Hull City remain top of the Championship table after a resounding victory over the bookies favourites for promotion – Middlesbrough.
I’ve said after several of the recent victories that I felt there was still quality to come from this team and today we saw that as they faced their toughest test of the season so far and passed it with flying colours. From the moment they broke Boro’s resistance – City strolled it. Tested just once, they out-classed a very good opponent and could have won by more than the three goals.
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Harry Maguire – Andy Robertson
Ahmed Elmohamady – Jake Livermore – David Meyler – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Mo Diame
The first half an hour was hard-fought and good quality. On paper, this was two of the best teams in the division going head to head and the reality didn’t let us down with each attacking but showing respect for the other’s ability and working hard to get back into shape when they lost the ball. In typical Championship fashion it was a physical battle as well as a test of footballing ability. Any doubts over that were ended ten minutes in when Adam Clayton stuck his studs in Mo Diame’s chest. It was stupid rather than malicious but it set the tone for a feisty encounter. That the referee thought it was unworthy of a yellow card was a puzzling to say the least.
Middlesbrough, with their nine men behind the ball out of possession, were a tough nut to crack and despite some imaginative play from The Tigers and numerous corners they struggled to penetrate the wall of red. Boro did start to get some joy on the counter as City committed men into attack and Diego Fabbrini in particular exploited the space between our defence and midfield to cause problems. He may have the mullet of a seventies rocker and spend more time falling over than a WWE wrestler but Fabbrini has a touch of class and twice played David Nugent in behind with fine passes. The first time Nugent struck wide of the far post from a tight angle and the second he was offside but no-one had realised and McGregor denied him with a lightening quick (and slightly two footed) sliding tackle.
A foul on David Meyler lead to a City free kick 25 yards out just to the right of goal. Sam Clucas struck it beautifully and was denied by a flying save from Konstantopoulos. From that point on City took a grip of the game. Elmohamady should have scored but shot weakly when freed by Clucas and then Elmo flicked on Clucas’s corner but no-one followed in behind. Middlesbrough continued to hold a solid defensive shape and worked hard to kick the ball in midfield with occasional successes but City passed the ball with conviction and were able to keep creating attacking positions. Sadly a large percentage of our crosses were over-hit, from both open play and corners, but the questions continued to be asked.
Elmo and Hernandez contrived to miss the next decent chance as the former headed Clucas’s corner just beyond the far post with the latter connecting only with the post when he had the opportunity to knock the ball in. I tweeted after last week’s game with MK Dons that two thirds of City’s league goals this season have come in the last fifteen minutes of each half and after adding to that at Brentford, we did so again today. Middlesbrough had displayed impressive defensive concentration throughout the half but proved unable to maintain it with time running out. Fabbrini ran into Livermore in midfield and threw himself to the ground. The occasionally questionable referee recognised that the Boro man had initiated the contact (in layman’s terms – cheated) and waved play-on. City switched the ball to Elmohamady who curled an absurdly good cross from outside of the area but very central in behind the back four and Mo Diame arrived unnoticed to volley home with the keeper stranded [1-0].
Half time: Hull City 1 Middlesbrough 0
Like many recent games the expected response from the team trailing didn’t really materialise as City continued to dominate possession and mixed it up physically when required. Meyler and Livermore controlled the midfield with Jake in particular impressing with his work when Middlesbrough had the ball and his quality and composure in all areas of the pitch when we had it. The fast-improving Robertson cleverly read and picked off a Stewart Downing pass to launch an attack that saw Elmo just fail to meet Clucas’s lovely cross and then Robbo slid in to rob Downing of the ball when he thought he was away down their right.
Diame shot over from distance and then volleyed a good chance over from inside the box after Livermore and Hernandez had combined brilliantly to set it up. Dawson headed Clucas’s set piece straight at Konstantopoulos and then picked up a booking for a pull back on Fabbrini on a rare Boro break. The defining minute for the contest arrived shortly after. Downing lifted a ball to the far post from a harmless looking position and George Friend arrived to volley goalward and force a fine save from the once maligned McGregor. The applause had barely died down when Odubajo and Livermore combined to create a shooting opportunity for Meyler. His shot was heading wide when Clucas diverted it into the bottom corner from twelve yards [2-0].
With the game seemingly safe, Steve Bruce was able to make use of his outstanding options from the bench and at varying intervals sent on Akpom, Huddlestone and Hayden for Hernandez, Diame and Meyler. All three departed to standing ovations as the crowd appreciated the individual efforts of all of the players in a complete team performance. Hernandez got stuck into Boro’s defenders from early in the game and made runs wide and in behind to keep them working and drag City into good positions. Diame showed his class - which is absolutely top level – and was involved in most of City’s best moments.
Odubajo made a goal-saving challenge on Albert Adomah, after the ball had flukily found the Boro winger, for his second brilliant bit of defending in the game before City wrapped the game up. Just seconds after he had Akpom’s pass nicked off his toe inside the box, Tom Huddlestone picked up the ball from Elmo, after a defensive gaffe, and from around the corner of the penalty area lashed the ball into the far corner with the keeper left standing [3-0]. It was a sensational finish. The type we all know Tom is well capable of but see far too rarely.
Full Time: Hull City 3 Middlesbrough 0
The win leaves City at the top of the table going into the international break – ahead of Brighton on goal difference. The return of 34 points from 16 games is in advance of the two points per game you generally aim for in a promotion campaign. We’re unbeaten in ten league games and twelve all together. We’ve not conceded in 450 minutes of league football and have conceded only four times in the last 1110 minutes in all comps. Allan McGregor has seven clean sheets in ten league games.
It’s difficult to imagine how the situation could be any better. The only real negative is that we’ve only just passed the first third of the season. There’s still a hell of a long way to go. City are now the team to be shot at. The pressure increases in every game. Rivals and spectators are taking notice by the game. This team and the management has been questioned since the start of the season. Did it have the gumption for a season in the Championship? Did the players have the heart for a fight almost every Tuesday and Saturday? Did the manager half the balls to recover from the biggest disappointment of his career?
They’ve risen to all of those challenges. But all they’ve done is create more. More pressure. More expectation. If today is anything to go by - that will just drive them to greater heights.