Sunday, 24 January 2016

Fulham 0 Hull City 1: The Tigers are back .. on top

Hull City returned to top spot in the Championship with a hard fought win over a spirited Fulham side at Craven Cottage.

The Cottage is my favourite away ground in this league. In part, it’s due to the memory of the smash and grab win in February 2009 when Manucho grabbed all the headlines but Richard Garcia’s magnificent run set-up the unlikely late victory. But it also has a tremendous atmosphere, the picturesque walk between Putney Bridge tube and the ground and we always manage to find somewhere rather decent to grab some pre-match grub and a few over-priced beers.

Despite the pleasant surroundings and the hosts’ lowly position in the Championship, this was always going to be a test. I’ve questioned our squad after recent away games. The last two I’ve been to, Rotherham and Preston, were collectively atrocious. They had be doubting whether this City team had the balls for the fight in the second tier and whether Steve Bruce was the man to get the best out of them. They answered some of those questions with a resilient but low quality showing at QPR and this was another test today.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Curtis Davies – Harry Maguire – Andy Robertson
Robert Snodgrass – Jake Livermore – Isaac Hayden – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Mo Diame

It’s fair to say this wasn’t a particularly pretty away performance either. The team was unchanged from the drubbing of Charlton at the KC last week but was unrecognisable. It started brightly enough with Hernandez exploiting space in behind a high Fulham back line. He raced onto a lovely ball from Robertson bent around right back Richards and in to space but as he advanced into the box, he was looking around for support and over-ran the ball into the keeper while he waited (and waited). Not long after Diame slid him through again, this time centrally and in on the keeper. He wasted the chance which was as good as you are ever going to get when Lonergan dived to his left to save. He shouldn’t have had a sniff though.

Fulham took over after that as we ceded possession too easily too often and struggled to contain theirs. They played some fine, fluid football with Kacaniklic, Christensen and ex-Tiger Tom Cairney making a narrow three behind Dembele and swamping our midfield. We struggled to cope with the movement and it led to many fouls that saw Livermore booked and Hayden and Odubajo lectured more than once. We worked hard to track the runners but it was tough. Fortunately, for all their very tidy football, Fulham don’t create much. Maguire and, particularly, Davies deserve credit for a diligent, intelligent and brave display but the hosts will also kick themselves for over-playing and not producing enough crosses or shots.

The referee was a bit erratic. He missed a blatant foul on Cairney by Hayden early on, let Garbutt off with a talking to for a very cynical trip on Diame and gave Odubajo a long lecture when he’d just made his first (innocuous) foul of the game. I worried he would cost us at some point. Another great prediction!

We got to half time level courtesy of a brilliant piece of defending by Odubajo. Dembele fed Cairney in the box and he trickled a shot goalward that McGregor could only get a fingertip on. It looked for all the world like Kacaniklic was following up to tap into an empty net by Odubajo strained every sinew to get across and flick the ball up onto Kacaniklic and over the bar. Moses was easily my pick of the City players. He defended excellently throughout, made good tackles wide, tracked runners, swept up smartly behind his centre halves and produced the two key moments of the game.

Half time: Fulham 0 Hull City 0

The third quarter of the game was quiet both on the pitch and in the stands. City didn’t improve much after half time and Jamie O’Hara hit a volley just wide that would have punished the malaise.

Up front Hernandez was feeding off scraps. He made runs and gambled on hopeful balls including a couple that Ream misjudged badly, but there wasn’t a lot for him to work with. He had a shot blocked from a Robertson cut back after the Scot had linked nicely with Hayden on the left but that was his only sight of goal. They continued to have the better possession without penetrating. Scott Parker controlled the game. He was tremendous pulling the strings in the middle of the park and produced one or two vital interceptions going back towards his own goal. He’s 35 these days and on borrowed time but this was a little throwback to that short period when he looked the best English midfielder in the top flight.

The game swung City’s way not long after Parker departed but I don’t think there’d been long enough for that to be the reason. Five or ten minutes earlier, Tom Huddlestone replaced Hayden and that was much more of a game changer. Huddlestone was impressive in his cameo and his ability to keep possession and to stretch play with ease quelled their threat. After Maguire had flicked a header from Snodgrass’s free kick just wide, Hernandez had curled one way over and Odubajo had finally picked up a booking – we broke the deadlock.

Huddlestone launched an attack down the left and Clucas and Robertson combined but Robbo’s cross was way long. Odubajo picked it up on the right, Snodgrass drew the full back to the edge of the box and Odubajo attacked Christensen, skinned him, made for the bye line and the Dane clumsily took his legs away. The ref had no hesitation pointing to the spot. Hernandez took it, in front of the City fans, and via the outstretched arm of Lonergan and the post, found the net [0-1]. Given the news that league leaders Middlesbrough were losing at home to Nottingham Forest the atmosphere in the corner of the Putney End was already jolly and it soon reached fever pitch.

Allan McGregor secured the win with a tremendous save from a Jamie O’Hara free kick. City showed a bit of naivety in stoppage time turning down opportunities to take the ball into the corner to go for a second goal. Diame was guilty of coughing up possession and he also forced a save from Lonergan after collecting Clucas’s pass and brilliantly slipping the defender. Elmo, on for Hernandez, couldn’t tap in the rebound. It didn’t matter.

Full time: Fulham 0 Hull City 1

As mentioned, this wasn’t pretty – just like our last away win at QPR. It was vital though. The sort of away win promotion contenders grind out. I slaughtered City and Bruce for doing the exact opposite against poor teams in December so they deserve plenty of credit for doing so since, and doing so as part of a terrific five match winning run that has propelled us back to the top of the table and into the next round of the FA Cup.

Those promotion credentials are going to be tested in the next month with a trip to Burnley and the visit of Brighton looking particularly tasty. I’m over my period of doubt. Bring them on!

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