The Tigers headed back to London looking to build on a record of 2 wins and 1 loss in this Premier League season. The challenge was a huge one. The "mighty" Chelsea, twice Champions of England, European Cup finalists back in May and wounded by defeat at Anfield last week. With a poor defensive record in recent weeks and several toothless attacking performances away from home, it would've been understandable if the players had stepped onto the (awful) Stamford Bridge surface shaking with fear. Instead, they marched out for the warm-up looking purposeful, perhaps even confident. Faces were smiling, shoulders were relaxed and Phil Brown looked steely and determined. This is a Hull City side that is scared of no-one. If you'd entered Stamford Bridge fearing the worst, one look at our squad would've changed your outlook.
Phil Brown made just one change from the draw with West Brom last week. Bernard Mendy' suspension meant that Geovanni earned a recall. Geo would play up front behind Craig Fagan, with Richard Garcia moving to right midfield. Chelsea included new signing Ricardo Quaresma. The Premier League was obviously screaming out for another diving cheat. Chelsea started brightly and quickly won the first of many, many soft free-kick's, awarded by abysmal homer referee Lee Mason for Ricketts non-challenge on Quaresma. The kick was swung in, bounced awkwardly in front of Duke and fell to John Terry two yards out. It was harder to miss than score and thankfully, he missed. It was a terrific boost to the City team. An early goal against the same opposition in October had killed us. Today, we got away with it and it enabled us to sit back and defend while looking to break quickly at every opportunity. With Fagan, Geovanni and Marney looking very lively, it was a good game plan. Chelsea were the team asking the questions, they were looking to attack but never for a minute looked likely to break the Tigers down. Their only effort from open play was a shot from Quaresma, tipped wide by Duke, which resulted from a quick break after Kilbane tripped over the ball in their half. Otherwise, it was a barrage of corners, the result of good City defending, and those soft free kicks. Zayatte blocked a dangerous looking cut back from Kalou and Dawson did incredibly well to get himself in from of Kalou as he raced away on a quick break. Ballack hit the side netting with a wicked free-kick too. At the other end, the City attacks were sporadic but were quick and incisive. Fagan did a superb job of harassing their defenders and Geovanni and Marney in particular got up to support him. Fagan ran at their defence early on but scuffed a left footed shot. Geo hit a scorching shot into the chest of Alex; that one was goal bound. Geo then ran superbly from deep only to be crudely taken out by Mikel on the edge of the box. As half time approached, a Ricketts cross was headed against the post by Kilbane. We went in level and deservedly so. Our defending and the way we shut them down in midfield was excellent.
He second half followed the same pattern for a while but gradually as the half went on, Chelsea ran out of ideas and the Tigers grew in confidence. Bosingwa, so brilliant at the KC in October, had a nightmare trying to contain Kilbane and the floating Geovanni. Alex couldn't handle Fagan's exuberance, tirelessness and genuine ability to be a total pain in the arse. With Mikel withdrawn, they had no one who could track Marney when we were in possession. As a result, we won the second half quite comfortably. Kalou slipped Zayatte and hit a weak shot that Duke pounced on comfortably. That aside, they had no threat at all from open play. We had chances to win the game. Fagan charged down an attempted clearance, ran in on Hilario but chose to try and chip the 'keeper with his wrong foot when he should have taken the ball further towards goal or slid in Marney, who's charged into the centre. Marney found Geo wide on the left, made a nice run in behind and was superbly found by the Brazilian, he took the ball in his stride and lashed it across the goalkeeper and about 3 millimetres wide of the far post. The away end was up, we thought it was in. I still have no idea how it didn't go in, it had to go in. As the game moved in to stoppage time, Fagan found himself one on one with Terry but couldn't skip past him. The resulting corner fell to Ash at the back post but he slashed the ball wide. With ten to play, we'd withdrawn Geovanni for France. A slightly strange decision, because Geovanni looked in the mood and likely to make something happen, while Garcia was toiling out wide. That was our only substitution, which says everything you need to know about how well we'd played but also about how poor Chelsea had been at working us when we didn't have the ball. If not for the inept referee, I genuinely don't think they'd have troubled us all game. I spent the last 15 minutes dreading a Chelsea winner. I never felt that they'd get it, we were rarely in any danger but our performance so deserved some reward that a goal from the hosts would have been such a massive kick in the teeth. In truth, we should've won it. The Marney chance was golden. It was beautifully crafted and Deano did everything right, he'll be seeing it roll wide of that post in his sleep tonight.
Defensively, we were absolutely sound. A first clean sheet since October was totally deserved. Zayatte was excellent. He showed a lot of discipline, read the ball in the air and threw himself in the way when necessary. He took a Ballack free-kick in his area. He'll be talking like Richard Garcia tonight. Turner was equally good. He barely had to make a tackle but intercepted well and moved out of defence neatly. He was strong in the air and brave in our area. When he made one clearance, I genuinely heard a City fan yell "Well in, T-Dog". Obviously a yank that set off for Bermuda one day and ended up on Bransholme. Ricketts did about as well as he could. Ashley Cole constantly pushed on meaning Sam was always up against it. Garcia did a decent job of tracking back so that Sam could attack the wider player, leaving Garcia to cover him inside. Dawson showed just why we look so much better for his involvement with a near flawless performance. His ability read attacks is vastly under-rated, as is his pace. Not for the first time this season, he recovered from a losing position in a foot race towards goal to get himself in a comfortable position from which to make a key tackle. He attacked the ball well in the air, tackled hard and put his body on the line to block shots. Matt Duke had the same game he's had for the last 2 weeks. Excellent handling, good shot stopping and absolutely woeful kicking.
The central midfield pair where awesome. Ash patrolled around in front of the defence well, made key clearances and crunching tackles, while Marney strode from box to box with consummate ease. His use of the ball was as good as it's ever been, he tracked runners, he closed opponents down quickly and he went into tackles hard. A second half 50/50 between Deano and Drogba was superb, you could hear the crunch from the away end. The best thing about Marney's game though, was his desire. The desire to follow up every pass and tackle, to lose a challenge and go straight back into another one, to miss an interception and get himself into position for the next pass and to keep moving forward in support and beyond the front players. The wide men did a good job tracking back but weren't great in possession. Both carried the ball well at times but not as often as others, they were far more on the periphery of the game. Kilbane had a stinking first half until he hit the post and then performed much better after the break. His passing of the ball in the second half was excellent; his running with it was much less so. Garcia never really got involved. He made good runs to open up space for others but wasn't really involved in anything. France was barely involved at all in his 10 minute cameo. If he had 3 touches, I'd be surprised.
Fagan and Geovanni made a superb front pair. Geo played the position brilliantly, dropping into great open spaces, making himself available for the ball and using it well. He found the right areas to run from so that he could hurt them. Fagan was aided by the fact that we passed the ball much better, either passing through midfield or playing the ball long into space for him to attack. He wasn't constantly going into aerial battles that he couldn't win. His strength was incredible. Holding off John Terry and Alex isn't easy but Fagan made it look it. His touch was good, he refused to give anything up and he never took his foot of accelerate all game. Not many forwards could work as hard as him for that length of time, he never flagged for a minute. Being critical, his decision making around the box was poor on two occasions but otherwise, he was superb.
You might question whether this line up would score enough goals to win games and the answer would perhaps be no. However, with Mendy to come back in, you've suddenly got a really threatening side on the break. At home, it may need tweaking, perhaps to accommodate Bullard and perhaps to include a second striker who'd give us a better chance of holding the ball up front and give passers a second target to aim for and to bounce the ball off. If I was Phil Brown, I wouldn't change this 11 for the Spurs game, except to bring Mendy back for Garcia. No-one else deserves to make way. Even Garcia hasn't done a lot wrong; Mendy just gives the other team a lot more to think about, especially with Spurs being awful at left back.
Bizarrely, we spent the journey home listening to updates from Leicester, where Dean Windass was playing 40 minutes in goal for Oldham. Half way home, Leicester services were full of Hull, Bradford and Oldham fans so we held an impromptu meeting of the Dean Windass appreciation society. Also strange was tuning in to 606 to hear Chelsea fans moan about drawing with Hull City in a premier league match. I don't want to dwell on the past but we have come a ridiculously long way in a ridiculously short time. Perhaps some of the people silly enough to bad-mouth Phil Brown might care to remember that. Today was yet another wonderful day for the team and for the gaffer. There's only one 'Big Phil'.
Ratings: Duke 7, Ricketts 6, Dawson 9, Turner 8, Zayatte 8, Garcia 6, Kilbane 6, Ashbee 7, Marney 8, Geovanni 7 (France), Fagan 8.