Sunday 28 December ~
Gamba Osaka were praised for their positive attitude when playing Manchester United in the Club World Cup semi-final last week. Even when 5-1 down, the team never stopped attacking and were rewarded with two late goals. Their coach saw the 5-3 defeat as a moral victory, and Gamba earned condescending plaudits from their prestigious opponents. But this was tourism football in a tournament of little consequence between two teams more likely to form a transcontinental marketing co-operation deal than a serious sporting rivalry.
What's not to like about lots of attacking and skads of goals? Ask Hull City manager Phil Brown after his sideís 5-1 mauling at Manchester City on Boxing Day. "I think we have been sucked into the pretty Premier League," said Brown. "We're not pretty - we need to get ugly again because, if you don't bring your ugly head to places like Manchester City, you get taken apart." In what is beginning to look like an all-inclusive relegation fight just below the UEFA Cup spots, you won't get points for wearing lipstick and a fancy gown, but digging in at the back and scrapping for a point will give an underdog manager less to get grim about than any kind of ballerina ball-play that draws excited gasps of admiration from the neutral purists in the press-box.
It's possible that some of Hull's players have started to believe their own publicity, or it could just be that the team's luck has run out. At the same time, they have lost that element of surprise and momentum that can give newly promoted teams an early boost. Hull have scored a respectable 28 goals in 19 games this season, the same as Manchester United, and just two fewer than league-leading Liverpool. Unfortunately, they have the worst defensive record, having shipped a total of 36, making them the Premier League's most entertaining side to watch alongside the team that just whacked them - like Hull's, Man City's games have produced 64 goals this season.
Just two points below Hull in eighth place sit Fulham, who have drawn four of their past six games 0-0. Their 19 games have produced 26 goals - they've only scored 16, but conceded just 12, and their goal difference is a dozen to the good of Hull's. Manager Roy Hodgson said a few weeks back that his team maybe needed to score a bit more often, but he didn't sound too concerned. It's not like he's managing Real Madrid or Brazil, where style is a demand rather than a luxurious option. Hodgson knows the value of ugly, and on the evidence of recent weeks you'd back his team to stay up ahead of Hull. For almost eight years, Fulham have been perfecting the art of Premier League survival without anyone ever accusing them of being an attractive team to watch.
So Brown is discovering that the Premier League is less about having a Brazilian who can do stepovers like Cristiano Ronaldo, and more about accumulating enough points to survive another year. His job depends on it. Those of us who delighted in flirting with the enticing and flighty Hull of late summer may find her much changed after the New Year. She's been dumped once too often and her defences will be up. The sad inevitability is that while pretty may be nice to watch, playing hard will more likely see you through another year. Ian Plenderleith