keepers left, but the keeper does well to get down and palm the ball out.  Hernández charges down the loose ball before being brought down by the Fulham keeper and another penalty is awarded.

I have to admit that I didn’t think it at the time, but as I type this up weren’t both penalties denials of goalscoring opportunities?  Shouldn’t we have seen red cards for these?

Hernández is given a second opportunity to correct his earlier saved penalty, this time he strikes the ball firmly to the keepers left, but this time the keeper gets a strong arm in the way, deflecting the shot high above the bar.

Cairney is next to be substituted by Fulham.  A few applause from the away fans, but not as many as Aluko.

A final chance sees Tymon try a shot from range, which is well saved by Bettinelli, before Huddlestone’s shot from the resulting corner is straight at the keeper.

The full time whistle is soon blown to bring an end to City’s dismal day.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact issues in the side.  The lack of defensive organisation is certainly an issue.  The loss of Jake Livermore and Robert Snodgrass in the transfer window is a much bigger problem to the team spirit in the squad.  As is bringing in four new faces and trying to integrate them into the side with potentially more to follow.

The season was always going to be tough with Ehab Allam repeatedly shooting the collective club in its foot.

The old adage of ‘concentrating on the league’ comes to the fore now.  But the Fulham performance has shown there’s plenty to be concerned about if the side is to achieve 17th place this season.

LeagueCup

REPORT: City 2 Manchester United 1 (League Cup semi final, 2nd leg: 2-3 on aggregate)

SilvaMarcoConf

So, this Marco Silva fella. I was starting to warm to him. I’ve seen enough from the changes he’s made to the way we play and the signings he’s made in the face of the club imploding (further) in the last fortnight to think we might just have someone who can work that miracle he spoke of. And then he goes and names a near-second string side for a cup semi-final. The joker.

We lost the first leg 2-0 at Old Trafford and our hopes of a historic first ever League Cup final were in tatters but the team selection said the manager didn’t think we could do it and had no interest in burning out his precious resources to even try.

City 4-2-3-1
Marshall
Meyler – Dawson – Maguire – Tymon
Huddlestone – Clucas
Bowen – Maloney – Diomande
Niasse

The team selection said nothing. If you pre-judged it, like I did, then Silva made a mug out of you. There was nothing between the sides early on and as the half went on, City dominated the ball more and more and carved out the better chances. Even with all the changes we’d made and two rookies in, Silva’s influence was obvious. I’ve never seen a Hull City team play anyone with our centre defenders in the opposition’s half, let alone Manchester United. Tom Huddlestone and Sam Clucas as the base of the midfield are always available for a pass and sweep up nicely in front of the back four. The movement from Jarrod Bowen from the wide areas looking for the ball in behind was outstanding and Shaun Maloney worked between their defence and midfield nicely.

Clucas forced the first save of the game, firing a free kick straight at De Gea (who punched it away in stereotypical foreign keeper fashion) after Oumar Niasse had stumbled his way past several United defenders before being fouled by Phil Jones. During the warm applause to show solidarity with Ryan Mason on 25, the ball was looped back into the box from a cleared corner. Michael Dawson controlled the ball, dropping over his left shoulder, brilliantly but was slow to shoot and Smalling recovered. Niasse fired the rebound into those foreign keeper’s fists. Niasse won another free kick around the box and Maloney curled it over.

They’d done nothing of note. Huddlestone was dominating the ball in midfield with Paul Pogba buzzing around him like a fan who’d won a game in a charity auction. Rashford had the beating of David Meyler for pace on their left but Meyler was dogged and tuck with him. Adama Diomande did the dirty work, as he generally does, and was underneath the crossbar to boot an Ibrahimovic cross clear from their best attack. With 5 minutes left in the half, we got fed up of toying with them and scored. Harry Maguire was trying to meet Maloney’s left wing corner when Rojo sent him flying. I was in a terrible position to see but TV replays showed clear shirt pulling. The ref pointed to the spot and Huddlestone buried the penalty in the bottom right hand corner.

We gifted the ball to Ibrahimovic soon after and the defenders backed off and backed off as he strolled into the box but Marshall got down to his left to save brilliantly as the whole ground awaited the inevitable net ripple. It was freezing, our most dangerous players were on the bench or off negotiating with West Ham but we were leading one of the most expensively assembled teams in football history.

The visitors started the second half strongly and forced four corners in quick succession. They were desperate to get back into game and it showed as Pogba threw himself down in the penalty area with Huddlestone not even close to touching him. Jon Moss rightly told him to get on with it but didn’t produce the deserved yellow card. From one of the many corners, the ball is played back in and Smalling finds himself with a sight of goal but Huddlestone recovers. Smalling is livid and wants a penalty. Huddlestone tells him he’s a cheat. Incessant whiner Herrera hounds the ref. Nothing is given and rightly so. There was hardly any contact. I’d like to think Pogba’s blatant cheating added doubt to the ref’s mind too. Karma’s a bugger.

City start to regain their composure but only after Bowen caps a fine evening’s work, on and off the ball, by refusing to back down when Rashford gave him some stick and the two went chest to chest. Meyler and sub Rooney stepped in to make sure the feisty youngsters didn’t do anything silly. There followed a period of City possession with the ball being worked in to midfield and back before springing an attack on the right that most have seen 30 consecutive City passes.

Serb Lazar Markovic, on loan from Liverpool, came on for Bowen for his debut and Evandro replaced Maloney. The advantage of fielding a weakened side meant there were plenty of options from the bench. Neither Bowen nor Maloney did their prospects any harm having had fine games. While City were getting used to the adjustments, United killed the tie with a soft equaliser. An innocuous move down our right saw the ball fed into the box. Huddlestone fended off Rashford but looked off balance and could only prod the ball to Pogba who stuck it under Marshall.

Despite being a historic occasion, it was obvious the attendance was going to be well down. United had most of the North Stand and the West Upper wasn’t open at all. When it was announced (not in the stadium), there were 13,088 City fans in a crowd of 16,831 – and that doesn’t include away fans in the home end. Are the Allams embarrassed by this? I’d love to think so but that disgusting pair seem utterly shameless. I’m embarrassed by it and it’s not my fault.

Abel Hernández is chucked on as City go in search of a winner. Two goals in the last 20 minutes was probably too much to ask though. Both teams hit the bar with good headers. Rojo nods Lingard’s corner onto the woodwork in front of those United fans in North and then Niasse meets a cross from the right and is equally unlucky. Hernández puts the rebound wide. With time running down, City press them again. Our centre halves are regularly in their half. There are a lot of forward passes and great movement from the lively subs. We’d run out of time to win the tie but we did win the game and it was sealed by a truly beautiful goal.

First Maguire, who continues to carry the ball out from the back superbly and who’s defending, particularly one on one, and composure are going to see him capped by England, and then Dawson stepped into their half with the ball, bouncing it off Huddlestone and looking for the forward pass. It comes to Josh Tymon on the left, is worked into the middle where Markovic floats it wide to the right, Meyler volleys it calmly across goal and Niasse sticks it in at the far post. We continued to have a go in the remaining minutes but couldn’t create the last opportunity.

City deserved the win. They were outstanding. Even with a second choice look to the side. There’ll be no trip to Wembley and no silverware (not that we care!) but there was a whole lot of pride in the manager and the players.

I don’t want to get carried away by Silva, especially when he’s about to lose his most effective attacking player, but it’s hard not to be seriously impressed by what we’ve seen so far and to wonder what he can do with a bit of backing in the transfer market with the £20m the club have just about raised selling Jake Livermore and Robert Snodgrass. If he can get this team playing like they did in this semi in tense home games against the likes of Burnley, Boro, Sunderland and Swansea then Marco’s Miracle is on.

Rick Skelton (report first appeared on Tiger Chat)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Chelsea 2 City 0

HuddlestoneTh

4:30pm on a cold winter Sunday.  The perfect time to settle down in front of a roaring fire and gradually fall asleep to then soothing tones of Songs of Praise and Countryfile.  Or you could travel to London Town to watch Hull City play at Stamford Bridge, a ground where the limit of our aspirations through the years has been the occasional draw (and the occasional goal).  Chelsea welcomed back Diego Costa to the fold, recovered from his “back injury”.  Presumably he has hugged and made up with Antonio Conte (the latter has still not noticed his missing wallet).  We had our own tactical injury with Robert Snodgrass, absent through a slight strain.  This could well have been the rapid neck movements as he chooses between the various suitors that are vying for his attentions.  The glass-half-full brigade will see his absence as an indicator of an impending move whilst the glass-half-full proponents will see it as being kept out of the shop window until the prospect of transfer has passed by.  I just want to know why I didn’t get a glass.

We line up with Eldin Jakupović in goal, a back three of Michael Dawson, Harry Maguire and Curtis Davies flanked by Andy Robertson and our debutant Viking fullback Omar Elabdellaoui.  Ahead of them Sam Clucas, Ryan Mason and Tom Huddlestone form the core of midfield with Evandro (on his full debut) and Abel Hernández further forward.  From the kickoff Chelsea storm forward.  Within seconds Costa rampages forward like a bull in a China shop and lashes a volley that skitters wide of the Jak’s right hand post.  I resigned myself to recording a litany of Chelsea attempts on goal and (hopefully) defensive heroics.

For the first few minutes that is certainly the case.  Dawson gets an early yellow for running in to Pedro whilst Cahill doesn’t for a worse looking foul on Clucas thus setting the tone for Neil Swarbrick’s refereeing strategy.  On our first serious foray towards the Matthew Harding stand Huddlestone plays a one-two but drags the shot wide.  The game is evening out.  And then there is a sickening injury to Ryan Mason.  He rises well to head clear a corner microseconds before being knocked cold by the arriving Cahill.  The latter is on his feet quickly but groggy.  After about nine minutes of attention – including oxygen – Mason is stretchered off.  We learned this morning that he has a fractured skull but stable.  We all wish him well.  Mason was just starting to show flashes of why we paid a record fee after a difficult start.  It is a blow for him and the club.  David Meyler gets an earlier call to action than he might otherwise have expected.

Mason’s injury has galvanized the team.  Evandro and Hernández link well but are repelled then Harry storms forward to fire in a shot that deflects into the side netting.  From the resulting corner it is that man Maguire again but his header is straight into the grateful arms of Courtois.  Chelsea come storming back with a series of corners and we are under the cosh.  Davies becomes the second booking before Jak tips over a deflected Alonso shot.  The pressure is almost continuous at this point.  It appears that Elabdellaoui bundles over Hazard after some neat interplay.  Nervous glances are thrown towards the referee and it is with some relief that we see him pointing towards the corner and not the penalty spot.
Fifteen minutes of incessant pressure come to an end when Hazard contrives to fall over about five feet from the nearest Hull City player.  Costa does put the ball into the net but he and at least one other Chelsea player were yards offside despite the plaintive appeals otherwise.  It is at the end of this period of pressure that Maguire has another rumble forward.  His 30 yard piledriver is turned aside by a flying Courtois.   Nine minutes are added at the end of the period for the Mason injury.  Some neat Hull City passing opens up Chelsea but Meyler’s attempt to find a wide open Robertson goes straight into touch.  My neighbour in the crowd posits that Meyler is the “crappest player on the pitch”.  I will be kinder.  He is the least technically gifted but contributes through his effort and doggedness.

The contest between Maguire and Costa has been particularly fun to watch with the former outmuscling the latter into several hissy fits.  Kante goes close but the ball runs through to Jak.  Davies is lucky to escape a second yellow when clattering Pedro outside the area and then the added time almost inevitably brings a Chelsea goal.  It started with a clearance to Hernández who appears to be holding the ball well before being thrown to ground by Cahill (yes, him again).  Chelsea come forward and Pedro’s cross is met by Costa, who, with china in his hands, slides the ball into the net via Jakupović’s foot.  It is inevitable but cruel on City side who have kept the Chelsea goalkeeper busier than ours has been.

The second half is more of the same.  It is a very even game and difficult to pick out who is top of the league and who is (almost) bottom.  Maguire lets fly with another shot that is just wide before Clucas sees an effort deflect off a defender and loop behind for a corner.  Hernández is clipped in the area but no penalty results.   Perhaps Swarbrick is balancing things out for the Hazard incident in the first half.  Whatever, he is a rubbish ref.  Meyler is the next to force Courtois into action and the game is mostly being played out in front of the visiting supporters in the corner of what used to be the old Shed End.  Clucas is then flattened by Sideshow Bob but the resulting free kick comes to nought.  We are definitely missing Snodgrass’ dead ball skills: a series of unthreatening corners are slung over by Clucas and Evandro.  We then lose a second player to injury with Davies limping off.  He is replaced by Oumar Niasse and we go to a back four.  Bringing a forward on shows (a) a lack of defensive cover on the bench and (b) intent that we can still effect a result.  Hernández appears to be fouled on the edge of the box by Luis but the former is penalised for grabbing the ball as he falls to the ground.  Still we are pressing and win a corner via Moses’ hand but as I said, we are lacking quality on the set pieces.

Huddlestone – having an effective game in midfield – plays in Abel but the latter’s touch is heavy and gathered by Courtois.  At this stage Chelsea have to resort to breaking up play with a series of fouls.  We can’t take advantage, being caught offside from a couple of set pieces before Maguire drags one comically wide.

Adama Diomande replaces Hernández who has ploughed a lone and fruitless furrow up front all afternoon.  We continue to look more likely to score but don’t.  And Chelsea do, giving us a lesson in how to take a quality set piece and how to score from it.  Willian’s trickery on the left draws a foul.  Fabregas spits on his hands (and not Horton’s shoes) and lays up a perfect cross for an unmarked Cahill to bury the header.  Chelsea 2-0 up, somewhat undeservedly and Jak is alert to prevent Costa getting an even-less-deserved third goal.  There is still time for Niasse to sting Courtois’s palms with a quick turn and shot to the left of the box but that turns out to be our last chance while Chelsea play the game out with ease.

Another goalless, pointless visit to The Bridge.  It was an even game and one could make a very convincing case for us deserving better.  We matched the league champions elect in all aspects other than the one that counts: putting the ball in the net and we know how much of a problem that has been this season.  If nothing else it augers well for upcoming fixtures with teams that are less clinical than Chelsea and that are not going to win the league.  A lack of quality in set pieces without Snodders is worrying: we are going to need a few goals before the end of the season.  Anyway, onwards to Craven Cottage for a 12:30 Sunday kickoff (after the second leg of the league cup semi).  I hope the concession stands are doing Sunday roasts.

Rob Kaye (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 3 Bournemouth 1

HernandezA16

The visit of Bournemouth was my first opportunity to see Marco Silva’s Hull City in person. The short version of the report is that we won and I was impressed with the new gaffer and the bottle shown by the players. It was a far cry from the lack of mental strength on display in the reverse fixture where we collapsed to an embarrassing 1-6 defeat and, if nothing else, today went some way to putting that right.

Thanks to the recovery from injury of Michael Dawson and Curtis Davies, Jake Livermore overcoming his illness and the signings of Brazilian Evandro from Porto and Senegalese Oumar Niasse from Everton – Marco Silva actually had options to pick from for the first time as City manager. Nothing runs smooth this season though, David Meyler and Shaun Maloney were new absentees.

Jakupović
Maguire – Dawson – Davies – Robertson
Diomande – Mason – Huddlestone – Clucas
Snodgrass
Hernández

Eldin Jakupović was picked in goal and the roar from the crowd told us that was a popular decision from Silva. Abel Hernández who’d clearly fallen out with Mike Phelan and has miraculously recovered since his departure started for the first time since early November. Harry Maguire and Adama Diomande took up unfamiliar roles on the right-hand side.

Maguire is a great lad and is growing into an exciting central defender but he looked as comfortable at right back as Phelan did in the TV studio at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. With just a couple of minutes gone, he conceded a penalty when he jumped into a tackle with Fraser with the wrong foot. It’s the tenth penalty we’ve conceded in the Premier League this season. We only need one more to tie the all-time (since 1992) record. Here’s hoping. One of the arguments I’ve heard a lot for playing Jakupović in goal is that he’s good at saving penalties. He wasn’t saving this one, Stanislas smashed it into the (in)side netting of Jak’s right hand post [0-1].

A dreadful start and it didn’t get any better. City showed absolutely nothing in response and Bournemouth passed the ball about like the side who destroyed us on the South coast in October. Harry Arter smashed a shot just wide and then Dawson got caught underneath a high ball and Benik Afobe went through but was met by a smart save from the chest of the Jak.

Bournemouth are remarkable in Premier League terms. They’re on the fringes of being a top half team but apart from Jack Wilshere, they’re a Championship squad. Every other player involved today either won promotion with them or was purchased from a Championship club. Tin other hands, they’d be out of their depth but they continue to improve as individuals and as a group under Eddie Howe and are a great model for clubs aspiring to establish themselves in the “big league”.

They do lack some big game experience though and when that Afobe miss gave City a kick up the arse, our big-time players started to drag us into the game. Tom Huddlestone was the best player on the pitch, Robert Snodgrass picked up the ball in key areas and Davies and Dawson troubled them from set pieces. Silva’s desire to push the full backs high up the pitch was evidenced by Andy Robertson flying down the left and once we’d started to dominate the ball, Maguire got into great positions on the right. We picked up a head of steam and worried them from a Snodgrass free kick and a neat ball in behind by Huddlestone when Robertson advanced on the left and delivered a magnificent cross that Hernández could do nothing with except head it into the net from close range [1-1].

A trio of corners came and went before the break as City dominated. It was great to see further evidence of the new manager’s influence in the set pieces. Earlier, Snodgrass had delivered a ball to Davies while feigning, convincingly, that he was going to shoot. Later, we piled everyone in at the near post for a corner only for Snodgrass to cut it back for Sam Clucas to shoot. We’ve not seen invention at set pieces since Peter Taylor left!

The start to the second half was night and day from the first and a few minutes in, City took the lead. We won the ball in midfield, worked it nicely to the right side through Snodgrass and then Hernández took over. He cut into the box, backed up Tyrone Mings and unleashed a great low drive into the far corner [2-1]. The defender will have been kicking himself, Hernández was busy soaking in the adoration of his audience. By, how we’ve missed his goals.

Despite bringing on Callum Wilson and ex-City loanee Josh King, Bournemouth weren’t really at the races. Diomande crossed nicely for Hernández to head wide after Huddlestone and Maguire had worked an opening beautifully. Then Ryan Mason, who had his best game for City by many country miles, worked his own opportunity, showing good feet and better strength in possession, but shot wide. Then Adam Smith, recently booked for a crude foul on Clucas, fouled Mason. The crowd were looking for a second yellow. Instead, justice was served by Huddlestone whose controlled volley from the cleared free kick beat Artur Boruc. Will the small matter of a massive deflection off Mings [3-1].

It was great to see Huddlestone score – if it’s given to him. City are trying to play football all over the pitch and he’s in his element. He’s working ridiculously hard too and made more than his fair share of tackles and interceptions. On 66 minutes I genuinely wondered to myself who Bournemouth’s #32 was. It took me a few seconds to work out it was Jack Wilshere. He’d had so little impact as Huddlestone ran the midfield. In fairness, Wilshere did come to life in the closing stages and had a couple of efforts at Jakupović. One of them a stinging shot after sub Pugh had gone down looking for a penalty (nearly the record!) that Jak saved brilliantly.

City were a threat on the break and Hernández’s last input before he went off was to latch onto Huddlestone’s lovely pass as Mings looked like he was running in treacle. Abel never got the ball under control though and could only shoot weakly eventually.

Hernández picked up the man of the match award in the stadium and he was the difference maker. Unsurprisingly, I’d have gone for Huddlestone. It was a solid team effort though. The two centre halves who looked far from fit put in a great shift. As did the oft-derided Diomande. He’s technically deficient and makes odd decisions but he works incredibly hard for the team in the wrong position and he was crucial in the second half, protecting the ropey Maguire time and again. I love big H but he’s no right back.

Snodgrass and Hernández gave way to the debuting Evandro and Niasse. Evandro covered a lot of ground and flew into some tackles but spent a whole lot of time on the floor and almost made as many fouls (one) as passes. Niasse looked like he might prove a useful option off the bench. He was quick, his first touch was decent and he has a strong build. It’s way too early to judge but he didn’t look the complete fraud some Everton fans have suggested he is. A couple of very incorrect looking offside flags denied City the chance to put some gloss on the scoreline while ref Martin Atkinson, who hates us, turned down the chance to give Adam Smith a well-deserved second yellow card.

It was a great and much needed win for City and a good start for Silva in the league. There are plenty of examples of his early influence from City’s attempts to play out from the goalkeeper to the discipline being shown without the ball. Perhaps most impressive though is the ambition on display when we’re in possession. To get men in the box, to get crosses and shots in and to keep going forward when leading. I think he can keep us up. It’s not going to be easy. We’ve still got a threadbare squad, a lack of depth and a pathetic away record. But he’s got some winnable home games, he’s already instilled some confidence in the squad and he’s got incessant drive on the touchline.

It wouldn’t be the greatest escape but it’d be a pretty bloody unlikely one.

Rick Skelton (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

LeagueCup

REPORT: Manchester United 2 City 0 (League Cup semi-final, 1st leg)

JakupovicE

Let me ask you for a stat. Since Steve Bruce took us back to the Premier League in May 2013, how many Cup ties have we played?

That’s three and a half seasons of football. How many Cup ties?

Furrowed brows and muttered comments along the lines of ‘umm, quite a few’ greeted this inquiry in the pub before yesterday’s match.

I won’t detain you further.

The answer is that this match at Old Trafford was the 31st Cup tie in that span, embracing Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, and there are at least two more games in Cups to come before this season is out. That’s a lot of Cup ties. I haven’t gathered the detailed statistics but I imagine that in the club’s history there have been full decades of grimly unsuccessful Cup football that have fallen short of the number of games we have accumulated in just three and a half seasons. And it’s not simply a matter of quantity, it’s quality too. We played plenty of Cup matches in the 1990s, and the vast majority were utterly miserable affairs, played out before sparse crowds, especially in the case of two leg League Cup ties, and featuring regular defeats to the likes of Rotherham, Macclesfield and Lincoln. Our recent exploits include not only Europe, but also an FA Cup Final plus a trip to its Fifth Round, a League Cup Quarter Final last season and now this, the club’s first ever League Cup Semi Final. There have been some genuinely magnificent occasions, and not only in victory. Last night doesn’t quite have the glitter of the Cup Final, but it was a very positive experience.

In fact this was about as uplifting as a defeat can get.

Even if Marouane Fellaini’s goal, the second of the game, just three minutes before the end probably means that our chances of rescuing the tie and returning to Wembley are realistically negligible, Jose Mourinho will still not be given the luxury of being able to select a bunch of reserves and juniors for the second leg in Hull. And that is a tribute to the commitment and skill that our players (and manager) invested in this intriguing match.

On a dark damp Manc of an evening we carded a 4-5-1, evidently designed to flood midfield and deter the home side’s ability to attack our frankly flimsy back four with pace:

Jakupović
Meyler     Huddlestone   Maguire    Robertson
Snodgrass  Henriksen  Mason  Clucas  Tymon
Diomandé

That’s a line up that wouldn’t have surprised you had it been chosen by Mike Phelan, so our new manager isn’t attempting anything radical yet. To be fair, he’s scarcely got the personnel to get a feasible side out on the pitch, never mind work some tactical wizardry, and in fact we were able to name only 6 rather than the permitted 7 on the bench. United managed to find the full 7 and, Fosu-Mensah aside, they were all big name internationals too. The main point of note in our selection is Josh Tymon picked for midfield with the more experienced Andy Robertson tucked in behind him at full back. I’m not sure if that counts as a huge vote of confidence in Tymon or a reflection of concern that the lad might get ruthlessly exposed at left back in such surroundings, and I suppose Mr Silva himself is still forming preliminary judgements on how best to play and who best to pick.

Off we go, and we might have expected an opening salvo featuring controlled passing, calmness in possession and the sheen of confidence, but we might not have expected it to be supplied by Hull City. It is, however, a delightfully encouraging beginning, snapped only by loss of the ball, a fast break and a superb right-handed save from Juan Mata’s shot by Cup goalie supreme Eldin Jakupović.

When he’s good, he’s very good. It’s the other times that worry me.

Sir Harforth Maguire was described in a recent national newspaper report – on the Everton match, I think – as Beckenbauer-esque. Not, I hope, a nod to his creative tax ‘planning’, but rather a generous comparison to our mountainous defender’s ability to bring the ball upfield with pace and intent in the manner of the greatest ballplaying defender the game has ever seen. On 9 he does just that, and the self-styled Theatre of Dreams is left in awe of the power and presence of our boy’s glorious maraud to the very edge of the home penalty area.

The home patrons are so impressed that we can almost hear them.

Almost.

Well, hello, we’re playing with poise and ambition here, and it’s terrific stuff. Markus Henriksen foolishly tries to impose his physical presence on Pogba, but Henriksen has none, Pogba has plenty, and once our Norwegian bantamweight is finally scraped off the turf and ushered towards the sideline, it is clear that his evening is over, courtesy of a shoulder injury. Long term, we can ill afford the loss of any of our meagre pool of available players but on this occasion the enforced change – Abel Hernàndez up front and Adama Diomandé to drop back to cover the right side of midfield – is clearly an improvement for the purposes of this particular match.

On 18 Mata sets up Mkhitaryan who sidefoots wastefully wide. United, however, are not putting us under sustained pressure. Mata is terrific, incessant energy, readiness to look for the ball and do something constructive with it. But the rest of this lavishly expensive and grotesquely over-praised line-up? Not impressive at all. Their main aim is to isolate David Meyler and in that quest they have some success, and Meyler never looks positionally certain at right back, which is after all far from his preferred position. He sticks in, however, like the excellent pro he is. But our defensive duty is eased by some pretty thin performances from men in red. Pogba looks disinclined to get forward, committed to policing deep midfield. Maybe he’s following instructions, but for 90 million or whatever absurd price was paid in the summer, I’d want a bit more attacking adventure. Mkhitaryan looks, well, OK, no more than that. Better than our players? No, not noticeably. The team sheet tells me Herrera was playing, but he competes with Jeremy Corbyn as the UK’s current Mr Invisible Man. Rashford up front looks in need of a burly partner in the mould of Andy Lochhead, while then there’s also Wayne Rooney. This is some kind of slightly off colour joke, no? Man who for five or so years has been demonstrably too unfit and slow to play serious professional football at the top level, still allowed to trot on to the pitch and wander around like grandad joining in a teenagers’ kickabout? His sole role, judged on last night, is to whine at the referee, and had Kevin Friend applied the rules properly he would have whipped out a yellow card at least once. (Apply the rules properly? To Manchester United? At Old Trafford? I know, I know, dream on, theatregoers.)

On 27 the Jak saves from the temporarily advanced Pogba, and a minute later Rashford shoots over the top. Up the other end and for a moment United look undone as a delicate Dio header is directed back across De Gea towards the far post. But it hits that far post. And anyway the offside flag is raised.

We’re sturdy here. It’s not backs-to-the-wall, it’s far more convincing than that. Compared to the relentless and at times terrifying pressing intensity imposed on us by Liverpool at Anfield earlier this season, the Manchester United experience is a great deal less demanding.

Four minutes added, half time, nil nil.

On 50 Rooney collects the ball in space and shoots past the far post. Pitifully poor.

Our shape looks good. Ryan Mason is having – by far – his best game for us, neat touches, ready movement. Tom Huddlestone is showing tremendous application and calmness at centre back, even though I’d worry if he comes up a bruiser of a centre forward who’s good in the air. Dio has moved to the left side, and Robert Snodgrass to the right, to protect Meyler, and United need to step it up if they are going to harm us.

They do so.

It happens at the far end from us, and it all looks a bit messy from a distance, but our defence has been stretched by a decent move, the ball is crossed, and Mata converts a chance from close range. The scorer has certainly been by far the best player in red.

Rooney is promptly subbed off – presumably referee Friend is thought by Mourinho to need no further nagging – and on comes Martial. The pace increases with the sluggish Rooney’s departure, but Harry is not perturbed: he injects not one but two massive interceptions to break up hopeful attacks. The colossus that is Harry Maguire will never be accused of a lightning turn of foot, but, properly coached, he is well capable of a good top Division career, and wherever he ends up he will deserve the respect of the fans for his truly excellent attitude.

We’re enjoying it, despite the deficit. We’ve been given much better seats than normal, high up behind the goal opposite the Stretford End instead of shoved into the poky corner we get allocated for League games, and the City support, enjoying the team’s resilience, is in full voice, in contrast to the home support, which has no voice. And we have got a new hero. His name is Marco Silva. We like him. We have a song for him too, to the tune of Glad All Over. It’s great. He’s great. If only the club had owners who are not spiteful, stubborn and vindictive, you could start to imagine a couple of weeks in which Mr Silva brings in four or five key reinforcements, a couple of months in which he learns what is at its disposal and places his imprint on the side, and then a glorious March, April and May in which we swing through a relatively kind run of fixtures and rise confidently to 17th place in the table.

Don’t think about it. Not going to happen. The Allams will not let it happen. But we like Mr Silva so far, though he needs to attune his ear and understand when we are asking him for a wave, and then give us one.

On 65 a fine move involving Snodgrass and Meyler allows Dio a shot at a bicycle kick at the back post, but the acrobatics are too demanding and the ball clears the crossbar. Ten minutes later, another chance, as Shaun Maloney, replacement for Dio, is provided with a shooting opportunity with his very first touch after a terrific surge down the left inspired by Robertson, but he slices his effort well wide.

In truth we are struggling by now, as United dominate the possession in a way that they had been unable to achieve for the first hour of the match. Lingard is on for Mkhitaryan – extra pace. Pogba hits the post with a free kick. We hang on.

United’s final substitution removes the excellent but tiring Mata in favour of cheap elbow merchant Fellaini. And, painfully, this criminal of a footballer adds a second goal. Again, it’s down the far end, so hard to get a clear sight of what occurs, but it’s a ball to the back post, looping header, tired defending.

There’s time enough for the flattered home side to flatten our hopes definitively, but our boys hang on and repel attempts at a third goal. But it comes at a cost. Tymon is injured, and has to come off, looking very sore.

All to play for in the second leg? Mmm. Sort of. We are in truth highly unlikely to come back from this two-goal deficit, despite Hull City’s recent reinvention as Cup kings. But we played good football last night and, even if it is the Allams that will always have the last word while they remain in charge, Mr Silva looks well able to serve up some watchable football for us between now and the end of the season.

Steve Weatherill (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: West Bromwich Albion 3 City 1

SnodgrassR16

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.”

The first verse of Psalm 23, emblazoned across one side of The Hawthorns. They’ve been singing it there for more than 40 years since a power cut during a Sunday game prompted the adherent churchgoers in the Brummie Road End to find their own entertainment. Maybe we have West Brom fans to thank for Sunday games happening at all, as in 1974 there were still Christian protesters outside of stadia appealing to supporters not to venture into their footballing cathedral on the Sabbath. Psalm 23 blaring out across the Black Country either side of odes to Tony Brown and Len Cantello and unflattering songs about Mike Bailey’s parentage may have just acted as a steady compromise.

City fans could have done some work with Psalm 23 in 1974, not least by altering the lyric slightly to showcase the odd relationship between Bunkers Hill and Malcolm Lord, who to many during that era was a midfielder they shall not want. Future generations could have adapted the opening verse to give Stuart Green or, at a push, Jon Walters, a bit of ecumenical serenading. At the Hawthorns on January 2nd 2017, however, no form of gospel-based caterwauling could have helped City. We’re going down.

There is a fetid stink of repetitiveness we recognise now at City games. We will play well in the first half. We will give everyone hope that we have the right players, the right tactics, the right plan. We will put most of those hopes at the feet of Robert Snodgrass, through whose own personal form the team tends to be efficient and bullish. We will lead, and deserve to. We will predictably spurn a glut of chances to increase the lead. We will lose a marker at some point and concede a goal effortlessly. We will collapse. We will make baffling substitutions that bring the manager accusations of favouritism and one-dimensional cluelessness. We will do it all again next week.

And we will hear nothing from the ownership about anything whatosever, something that seems to put us in common with a head coach who, while obviously out of his depth in this job and proving harder by the week to forgive, is being hung out to dry on a clothes line almost as strong as the one Daniel Cousin used to flatten Kamil Zayatte on this same ground nine – crikey, yes – nine calendar years ago.

City of Culture, we know what we are. But we are other things too. And they’re nothing to be proud of.

Walking in death’s dark vale, in presence of my foes…

Marshall
Maguire Dawson Davies
Elmohamady Livermore Huddlestone Snodgrass Clucas
Diomande Mbokani

Three, five and two. Tried and trusted, except when someone puts a cross in. More on that to come.

Two changes from the side that chucked away two points against Everton, with the return of Tom Huddlestone to the midfield welcome and expected. The absence of Andy Robertson from the left flank made the cynical tongues a-wag, though – resting after an arduous Christmas? Or have West Ham bid for him again?

City settle down quickly. The midfield trio have entire control of the pace of the game. Huddlestone is in “lit cigar” mode, spraying the ball purposely yet nonchalantly to wherever he chooses. Sam Clucas, in an alien position, is not deterred from getting forward. The put-upon Ahmed Elmohamady is similarly forward thinking on the other side. This system just works, when City let it. And they are letting it.

Adama Diomande, followed by Huddlestone, both fizz shots straight down Ben Foster’s throat, then Michael Dawson – the Premier League’s top scoring defender this season, let’s just drink in that utterly crackpot stat once again – aims a left footer just wide after Snodgrass has a corner cleared back to him. It’s good, resourceful, enjoyable stuff from City, and the travelling fans – lots of whom paid on the day, it seems – respond throatily.

Then we score. And it’s a lovely goal indeed.

Harry Maguire wins it, Jake Livermore plays it and Elmohamady, in truly hectares of room thanks to a weirdly unobservant West Brom back four, has room and time to glide the ball to the edge of the box where the fast-arriving Snodgrass is able to slide in and steer the ball into the corner. Foster has no chance.

Just over 20 minutes gone, and a deserved lead has been attained. But can we keep it, to half time?

West Brom manage to tighten things up after Jonny Evans suffers an injury and the change prompts a like-for-like switch. But the home side are taking their time getting into the game, and their deafeningly quiet supporters don’t like it. Meanwhile, City want two.

Snodgrass with another dig, from further away. Blocked. Dieumerci Mbokani, chronic workaholic up front, heads a tame one straight at Foster. Diomande shoots wide, Huddlestone then goes closest with a low left-footer that Foster shovels up well.

In between, ironic cheers from the City corner of the Smethwick End as both Salomón Rondón and Matt Phillips aim headers goalwards, but David Marshall clings on comfortably. Then Maguire nearly removes a Throstle head with a shot of hysteria-inducing venom, though the ricochet allows West Brom a counter attack that ends with Curtis Davies making a goal-saving block. Real defending, this. We have cohesion, pace, innovation. It’s a splendid half of football and the City players trudge off satisfied.

In the eventual context, a half time lead is nothing to shout about, even away from home. But it represents progress. Of a kind.

As darkness falls, we see the first evidence of the crescent moon and Venus having a bit of a gossip in the sky. The nearest planet to earth is eerily bright, and you can understand why social media’s most ardent amateur photographers were hard at work for the next couple of hours. It twinkles, flickers and, as any astronomer will tell you, offers next to no gravitational pull whatsoever. It is so slight it is literally immeasurable and the cumulative effect is nil.

So we can’t use that as an excuse for the second half.

Mike Phelan must have known that Tony Pulis would rely a bit more on bodies in the box. Thy rod and staff comfort Pulis still – and his staff tend to be six-foot plus blunderers who can climb above constructions dimensionally similar to bungalows in order to meet leather with forehead. Very comforting indeed, for him. Especially when the opposition is plainly unaware and unprepared.

On 49 minutes, a corner. Chris Brunt heads in unmarked. On 62 minutes, a corner. Gareth McAuley heads in unmarked. The second took a while to be confirmed as Mark Clattenburg took a break from his ‘Basic Mandarin for Beginners’ app on his wrist to consult the goal-line tech, which eventually said goal.

Two corner, two unmarked headers, two goals. This merits relegation on its own, never mind some of the other harebrained, incompetent things City have done this season.

Let’s add another to an ever expanding list (we’ll be needing more A4 soon). Mbokani, tireless, selfless, forward-thinking, about to relinquish his club duties for the ACoN, withdrawn from action. On comes Ryan Mason, a midfielder whose collective contribution to the City cause since a ludicrously expensive transfer from Tottenham has been a goal in the League Cup and otherwise a series of displays that have been somewhere between vague and feckless.

The formation alteration sees Diomande operate alone up top with Snodgrass theoretically doing the work in the hole behind him. Mason is no improvement either directly or by association. City barely see the ball. And within another eight minutes, a third goal goes in.

Not a set-piece this time, but still the City rearguard struggle to find its collective bum as a counter attack allows James Morrison a sliced left-foot volley into the corner past Marshall, who is blameless for all three goals but is still questionable when it comes to organising a defence.

Phelan tries another novel substitution in removing Davies (to mocking from fans of West Brom, for whom he used to play) and bringing on Markus Henriksen. The number of bodies in the midfield now was bordering on greedy, but still City had little knowledge of what was going on and certainly no inclination to find out. It was a galling, devastating exercise in ruining something you’ve got and earned for yourself. It was really, really horrible.

Robertson was also on the bench, so was David Meyler, so was the forgotten man of the senior squad, Shaun Maloney, who has plainly more to offer than the two wastrels who have taken up too much of our time as tactical martyr figures already. Why Maloney isn’t getting a game is anyone’e guess, but then he wasn’t a purchase on Ehab’s list in August, of course.

Afterwards, Phelan claimed he couldn’t defend the corners, which gives him something in common with his players. He is now without Elmohamady as well as Mbokani throughout January, while Snodgrass applauded the fans quite lengthily, as if to signify an imminent parting of the ways. Phelan is also without the goodwill of most City fans, and indeed the physical presence of an awful lot of them due to the much-vaunted boycott of this Saturday’s FA Cup tie versus a similarly bedraggled, virulent Swansea City. Though even without the boycott, why would anyone, from either side, want to go to that?

Cups will take our attention for much of January, especially if our rancid owner, within the paths of righteousness e’en for his own name’s sake, continues to play cat-and-mouse with the head coach over funding for new players. The Premier League is unlovely at the best of times, but it is especially so when you feel like the unloveliest presence within it. That’s where City are right now and it is difficult to imagine being anywhere else before May. And the blame will always lie squarely, firmly, unequivocally at the top.