On a night laden with significance at the KC Stadium, Hull City soothed their fears of falling into the Championship while defeat for Liverpool has all but ended their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League. Hull celebrated wildly at the end while Liverpool looked drained and devastated.
Michael Dawson scored the decisive goal, a first-half header when played onside by Mario Balotelli, taking Hull into 15th, four points clear of the drop zone. Dawson was excellent as was Steve Harper in the Hull goal while Sone Aluko was tireless in attack.
Liverpool were disappointing, barring the outstanding Philippe Coutinho, and remain seven points behind fourth-placed Manchester United, whose fans will raise a glass to their old centre-half, Steve Bruce.
Dawson’s 37th-minute header had given the game an extra edge, threatening to damage irreparably Liverpool’s dream of a Champions League place. All had actually seemed serene before kick-off as the fans congregated in the evening sunshine, and the Beverley Brass Band played Eye of the Tiger, but serious issues were all around even before Liverpool had to address the Dawson goal.
The gaps in the away corner of the KC Stadium highlighted how many Liverpool fans had rebelled against Hull’s hike in ticket prices, up £15 to £50. Liverpool supporters did buy up all the 2,506 allocation, many of them £10 kids’ tickets, but scarcely two-thirds of the seats were filled.
At the other end of the M62, hundreds of fans had gathered outside Anfield to support a protest organised by the fans’ group Spirit of Shankly. Some even headed down to London to hang banners on the railings of the Premier League offices, appealing for some sanity on inflated ticket prices.
On-field issues also dominated fans’ thoughts, not least that it had been 25 years to the day since Liverpool last celebrated winning the title. Now they were struggling to qualify for the Champions League. They were missing Steven Gerrard, who was rested, bringing Joe Allen into midfield while Balotelli was presented with a chance to try to convince Liverpool he was worth keeping on. He had an early free-kick deflected wide and then gave the ball away twice.
Brendan Rodgers shaped Liverpool up in 4-1-2-3 formation with Allen anchoring and Emre Can at right-back, a position that does not suit a player who excels in midfield. Coutinho and Jordan Henderson pushed on in support of Balotelli, who was flanked by Jordon Ibe and the left-sided Raheem Sterling. Balotelli tried to beat Harper with a back-heel but the 40-year-old Hull keeper was too alert. Harper then did well to repel a Coutinho special following Henderson’s corner.
Yet there was an uncertainty about Liverpool that Hull were determined to exploit. Aluko, flitting in from the flanks to work with Dame N’Doye, lifted in a cross that was met powerfully by N’Doye, whose header was pushed away by Simon Mignolet. The Belgian then pushed away a header from Jake Livermore after a superb cross from Robbie Brady. Aluko’s follow-up was cleared off the line by Glen Johnson.
Hull fans began to believe. Bruce’s side have been an exercise in inconsistency this season, drawing at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, yet losing at home against Leicester City. Injuries have inhibited them, particularly to their leading scorer Nikica Jelavic. So they had known how important this game was with relegation a threat despite an important victory at Crystal Palace. The defender James Chester told the programme that “the players are all very aware of the pain the fans are feeling and we share their pain”. Their mood was one of sustained hunger.
Hull had been desperate to move away from the relegation zone, knowing they have still to face Arsenal, Burnley and Manchester United here and a trip to Tottenham Hotspur. They have started advertising 2015-16 season ticket cards “intended for Barclays Premier League football” ranging from £32 (12 and under, South Stand) to £606 (adult, West Stand) but urgently needed the points to stay up.
A tight central midfield three of Stephen Quinn, Tom Huddlestone and Livermore gave Hull a platform yet their first-half goal came from a corner forced by Aluko off Can.
Brady drove the corner in left-footed, and it fell out to Ahmed Elmohamady, who immediately swept the ball back into the box. Liverpool’s defenders had pushed up but Balotelli and Can dithered, playing Dawson onside, and the Hull captain guided a firm header past Mignolet.
Liverpool could easily have equalised before the break but Harper saved from Henderson. Johnson then made a storming run down the left, slid the ball cross the six-yard box, but none of his team-mates was alive enough to the opportunity.
Liverpool lacked drive and focus. They needed a spark. Coutinho and Henderson tried hard. After 62 minutes, the Brazilian guided the ball to Henderson, who chested the ball, swivelled and drew a good save from Harper. The keeper dropped to his left and pushed the strike away.
Rodgers made his move, taking off Ibe and Balotelli and sending on Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert. Balotelli’s journey to the dugout was followed by Hull chants of “What a waste of money”.
It must frustrate Rodgers deeply to see a player with undoubted gifts failing to fulfil his talent. Rodgers gave him a chance and the £16m Balotelli has not repaid his faith, managing only one goal in 16 Premier League appearances for Liverpool. All this on a night when Luis Suarez was further enchanting Barcelona fans with another double in the 6-0 thrashing of Getafe.
Liverpool’s captain, Henderson, sought to get his team back into the game, back into the fading race for a Champions League place. He tested Harper with a low shot which the keeper held at the second attempt.
Rodgers made his final change, withdrawing a centre-back in Dejan Lovren and throwing on Lazar Markovic to service the right with 15 minutes remaining.
Markovic immediately controlled the ball, passed to Henderson, who launched a long pass to Sterling on the left. The England international cut inside but his deflected shot failed to alarm Harper. (© Daily Telegraph, London)