FEAT-BALL

MATCH REPORT: City 2-0 Watford

 MadleyWatford2017

What do the best stories contain? Perhaps it depends on the type of tale, but some elements frequently recur. A nefarious baddie bent upon destruction, a handsome and dashing hero, an improbable twist in the tale and satisfying victory for the good guys against daunting odds.

Clocking in at just under two hours, you’d struggle to suggest that Hull City v Watford qualifies as a full length story. No sweeping Wilbur Smith epic this; but it was sufficiently laden with incident to deserve greater consideration than merely a chapter in a longer drama. Let’s file it under “novella”, an engrossing stand-alone that makes up a worthy part of a longer story arc.

Summoning up another implausible adventure were:

Jakupović
Elmohamady Maguire (c) Ranocchia Robertson
Grosicki Clucas Evandro Marković
N’Diaye
Niasse

Approximately, anyway. It surprised plenty that Tom Huddlestone was benched, for his form had sparkled lustrously prior to his unjust suspension, while many more anticipated Marco Silva opting for a front two for a must-win winnable fixture. But no.

Watford reached 40 points last week, the much-vaunted mark whereby another season suckling at the television’s teat is usually guaranteed. Might they accommodatingly phone in a performance for us, with their primary objective obtained before St George’s Day? Or might they play with vigour and freedom, unshackled by pressure and unnecessarily denting our ambitions of similar suckling?

And what of Stoke, similarly safe and carrying the East Riding’s hopes in south Wales? We’re at the stage of the season where examining scorelines elsewhere is no longer a way of passing time during the interval but an integral part of the afternoon. And so we kicked off on an attractive spring afternoon with minds full of permutations – five clear by 5pm, one adrift come the evening, or maybe just somewhere in the middle. Whatever a relegation battle is, we’re deep into it in a way Teessiders and Wearsiders alike will envy, and it’s been a while since a season ended up a series of numbing dead rubbers.

City began attacking the North Stand, something I’ll never understand (why not attack your most partisan support in the second half and oblige the away team to kick away from their own fans?), but there was initially little for those patrons to see at close quarters as a palpably nervous City were pressed back by Watford. Resplendent in all-white, the Hornets looked as though they may indeed be here on business rather than pleasure, however their early promise faded without them creating anything and the first opportunity of the afternoon fell Sam Clucas’ way when a cross was partially cleared to him – however his half-volley was ill-timed and sailed well off target.

The mere sight of goal saw City improve, and while the overall quality was poor from both sides, the Tigers began to show signs of winning the arm-wrestle.

Enter the baddie.

On 25, a ball breaks loose in midfield, slightly in the Watford half. Milan loanee M’Baye Niang pounces first and narrowly beats Oumar Niasse to the ball, before collapsing to the turf in confected discomfort. From E5, there’s time to process each of Niasse’s reactions in order – first, contempt that such a soft collision (a foul, but nothing more) has prompted such histrionics, then bafflement when he sees referee Bobby Madley reach for a card, and then complete incomprehension when he registers its colour.

The stadium rises in bewildered anger as the distraught Niasse leaves (Niang was still pretending to be hurt) and the anger towards Mr Madley was long and loudly projected. Anyone who’s watched a reasonable amount of football knows the approximate sequence of events when a red card is widely considered to be possible. The foul happens, the opposition react with horror (whether real or feigned), one set of fans screams for justice and a weird sort of anticipatory murmur involuntarily escapes the entire crowd as they wait to see whether the potential dismissal will be realised. It’s like a thunderstorm – you can just FEEL something in the air.

None of this happened. None of the usual sensations were felt. Instead, an innocuous midfield foul was punished with a red card. You need to go back a long time, down several divisions and grades of official to recall a more appalling decision. Coddington? Laws? Those hazily-remembered names from a grim and distant past floated to mind as we tried to make sense of it. Needless to say, in the smartphone era it wasn’t long before City fans could be seen watching a replay to confirm the injustice. But if you know anything about football, and how to read its signals, you’ll have needed no replay. It was a rancid, rotten, foul decision from an abysmal referee plainly out of his depth.

How it stung. News of Swansea’s lead had already reached us, and Watford resolved to seize their unwarranted advantage by again pushing City back. They ought to have led too – a real threat from set pieces, only a fine reaction save from Eldin Jakupović denied Prödl and minutes later Britos headed wide under worryingly little pressure.

It didn’t get much better. Mr Madley must surely – SURELY – have begun to wonder whether the relentless invective from the stands was in fact justified, and he responded by, err, making some more terrible decisions. Irksome as they were at the time, with hindsight they probably had the useful effect of turning the game into a bitty affair, allowing City to hang on to reach the interval goalless. It came via Mr Madley’s decision not to caution Niang for a ridiculous dive in injury time that raised the temperature even further. The referee was escorted off by stewards, with a torrent of dismay conveyed by all areas (including the one Ehab Allam dopily wants to close).

Bloody hell. This was winnable, and now we were only drawing while a man down and uncomfortably aware of Swansea’s lead. In that fractious 45, the whole season had taken a real jolt.

Enter the dashing hero.

After all, does anything jolt Mr Silva? At the break, he withdrew Evandro for Hernández, the Brazilian having begun well but declined rapidly following the red card. Meanwhile, shorn of the lone striker we’d started with, Hernández’s introduction was plainly necessary. It wasn’t the change in personnel but the change in mindset he can engender that we should most admire, though. Rather than letting an inept official dictate to them, Silva used the break to calm his players, and it was quickly obvious that deep breaths had been drawn and minds refocussed. Whatever the Portuguese for dusting worselves down is, we’d done it.

Hernández had an early shot following his arrival, directing a fairly soft attempt at Heurelho Gomes – though perhaps he was attempting an audacious chip? Watford were again becalmed, but could/should have taken the lead when defensive blunders from more than one in black and amber saw Capoue stab the ball goalwards – fortunately it hit Jakupović’s foot before he could even react and bounced to safety, although Jakupović’s endearing attempt to take credit for the save with the North Stand was raised a half-smile.

Enter the plot twist.

On the hour, a Watford free-kick fizzled out and was cleared. Suddenly, the realisation dawned that the visitors had overcommitted and for a thrilling moment we had a three-on-one advantage on the right wing. Robertson had collected possession and was spoilt for choice as Marković darted forwards centrally and Grosicki provided a second option further down the flank. Momentarily it seemed as though Robertson had called things wrongly by keeping the ball wide when transferring it to Grosicki, but the Pole’s cross to his Serbian teammate was beautifully judged. Marković’s effort struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced downwards. In? Not in? The stadium held its breath, but there was no such hesitation from Marković, who responded first and blasted into the empty goal.

Euphoric pandemonium. As always happens with the best and most unexpected twists in the narrative. The goal celebration was as good as it gets. Underdog status, venal injustice and even the heightened anticipation from watching a threatening break unfold combined perfectly and the stadium was rocked by convulsive joy. 1-0.

Meanwhile, Swansea went 2-0 up. Well, you can’t have everything.

Amrabat went off for Watford, Marković and Prödl were both cautioned and we steeled ourselves for a gut-wrenching final twenty minutes.

Did I mention that was a really BIG plot twist, staged over ten minutes and featuring two separate incidents?

Enter Samuel Raymond Clucas.

On 70, a Grosicki corner was cleared to the edge of the area, where our unheralded midfield organiser was stationed. He instantly controlled it with his chest and sent a gorgeous looping left-footed volley over Gomes to win both the match and Goal of Month. Not surprisingly, the stadium dissolved into further feverish capering. 2-0.

On the pitch, that was about it. Watford’s stomach for a fight fled entirely, and even a man down there was little suggestion that a devastating comeback was likely. Huddlestone replaced Marković with ten left, but even that precautionary measure seemed unnecessary. There was time for Robertson to be cautioned for ill-advisedly kicking the ball away as Mr Madley continued his quest to remain wholly friendless, and by the time Dawson replaced Grosicki with the fourth official readying his injury time board, the match was finished.

And what a match, and what an outcome. This breathless afternoon may not have made a material difference to the battle to avoid the final relegation place that’s still largely between City and Swansea, though Crystal Palace will have had better non-playing afternoons. However, it made for a wonderfully uplifting viewing, and took us another round of games closer to the most remarkable of escape acts.

Well done City, and Marco Silva. The heroes of our little story. Any chance that the sequel will be called “An Away Win”?

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Stoke 3 City 1

JakupovicE

As always, we travelled hopefully. As so often, we didn’t arrive anywhere near a result. This has done us no real harm, as the other teams in our own particular circle of hell in the Premier League showed why they are where they are by not managing to win games they could have done. It is one of football’s truisms that good teams find a way to win matches. It is less often pointed out that crap teams find a way not to win them, but it is equally so. We aren’t a good team at this level – even ignoring the fact that we’re not really a team at all in the sense we used to understand this, merely a collection of individuals brought together by a skilful manager to attempt a very short term fix to keep our owners in the money – and so we duly found a way to lose an eminently winnable game against a side who had been anxiously looking down at the maelstrom below them wondering whether they would be sucked into it, but are now free to soar and swoop like eagles, in the mid-table mediocrity that is the highest aim of 12 of the 20 teams in the division. Failing to get the job done were:

Jakupović
Maguire Dawson Ranocchia Robertson
Marković Huddlestone N’Diaye Clucas Grosicki
Niasse

So, Harry Maguire on the right of defence with presumably a licence to advance, eh? Interesting, but would it work? With the threat of nuclear conflagration hanging over us, there is far too much stress in the world at the moment, so I will not add to it by unnecessarily prolonging suspense; no, it wouldn’t.

Anyway, some football. In the sort of watery sunshine and coolish weather that everyone calls a lovely spring day on this Brexit benighted isle, City began defending the goal in front of the City faithful, a good turn out considering many people were probably still feeling a bit miffed about the death of Jesus the previous day (Stay strong, kids. MUCH better news on that to come later today!). But defend it we didn’t, as a fairly desultory passing movement in our half between Maguire, Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone broke down when Dawson gave it away to Shaqiri, a skilful and well-balanced player who did what such players do, immediately spotting and finding a fine ball to a striker to discomfit the defenders. The beneficiary of this was Arnautović, who had much to do, but was aided by a defence that slid across as reluctantly as the door on a 1970s conservatory. Maguire didn’t get to him, Andrea Ranocchia and Dawson didn’t seem to know where they needed to be, Arnautović finished with aplomb. And also with his right foot, belting the ball past a throughly-cheesed off Jakupović. 1-0 after 6 minutes. Bugger.

We saw more of the Shaqiri/Arnautović axis in the first half – another fine ball from the former allowed the latter to blast a volley wide that he should have scored and then a typical bit of Shaqirian trickery was part of a move that allowed Arnautović to break free and screw one just wide of goal with Jakupović again aghast at the lack of protection. It didn’t really look like we were going to do much defending so, sensibly enough, we started to push forward. And this worked after a fashion too. Lazar Marković was lively and moved well bringing a save out of their netman which led to a corner that wouldn’t quite fall for Maguire. Another raking move from a Sam Clucas ball should have produced more if Andy Robertson hadn’t made such an arse of the subsequent cross. We ended the half with a series of corners that didn’t produce much more than a OumarNiasse effort that was gang-blocked by their defence but, come the end of the first forty five, we were having enough of the ball to suggest we were controlling the game. Which is correct, if you ignore the facts that they were creating the better chances and had scored an actual goal.

Second half, we started strongly and, I kid you not, we scored a goal too. We did! It had a pleasingly comic genesis as their left back, under no pressure at all, managed to stumble over his feet so effectively that he turned a Clucas cross going nowhere into a corner off the corner flag. Silly fellow, as we pointed out happily from right above him. From the corner Marković and Clucas combined, the cross eventually found it’s way to Maguire who flailed a leg at it and it did a strange sort of superball-type bounce as it evaded their keeper. 1-1 and how Big Harry larged it in front of the cavorting City goers!

We were doing well at this point, the goal seemed to settle us further and we looked the more likely, but chances remained hard to come by. But Maguire continued to move forward with purpose and link with Marković and Robertson and Kamel Grosicki, perhaps more sporadically did so on the left. I started to get that unexpectedly comfortable feeling that we were going to get a draw out of this and may be nick the win, and Swansea were losing and, O, you should never think like that, should you? it all started so innocently, with Saido Berahino and Charlie Adam withdrawn, my notes gleefully reporting this as ‘Adma – thoruoghly Pissed off!’ (spelling courtesy of the locally-based Titanic Brewery’s excellent ‘Iceberg’ ale, partaken of enthusiastically pre-match). And who should replace them but lovable beanpole Peter Crouch and former Tigerish division four rampager Jon Walters? And, rather surprisingly, they won the game.

Walters began to attack us down our right flank, which looked flaky every time we were put under any pressure, Big Harry looking comfy enough with the ball at his feet but not at all when on the retreat. Shaqiri got away, twisted and turned and produced a telling cross that Walters headed powerfully, but not enough so to defeat Jakupović, who reacted elastically to paw it away from goal and the in-gangling Crouch. Custodian of the leather! But the tide was by now undoubtedly on the turn and sure enough, our sand castles were about to be washed away. Walters again marauded down the left, with the cover blown and he plonked the ball over onto Crouch’s head who did what he’s done for the last dozen years at the top level and headed it home. I couldn’t help but wonder why, given that this was about as complicated a ploy as distracting a predator by pointing and saying ‘Isn’t that a unicorn over there?’ before running in the opposite direction, why Ranocchia seemed so utterly bemused by it and didn’t stick closer to the Premier League’s leading Ian Ormondroyd impersonator. 2-1.

We were in retreat now. We still had a threat moving forwards, but got no closer than a Grosicki shot-cum-centre that produced a decent save with Niasse unable to hasten onto the loose ball. All the action was at the other end as the grizzled warrior Walters again got free and headed against the bar. The belief had now drained away completely and once again our right side melted away. it didn’t seem to matter as we cleared it and it fell to Shaqiri, well covered by Robertson on our left. Robertson for some reason didn’t bother to close him down, Shaqiri, once he had got over his surprise, lashed a beautiful dipping effort over and past Jakupović. 3-1, game very much over.

It’s unclear to me why we are so poor away from home, so imperious in Hull. We could have done so much better today and had by far the better of what we might call the middle half, either side of the interval. Once we had done the hard part and drawn level, it seemed that we were the most likely to win, before we wilted at the sight of the iron grey head of Jonny Walters. Marco Silva has organised us so much better defensively that it was a surprise how poor we were today; every Stoke goal was well-wrought and beautifully executed, but each was very poorly defended by players who should do better.

Then again, look at Stoke. Berahino, Arnautović and Shaqiri are all impressive on the ball, Adam, Crouch and Walters have all done their thing at this level now for a lot of years. That seems to me to be a good hand of good players for a team which will breathe a sigh of relief if it finishes 13th. If we do get relegated, as we may, it might be because we are not good enough. We’ll see.

Mark Gretton (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: Man C 3-1 City

ElmohamadyA16

Manchester City   3  Hull City  1

This was the calm after the storm, and the calm before the storm too. We showed resilience in beating West Ham, whereas shimmering excellence was on show in the dismissal of hapless Middlesbrough and, looking ahead to the five games that begin with the visit to Stoke next Saturday, expect plenty of thrills and combat as we confront opponents with which we can realistically compete. There was none of this frenetic joy on display yesterday. We were well beaten in East Manchester, sternly subdued by a palpably superior home side. Mr Silva has moulded his players in a way that has on occasion come close to bridging the gap that opens between the rich six and the rest, but in this match the billions dominated.

It was, in truth, a bit mundane.

A glorious bright Spring day and, still blighted by injury and suspension, City card:

                    Jakupović
Elmo  Dawson  Rannochia  Robertson
Marković  Clucas  N’Diaye  Grosicki
Evandro
Niasse

Doesn’t really look strong enough, does it? It wasn’t.

John Stones, the future of English football, succeeded in running down the tunnel without banging his head on it and was promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract, and the game was underway. Yaya Touré, David Silva, Leroy Sané and Jesus Navas … you would imagine we are not going to see a lot of the football, and so it proves. Midfield is theirs. Even the presence of second rater Fabian Delph, a delicate-looking physique in his Leeds and Aston Villa days who now looks to have been spending a lot of quality time in the company of his pharmacist, yields little to our hopes.

Meanwhile John Stones, the future of English football, saunters across the grass without tripping over his own feet and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

The Jak has saved impressively from willowy Sané after just three minutes and, a brief Grosicki adventure notwithstanding, the pattern of the play in the first quarter an hour is plain. Manchester City have the ball, cascade forward. We hang on. Grimly. And yet, as their collapse to Monaco in the European Cup demonstrated, Guardiola’s side is a great deal more impressive on the front foot than the back, and we glimpse a couple of chances. Robertson surges forward thunderously on 16, but a slack touch by the Scot brakes the momentum in a promising attacking position. Then, a minute later, Grosicki gains a good position to deliver a cross, but he too is let down by a sloppy touch.

Are we getting into this game? A bit. Possession will come only in crumbs, but that is wholly foreseen. As the half hour mark approaches, and our formation, founded mainly on the hard running and commitment of Clucas and Evandro in the centre of the park, looks relatively secure, there is room to nurture a sniff of optimism.

Which is brutally trampled underfoot.

On 28 a vicious free-kick from Touré is tipped over by the Jak, but two minutes later our gallant netman is beaten. It is a routine move down the right, a hopeful high ball towards the back post by Navas, and Elmo, serving up his all-too-familiar dopiness under pressure, simply allows the ball to cannon into him and back into the net.  Sigh. The man is just not a full-back. How we’ve missed, how we miss, Moses Odubajo.

The home side’s goal celebration is slightly sheepish, but John Stones, the future of English football, makes an imaginative contribution to it and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

A response is immediate, and we almost crash through the sky blue defence courtesy of an intricate passing move, but it’s blocked, and play is whipped at frightening speed up to the other end. David Silva blasts a shot over the bar, but in fact the football is transferred via Silva more often than not. In a team of high-class skilful ballplayers he stands high above all his team-mates – hugely gifted, but always aware of the play around him, never dwelling on the ball, always moving, always thinking. This generation of Spanish midfielders has given us so much to admire. It is not possible to be better than Iniesta, nor can you improve on Xavi, but it is in that exalted company that David Silva belongs.

One added minute, and the clock ticks down to half time.

John Stones, the future of English football, pours the tea with an elegant flick of his chiselled wrist and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

The second half is just the ninety seconds old before Man City score again, and place the game far beyond our reach. Raheem Sterling races aggressively down the right, penetrates deep inside the box, crosses low and hard. Jakupović pushes the ball out but it trundles loose to Agűero at the back post, who has time for a touch before he forces it over the line from six yards out. Flailing defensive limbs are to no avail. There is not a trace of glee from the scorer. Agűero stalks sullenly away, looking as if he had the winner of the Grand National but has lost the betting slip. Did poor diddums get dropped by the nasty manager? Boo hoo.

Sterling has lately been the subject of an industrial strength campaign in the printed media designed to persuade that he is not in fact the spoiled sneering brat of popular imagination, but in truth a fast maturing young man of dignity and respect. It almost seems like a carefully engineered plot to induce plutocrat sponsors and advertisers to court him with immediate effect. The modern game! I hate it. There are, however, few things in football more thrilling than an exocet-paced winger stripping a full back bare and supplying crosses to his strikers, and Sterling showed enough ability in that vein during this game to explain just why so much cash is shovelled in his direction.

‘I can do that too’, thinks John Stones, the future of English football, as he displays international-class languor in taking a quick swig from a water bottle, and he is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

Sterling rips clear down the right once again and squares to Sané, whose shot is saved by the Jak’s legs. Tough going now. We are struggling even to get a touch.

Clucas and Evandro, both surely leg weary after an afternoon chasing the ball and rarely finding it, are subbed, replaced by Henriksen and Hernandez, as we switch to a more orthodox 4-4-2. But damage limitation is the target now, and damage there certainly is that needs limiting.  Decent preparatory work from Sterling again pulls our defence out of shape, and Delph is given an inviting amount of time to pick his spot and drive a shot across the Jak and inside the far corner of the rippling net.

John Stones, the future of English football, runs up breathlessly and tells his team-mates ‘That’s three goals we’ve scored now, I can count lads, I did it at school and once I did some sums with crayons as well’ and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.

Curse me for over-praising the ghastly Delph – or for praising him at all – but there was an echo in his thumping strike of Falcao’s goal in the Brazil v Italy game in 1982, albeit that Delph was left side of the box, whereas Falcao was right side when he smites the cross-shot. (Highlights here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3th82ZfFsUg – but find the whole match if you have some time to spare, there has never been a better one).

With half an hour left we are staring in dismay not only at defeat but also at malevolent harm to our goal difference. But Man City kindly remove David Silva, and immediately the pace of the game drops several notches. Should we stay up, level on points but a goal or two better off than Swansea, then this is the moment it was secured. So, thank you Pep. You are by no means the only top six manager who looks like a close cousin of the Addams Family, but here you showed us welcome mercy.

So the game drifts towards its conclusion in suitably half-paced style. And yet, what’s this, we’ve scored! It is at the far end from the cheerful City support, but it’s deft stuff: Grosicki down the left finds Maloney, on for Niasse, and his cut-back is rolled first-time beyond Bravo by Ranocchia.

3-1. Five minutes left, plus added time. Now, if we could somehow nick another goal Mr Guardiola will be urgently flicking through the rulebook to find a way to get Silva back on the pitch. A mask perhaps: ‘no ref, honest, it’s Vincent Kompany coming on, he’s lost a lot of weight, err vertical weight’. I would suppose that John Stones, the future of English football, would be the man to come off, and in my view the talent so evident in the way he waves to the crowd should lead to the prompt reward of a new and improved contract. However, as it turns out, there is no need for panic measures. We are not able to damage the home side again, and, with three minutes added at the end, the game cruises serenely to its conclusion.

So it goes. We never seriously expected this fixture to offer a route to salvation from relegation, and in the event it never seriously looked like doing so. More manageable tests await us now, beginning next week with the trip to the Potteries. Happily, all being well, we will be able to welcome back Tom Huddlestone from suspension and Harry Maguire from injury. Harry Maguire! A considerably better young English centre back than some I could mention.

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

FEAT-BALL2

REPORT: City 4 Middlesbrough 2

MaguireH

Half an hour to go. City are still 3-2 up in what feels like a season-defining game. Three hundred miles away in south Wales, Swansea are winning too. If it stays like this, then we’ve at least won two crucial home matches in five days, even if we would remain in the bottom three.

Half an hour to go. I’m more nervous than I’ve been at a match for ages. Middlesbrough, for all their limitations, are not lying down yet. Our manager has changed the tactics so that we’re no longer pressing forward, but are deliberately holding on. This makes some sense. We don’t need to score another. But my nerves are being frayed.

Half an hour to go. If every match stays as it is then the league would look like it had been ordered by a mildly OCD geography teacher working her way down the east coast. Newcastle top of the Championship, then Sunderland bottom of the Premier, then Middlesbrough, then Hull.

Twenty minutes to go, City – kicking towards the North Stand in the second half – have a freekick about 35 yards out, left of centre. Andy Robertson swings in a deep cross. Harry Maguire, running in unmarked behind the Boro defenders, directs a header from a tight angle just inside the opposite post. It’s 4-2.Middlesbrough have already surprised themselves by scoring two goals in a league game for the first time. They’re not going to get another. We can relax, revel in the win, and wait for Spurs to score 3 goals in the last couple of minutes to beat Swansea.

Easing City at long last out of the relegation zone were:

Jakupović; Elmohamady; Ranocchia; Maguire; Robertson; Marković; N’Diaye; Clucas; Grosicki; Hernández; Niasse

This game had it all –  the atmosphere of a night match at the Circle boosted by a capacity away section, controversial refereeing decisions, a scoreline that ebbed and flowed, and a stylish performance that ranks as City’s best since Marco Silva got off the plane from Portugal some three months back.

From the off there was no time to catch your breath. Attacking the South Stand, City won a corner in the first minute. A couple of minutes later Lazar Marković is through on goal but elects to play in Oumar Niasse, who slots the ball home but is flagged offside. A relieved Middlesbrough break at pace, the excellent  Adama Traoré twists Robertson this way and that before whipping in a low cross that is swept home by Negredo at the far post.

And Boro have matched their 2017 average of one league goal a month already.

But it’s only 4 minutes in, and City under Marco Silva have turned the Circle into the proverbial fortress.

Boro have scored too early. They’ve rattled our cage, and we respond with calm precision. By half time, City have put three goals past Valdés in the Middlesbrough goal.

First the superb Marković gets his first City goal, slamming home a loose ball from a couple of yards out following a goalmouth scramble involving Abel Hernández, two of their defenders and the keeper.

Then City get two more, one either side of the half hour mark, one each for our two centre forwards. On 26 minutes, Niasse latches onto an Alfred N’Diaye header and slips it past the keeper. A few minutes later a classic Maguire forward run sees our captain play a smart ball through to Kamil Grosicki who advances into the box before knocking it across for Hernández to score.

And we are playing with pace, commitment and skill. This is a barnstormer of a game, it’s passionate, tackles fly in, and we have fast, forward-looking players capable of breaking at pace.

Nor are Middlesbrough just here to play the victim. Especially after our third goal you can sense their realisation that Premier League survival might well depend on not losing this match. They are fighting for their top-flight lives, and in the latter part of the first half, it shows. Eldin Jakupović tips the ball over impressively as Boro press. If they can get one back before half-time, then the second half begins to look more difficult.

Thanks to the officials, particularly assistant referee Mick McDonough – of Northumberland, no less –  Middlesbrough do pull one back on the stroke of half time. Following a corner, City’s defenders move forward leaving at least two, may be three, Boro players offside as the ball is played back in for one of them to head home. The offside looks obvious from my East Stand vantage. Referee Michael Oliver is in enough doubt to consult at length with his assistant, perhaps mindful that the same official had been widely berated for missing an offside when Manchester United equalised against Liverpool in January. But the goal stands. Happily for City, and Mr McDonough, the officials’ error didn’t prove decisive in the end.

The East Stand welcomes the linesman back to his beat with a chorus of boos as City start the second half with a precarious 3-2 lead. Cue Boro pressure, and City’s more defensive tactics as we hold on to what we have. Hernández goes off injured early doors to be replaced by Evandro, but this could as easily have been a tactical move as the manager tightens up our play and the Brazilian’s busy confidence suits a more compact formation.

For 20 minutes or so, we hold on but the lead remains just one goal. Then comes Robertson’s free-kick, Maguire’s first ever Premier League goal, and a two goal cushion that always seems enough.

To cap it all, with the final whistle nearing, there’s a rising crescendo of cheering, starting in the North Stand, as word comes through that Spurs have equalised at Swansea … no, hang on, they’ve only gone and got a winner. You what? It’s 3-1 to Spurs? You having a laugh? This is almost last-day-of-the-season stuff, as mobiles are checked and sums done, to confirm that City are at last out of the bottom three.

Post-match, there are two particular takeaways from this terrific evening’s football. One celebratory, the other cautionary.

The celebratory is how well every City player played. Trying to think of anyone who had a bad game, the best I could come up with was that Robertson looked a bit shaky for ten minutes or so after being beaten by Traoré’s trickery for the opening goal, and that Grosicki is looking a little too desperate to score, blasting over a couple of times when a simple lay-off might have proved more fruitful. But this is nit-picking. From front to back everyone had a good game.

I’ll pick out Marković because he’s been startlingly half-hearted in some earlier performances. Today he chased, he roamed freely across the front line, he scored, he even won the odd tackle. Credit must go to Silva for persevering with Marković and sorting out his attitude.

Maguire and Andrea Ranocchia continue to look an assured centre half pairing, and a goal each in the last couple of games adds to their contribution. Worryingly, Maguire limped off towards the end. But at least he was replaced by the returning Michael Dawson (best defender at the club in my view).

Man of the Match deservedly went to Sam Clucas, an absolute revelation this season in the midfield holding role, and stepping into it with aplomb while Tom Huddlestone is suspended. His close control is a joy to watch. I’ve not counted up, but he will surely have clocked up the most performances of any City player this season so far? There’s a measure of the man.

But let’s dampen the mood a little to finish. The other thought that I had leaving the ground was how much tonight’s match reminded me of the night two years ago when we beat Liverpool at the KC. Like tonight, it was the second of two games in five April days. Like tonight, City had won the first one, knocking two goals past a London club too as it happens. Like tonight, the crucial goal came from our captain, a centre half scoring his first Premier League goal for the club. Like tonight, City fans streamed away from the stadium confident that we had what it would take to secure our top flight future. A few weeks later we were relegated.

It’s been a great few days for City. The victory against Middlesbrough was massive, and this midweek round of fixtures went well as far as other results are concerned too. But we’re not safe yet.

Ed Bacon (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

FEAT-BALL2

MATCH REPORT: City 2-1 West Ham

SilvaMarco

Hull City’s home games feel like a knockout competition at this stage in the season. If there is any hope of avoiding “Prexit” then any slip-up is unaffordable. With three minutes left of normal time, hope was fading fast but then we delivered Article 87. From the boot of Kamil Grosicki to the head of Andrea Ranocchia and lived to fight another day.

Marco Silva made two changes from the defeat at Everton before the international break. Elabdellaoui was injured and Tom Huddlestone, wrongly, suspended. Clucas dropped deeper to replace Tom with Niasse returning after missing the game against his parent club.

Jakupović
Maguire – Ranocchia – Davies
Elmo – Marković – Clucas – N’Diaye – Robertson
Niasse – Hernández

Feeling all home games are “must win” brings great pressure and that pressure was too much for City in the first half. It weighed on the players who could barely make a pass at times and looked uncomfortable playing three at the back against one centre forward limiting options further up the field. Niasse worked hard to run the channels and, despite his clumsy first tough, was effective while Clucas put in his usual incredible shift but the rest rated from abysmal to anonymous.

West Ham had already spurned a great chance when Robert Snodgrass, who was booed heavily throughout the half, headed straight at Jakupović when he was in acres of space (because he looked miles offside) when Andy Carroll gave them a lead. Carroll was the best player on the pitch by a mile. He met everything tossed forward, turned every cross into the box into a worrying situation and headed every corner and free-kick we put into their box. They were a pretty average side but Carroll and our generosity in allowing them time and space to put in each cross improved them immeasurably. On 17, they chucked in another cross, Davies completely misjudged it in the air and Carroll pulled off him, controlled it and smacked it past Jakupovic [0-1].

No response came from City. Move broke down in midfield too often to sustain any pressure in their third. There was a fair shout for a penalty when ‘keeper Randolph dribbled out under pressure and then appeared to kick Hernández who’d nicked the ball away from him. Clucas made a great run from deep and exchanged passes with Niasse who just failed to get on the end of his clever backheel. That really was the sum of our efforts.

The full backs were poor. Davies didn’t recover from his costly error. N’Diaye wasn’t effective in or out of possession. Marković was floating about taking the odd nice touch but generally avoiding anything that looked like hard work. We were in trouble.

Half time: Hull City 0 West Ham 1

Marco Silva doesn’t always get his team selection right but he’s quick to accept it and looks for a solution to problems. He hooked Davies at half time and introduced Grosicki to make a 4-4-2 formation. It didn’t suddenly change the game and we were grateful to Ranocchia for two crucial challenges early in the half but it did give us pace on the break and balance across the midfield and that game in handy as we levelled on 53.

Marković broke superbly into their half and found Grosicki with a nice ball across the field, Grosicki looked to come inside the defender, his touch was slightly heavy and Robertson who’d not stopped supporting raced onto the touch, steadied himself and finished low across Randolph [1-1].

Chances followed at both ends. Carroll rose to meet Cresswell’s high cross but headed straight at Jakupović. A huge let off. Niasse and Hernandez then combined nicely to send Marković racing into the box but he just couldn’t decide what to do and ran out of pitch. We kept the pressure on from the goal kick and Niasse worked his way into the box and forced a challenge that diverted the ball to N’Diaye who lashed a shot against the near post. The rebound fell for Grosicki who beat a defender, steadied himself, gave the ‘keeper the eyes and then missed.

Mike Jones, who’s surely the worst referee in the Premier League, then took centre stage as the game became a slog. He waved away our appeals for a penalty after Maguire fell under a challenge from a corner. Maguire had a great opportunity to shoot inside the six yard box on an angle, I’ve no idea why he’d fall if not fouled. A blatant handball by Kouyate outside the penalty area was missed while Niasse and Carroll were booked for very little.

The ‘ammers looked the most likely side to find a winner. We’d lost all ability to pass the ball to each other again and handed them the initiative. We defended well from a myriad of set pieces and long throw ins. Silva responded by introducing Henriksen and Maloney for N’Diaye and Hernández. Henriksen looked as rusty as you might expect but the subs refreshed City and we were able to build a little momentum in their half leading to some opportunities to deliver a ball in.

Grosicki wasted some of those opportunities, most obviously from one of the worst free kicks you’ll ever see. But in the 87th minute, he whipped a corner into the near post and Ranocchia stopped to power a header past Randolph [2-1]. Bloody foreigners. Coming over here, saving our season!

The six minutes of added time was uneventful save for Ranocchia killing Feghouli under the nose of the Ref who waved play-on. That cemented Ranocchia as man of the match for me.

Full time: Hull City 2 West Ham 1

It might seem over-dramatic to relegate City as soon as they fail to win a home game but it’s very hard to see any other scenario. With Spurs to come on the final day, winning the next three home games would take us to 36 points. That’s got to be the minimum required to have a chance of finishing above three other teams. Unfortunately, away points have not been forthcoming and that doesn’t look likely to change.

Marco Silva’s been dealt a poor hand with his fixtures away from home. He’s already taken City to Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal, Leicester and Everton and has Man City, Stoke and Southampton to follow. Crystal Palace away in the penultimate match of the season will be his only trip to a bottom half side – if they’re still in the bottom half by then.

So we cling to Marco Silva’s remarkable record of six wins and a draw from seven games at the KC in all competitions. Given where we were when we arrived I’m grateful that we have anything to cling to at all.

Rick Skelton (first posted on the Tiger Chat mailing list)

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.