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Hull City Season Preview – Can Tigers Maul All at Fortress KC?

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Hull City were one of three sides to be promoted from the Championship into the Premier League in 2013, and not many would have been startled if Steve Bruce’s side had been relegated from the top flight at the first time of asking. However, in the opening weeks of the season it was only the juggernauts Chelsea and Manchester City who could take all three points away from the Tigers. Picking up 4 wins from their first 7 games was a highly promising start and the points collected in this period would prove vital in their eventual search for survival.

While their early season form did drop off a touch, they were never sucked down to be fully embroiled in a tight relegation battle. As the other 2 promoted sides; Cardiff and Crystal Palace, struggled towards the foot of the table, this was not the case for Hull. Just as their form began to tail off to a worrying level, January signings Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic provided the necessary boost to give them some new impetus. The goals they added made sure Hull won games they would have otherwise drawn, and points began to be picked up again. After the festive period drew to a close, Hull’s FA Cup run really started to gain momentum and supporters began to dream.

Without this series of results in England’s historic domestic cup competition, I imagine that Hull’s Premier League status would have been officially secured much earlier than it eventually was; right in the last knockings of the league season. Defeating Middlesborough, Southend, Brighton and Sunderland led Hull fans to their first visit to Wembley since their victorious play-off final in 2008. An absolutely crazy game against Sheffield United finished 5-3 to Hull, having been behind twice in the game. Making it all the way to the FA Cup final was unprecedented on Humberside and when they raced to a 2-0 half time lead in the showpiece event, their fans were delirious. Although Arsenal did come back to win the match, it was an incredible experience for players and fans, capping off what had been a truly successful year for their club. With such an impressive first season behind them, what can they achieve this time around after some new additions to the squad?

Biggest Transfers

Robert Snodgrass: The Scottish international was Norwich City’s best player by some distance last season in my opinion and I thought he was nailed on to move to a club such as Everton or Newcastle. Hull City have pulled off quite a coup by securing his signature and I believe that the fee of £7 million is not at all excessive. Fantastic over a dead ball and not afraid to dribble past his man, Snodgrass injects both skill and a direct approach into his side. If there was one area that Hull were short last year, it was creativity in attacking areas, and with his quick thinking and wand of a left foot, Snodgrass can be the man to change that. We also saw last season how prolific he can be and with goals being an invaluable commodity in the Premier League, he may well prove to be a terrific signing that could just secure their top flight status for another year.

Tom Ince: Once of Liverpool, Tom Ince’s raw talent is not up for debate, but something has held his career back somewhat, as with the promise he has shown during his time at Blackpool and Crystal Palace, he really should have hit centre stage by now. He certainly must have a lot to offer a side because we know that the Italian giants Inter Milan were very interested in his signature, only for the winger to turn them down in favour of a Premier League stay. Like Robert Snodgrass, I have to say that I am a little surprised that Ince has chosen Hull City of all his suitors, but it must encourage their fans greatly that the Humberside team was his preferred option. He has fantastic pace and great trickery; forming a promising platform off which to build, and under Steve Bruce, he will only improve his overall game. Ince is expected to be the provider of assists, but with regular Premier League football under his belt, I imagine a decent goal output is on the horizon too which will ease the burden on the club’s strikers.

Jake Livermore: Having spent last campaign on loan at the KC Stadium, Jake Livermore is already integrated well into the club’s set-up and partnerships have already been formed. His energy and desire to get forward and back compliments Tom Huddlestone’s more languid style in the centre of midfield and the relationship that the pair of them built up over last season was one of the main reasons for their league survival and journey to the FA Cup Final. It is interesting to note that his deal was the first that Steve Bruce tied up this summer, representing how much he values and appreciates Livermore’s contribution to the team. Although there have been significant reinforcements brought into Hull City, they have all been in other areas of the pitch so Livermore may well find himself playing a lot of minutes in the coming season with the extra load of the Europa League. His tank must not run dry for Hull to achieve their aims.

Key Men

Curtis Davies: Having been recruited by Steve Bruce during last summer to help their Premier League survival, Curtis Davies was handed the captain’s armband and quickly grew into one of the most reliable centre halves in the league. This has not typically been one of his most notable traits over his career, instead relying on athleticism to recover for his team, but an increased level of maturity and responsibility that has come with age and leading the squad has transformed him. I saw Davies on several occasions last season in the flesh and he impressed me greatly, despite being ignored by the majority of the footballing public. Leading from the back, putting in last ditch blocks left right and centre, and reading the game with apparent ease all contributed to the notion that I believe he should have been taken to Brazil in the summer. At 29, he is nearing the twilight of his career and so wasn’t really in Roy Hodgson’s long term plans. However, he is absolutely vital for Hull City as their Sergeant Major and his performances have built a deep-lying respect amongst the squad.

Tom Huddlestone: Silky smooth in possession and also packing a thunderous shot, Tom Huddlestone fills the deep lying dictator role very well indeed. He does lack the speed and energy to get about the pitch, but his vision and game intelligence has been developed to make up for this. Rarely found out of position, and often providing assists for his team mates with killer passes, Huddlestone truly is what makes this Hull City side tick. He never seems rushed when receiving the ball, regardless of whether the opposition have closed him down or not. Huddlestone is capable of hitting raking passes across the pitch from either foot, a greatly effective tactic when springing a break on their opponents. Last season, he finally broke his epic goal drought and has looked much more of a threat in front of goal ever since. Notching up 5 goals or so this year would add yet another string to his bow, making him even more valuable to Steve Bruce.

Shane Long: Signed by Bruce in January 2014, Shane Long went on to form a fruitful partnership with Nikica Jelavic, and between them scored the goals to keep Hull in the division. Although Long is only one of four front line strikers at the club, I believe he is the most reliable and consistent threat of the lot, with his strengths causing opposition defenders the most problems. He is deceptively quick, always has the ability to nick a goal, willing to run into the channels and stretch the defence, and perhaps most importantly of all, he will never stop working for the team. For a side such as Hull City, it is vital that the eleven on the pitch are pulling in the same direction and even though Long is a forward tasked with scoring goals, he is not at all averse to doing his defensive duties. As perhaps the most balanced of Hull’s strikers, I believe that he will feature most frequently and again, bag the goals to ensure survival.

Possible Starting Line-up

Despite suffering more than his fair share of injury concerns and disciplinary intervention, Allan Mcgregor remains Hull City’s number one, a position not really put under much threat by the veteran Steve Harper.

Steve Bruce has employed several systems during his time as manager, often favouring 3-5-2 last season, but I believe that more of a 4-2-3-1 will favour the players currently at his disposal. Ahmed Elmohamedy is a fixture in their strongest line-up, irrespective of the chosen formation. His boundless energy down the right and ability to deliver a fine cross is highly valued, and I believe he slots in at right full-back with the license to maraud forward. Hull have a great deal of experience at centre half, but it is relative youngster James Chester who may well partner Curtis Davies in the middle. Both are composed on the ball and have the best balance as a pair. New signing Harry Maguire may well push Chester later in the campaign, but I certainly expect Bruce to start with the tried and trusted option. Hull City were weak at left full-back for the entirety of last campaign, both in terms of numbers and quality. Maynor Figueroa was mistake-prone and their other options in this position were often injured. Therefore, although not a great deal is known in England of Andrew Robertson; their new signing from Dundee United, those who have watched him from week to week certainly rate him highly. If he has even shown a fraction of this in training, Bruce may well choose to throw him in at the deep end.

With the permanent transfer of Jake Livermore secured early on this summer from Tottenham Hotspur, he looks sure to rekindle the relationship built up with Tom Huddlestone over the course of last season. Between the pair of them, they have both the energy and the technique covered. Livermore’s fitness is exceptional and Huddlestone is one of the most naturally gifted passers of the ball in the Premier League in my opinion. David Meyler and Steven Quinn are decent options off the bench to come on and secure the points by adding aggression and steel to the midfield, but the undoubted best pairing is compiled from the former Spurs duo.

The signings of skilful wingers Tom Ince and Robert Snodgrass have addressed an area of concern for Hull City fans; creativity. This was lacking last term and would rarely score more than a single goal in a game which placed a great deal of pressure on the defence. Now though, with the pace and trickery of Ince along with the dribbling ability and eye for a goal of Snodgrass, they have a relative wealth of options here. To fit them both into the team, along with another creative player in Robbie Brady, I think Steve Bruce may employ them as 3 attacking midfielders, each with a license to roam across the line. However, their defensive responsibility as part of the team is important and the manager will have to force that point home. George Boyd impressed in flashes at the latter end of last season and he will add something different when coming off the bench.

Compared to this time last year, Hull are blessed with a wide array of attacking talent. The addition of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic to their ranks in the January transfer window gave them a pair of finishers that secured their Premier League status for another year. Yannick Sagbo and Sone Aluko are the other members of the striking quartet, and all four add a different positive dynamic to the side. Long has fantastic pace and work ethic, making his runs into the channels a profitable source for the team. Jelavic, while not naturally gifted, is strong in the air and will finish first time more often than not when presented with a chance. Sagbo is an absolute mountain; physically very strong and will often come out on top in a battle with centre halves. He is also surprisingly good with the ball on the floor and provides a perfect point for Hull to play up to from the back. Aluko is the most unpredictable of the four but is also the most skilful. While he can be pushed off the ball a little too easily at times, he has the technical prowess to escape tight situations and make more space for himself and others. In my opinion, the partnership of Shane Long and Yannick Sagbo is the best option for Bruce but realistically, any combination of these four strikers is enough to cause even the staunchest of Premier League defences a problem.

Hull City - Football tactics and formations

Prediction

As is traditionally the case, Hull City were one of the favourites, if not the outright favourite with all the bookmakers to be relegated last season. Being one of the promoted sides, this was inevitable. However, having survived their first year back in England’s top flight, you would expect that a year’s more experience and the renewed financial capacity to bring in more quality would result in a place outside the predicted bottom three. This is the case for now, but it is important to remember that one of the promoted teams this year is somewhat of an anomaly. Queen’s Park Rangers have the funds behind them to spend big, and spend regularly. They are not a normal promoted team and as such, have the potential to finish relatively high up the league. With Hull City more than likely finding themselves embroiled in a stereotypical ‘second season syndrome’ this time around, a strong start from a couple of the promoted teams could find the Humberside club’s odds shortened for relegation. Regardless, I believe that over an entire campaign, Bruce’s summer additions along with the strong nucleus of a surviving squad from last season will stand Hull City in good stead for another solid season. They will almost certainly not match their FA Cup exploits this time around, but a steady lower mid-table finish is in order for Bruce’s boys.

FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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