The FourFourTwo Preview: Hull vs West Brom
A monster run of fixtures for both clubs starts right here...
It's been quite a 12 months for Steve Bruce: first he takes unfancied Hull up from the Championship, then he keeps the relegation favourites clear of the Premier League drop zone for the entire season (well, for the first 29 games, at least) and now he's a League One opponent away from leading the Tigers to a first major cup final in their 110-year history. Manager of the season? You heard it here first.
- Hull 0-2 Man City (Prem)
- Hull 3-0 S'land (FAC)
- Hull 1-4 Newcastle (Prem)
- Hull 2-1 Brighton (FAC)
- Cardiff 0-4 Hull (Prem)
WEST BROM FORM
- Swansea 1-2 WBA (Prem)
- WBA 0-3 Man Utd (Prem)
- WBA 1-1 Fulham (Prem)
- WBA 1-1 Chelsea (Prem)
- Palace 3-1 WBA (Prem)
Much to look forward to, then, but should you find yourself in the company of Bruce or any of his charges over the coming weeks, whatever you do, don't mention the 'W' word. While half the population of the Yorkshire city scrap around to get their hands on a ticket for Hull's big Wembley date against Sheffield United, there are far more immediate concerns.
Hull may be 13th in the table, but with only six points separating West Ham in 12th and Cardiff in 19th place, and the Tigers' next four fixtures all being against sides in the bottom half (West Brom (H), West Ham (A), Stoke (A) and Swansea (H)), Bruce will be targeting at least four points before the semi-final.
Hull's recent home form – a draw and four defeats in the last five – would seem like major cause for concern, but all five games have been against top-half opposition. As serial-relegation fighter Bruce knows all too well, there's no point dwelling over such three-point fixtures at this stage of the season – it's all about the survival six-pointers, right?
Away from the fixtures schedule, it's been a busy old week for the club. First, the FA's membership committee recommended a rejection to any proposals to rebrand them from 'Hull City' to 'Hull City Tigers', leading to owner Assem Allam once again threatening to sell up if he doesn't get his way. Season ticket holders will now be balloted on the matter before a final decision is made by the FA Council on April 9.
Elsewhere at the KC, winger George Boyd has been hit with an FA misconduct charge for spitting at Joe Hart in last Saturday's loss to Manchester City – a decision Bruce is no doubt peeved about.
"George has tried to talk [to Hart] and something has come out. George Boyd wouldn't do that, definitely wouldn't do that. No chance," said the Hull gaffer after the game. Having been found guilty, the phlegm-firing Boyd faces a three-game suspension, starting with the visit of Pepe Mel's side.
Such are West Brom's woes, they're not concerning themselves with the calculator, instead opting to head straight for the "we've got nine cup finals ahead of us" strategy. Last Saturday's win at Swansea was just their second victory since the start of November, and their fifth all season – the lowest in the Prem – but Youssouf Mulumbu's vital late winner was enough to haul the Baggies up to 16th. The result would have come as an almighty relief to Hawthorns boss Mel, who finally claimed a win in his eighth game as boss.
West Brom have been no pushovers this season – only eight teams have lost fewer games – and the spirit they showed in the second half at Swansea suggested the players are firmly behind their Spanish gaffer. Cardiff (H) and Norwich (A) are next up for Mel following the trip to the KC meaning, much like Hull, the coming weeks will go a long way to deciding what division they are playing in next term.
With Nicolas Anelka off and this season's top league scorer, Saido Berahino, having found the net just four times, the Baggies might be regretting selling Shane Long to Saturday's opponents in the transfer window. The Irishman has impressed at his new club alongside fellow January arrival Nikica Jelavic, and they'll need to keep a close eye on them come kick-off. Indeed, Long won't be the only familiar face for the away fans, with Curtis Davies and Robert Koren also in the Hull squad against their former club.
Bruce's charges are in decent shape, with only long-term casualties Paul McShane (ankle), Robbie Brady (groin) and Joe Dudgeon (knee) out of action. For the Baggies, Jonas Olsson (suspended), Claudio Yacob (hamstring) and Chris Brunt (knee) will miss out. Morgan Amalfitano and Billy Jones are close to match fitness following their injuries, and Mel will make a late call over their inclusion in the squad.
Key battle: Huddlestone vs Mulumbu
The Baggies' 5-3-2 formation transforms into a 3-5-2 when they attack, with energetic midfielder Mulumbu playing a key role in both setups: kick-starting many of his side's forward moves, while simultaneously looking to safeguard the Baggies' back-line. It's no easy job, but the Congolese pulled it off superbly at Swansea, turning the game West Brom's way after half-time. His determined display saw him top the match stats on numerous counts: interceptions, tackles, ball recoveries and even shots on goal (joint with Swnasea's Jonathan de Guzman), and his well-struck winner was fitting reward for a fine display.
Mulumbu will be battling for midfield supremacy with Huddlestone. The 27-year-old proved a shrewd £5.25 million purchase from Spurs, with his recent form leaving many surprised that he didn't win an England recall against Denmark. With Manchester City sitting back after going down to 10 men against Hull, Huddlestone was left frustrated in his efforts to spread his usual array of lengthy balls across the pitch. But that's not to say he wasn't quietly effective. His pass count of 69 was the highest across both teams (two more than man-of-the-match David Silva), and 58 of these found their target. Impressive stuff.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- WBA 1-1 Hull (Prem, Dec 13)
- Hull 2-2 WBA (Prem, Jan 09)
- WBA 0-3 Hull (Prem, Oct 08)
- WBA 1-2 Hull (Ch'ship, Feb 08)
- Hull 1-3 WBA (Ch'ship, Jan 08)
Bruce has been around the block long enough not to get carried away, but after a turbulent time in the dugout with Birmingham, Wigan and Sunderland, he could be excused for quietly savouring the coming weeks as he contemplates Premier League safety and FA Cup glory.
"We still have two games to win in the Premier League," said Bruce, having done his sums. "If we win two, those teams below us have to win four or five which I don't think is possible."
For former Real Betis boss Mel, staying up in injury time on the final day would do him just fine as he attempts to salvage an ugly season for the Midlanders. Now managing his 10th club, much like Bruce he's well aware of the vulnerability of life in the hot-seat. "Being a head coach is a risky business," he said as he faced questions about his future. "My job depends on winning games and when you are a football coach even if you win it is not worth looking beyond tomorrow. But I am confident in my work and in my ability to do a good job."
Still, if it doesn't work out, Pepe, at least the Black Country derby against Wolves – currently top of League One – could be back on the fixtures list for Baggies fans next season. Every cloud, eh?
Facts and figures
- Hull have lost 7 of their last 10 matches including 4 of 5 at home.
- West Brom have conceded in 18 of their last 19 matches.
- 7 of West Brom’s last 10 away matches have had at least 3 goals with half having 4 or more.
- 6 of Hull’s 7 home matches against bottom-half teams this season have had fewer than 3 goals.
- West Brom have lost just 2 of their 6 trips to bottom-half sides this term, drawing 3 times.
Buoyed by last weekend's win in South Wales, Mel's men to grab another vital three points on the road. 1-2.