March 12, 2010

To Hull and back

Posted by Jon Champion on 12/03/2010

What a difference a week makes! Last Saturday, Arsenal's self-assured Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner invited ridicule with his impression of a Sunday League striker against Burnley. By Tuesday night, he was being lauded as a world-class talent after his hat-trick had helped destroy Porto in the Champions League.

The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between the two extremes – and ESPN's Saturday tea-time live game at the KC Stadium offers a wider public the chance to make an assessment.

It is, of course, another very important game for the Gunners as they pursue the most unlikely of title wins. Yet it will be equally significant for Hull City, whose tenuous grip on a Premier League place was weakened still further by last weekend's capitulation at Everton.

Last season's surprise package have become this season's predictable strugglers. Chairman Adam Pearson's revelation at a recent forum that relegation could cost the club £100 million merely cranked up the pressure on a squad of players that is bigger on quantity than quality.

Prior to the Tigers' promotion, I had always regarded Hull and Plymouth as the two English clubs with the greatest untapped potential. Both out on a geographical limb and therefore with huge catchment areas, they had never really suggested they had Premier League football in them until Phil Brown's transformation of Hull took them into uncharted territory via Dean Windass' wonderful Wembley winner.

After last season's flying start, Brown's team have now won just 5 of their last 38 fixtures in the Barclays Premier League. Yet they retain a home record – 1 defeat in their last ten at the KC – that sustains hope of survival.

They also know how to get under Arsenal's skin. Let's not forget that they won at the Emirates in the League last season, were beaten by an offside goal in the FA Cup, were level in their home game against the Gunners until 8 minutes from time, and – earlier this season – Geovanni spurned a penalty in North London that would have tied the game at 1-1.

That was also the day when Samir Nasri trod on Richard Garcia's foot, triggering a wider disagreement among the players that cost both clubs FA fines.

So the message from the Hull manager will be to get in Arsenal's faces and make sure effort overcomes elegance. It may not work, but it's their best hope.

At the other end of the M62, Liverpool's season gets no better. I thought they were really poor at Wigan last Monday and didn't improve enough at Lille in the Europa League.


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