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Aug 30, 2008

Sky falls in on Hull's sense of optimism

If there is one phrase a manager who has just lost 5-0 does not want to hear - and assuredly, there are many - Steve Bruce probably managed it. 'That's probably the worst we've played [this season],' the Wigan boss said. Hull could be forgiven for wondering what, then, the eventual outcome would have been had Wigan played to their potential.

Because this was the most brutal reality check possible. Four points from two games had suggested that, difficult as it is for promoted teams to survive in the Premier League, Hull had a chance. The feelgood factor that has engulfed East Yorkshire, coupled with their fervent support, enabled them to feel that the KC Stadium may become the sort of venue opponents feared. And the news that Manchester United were considering a £7 million bid for Fraizer Campbell brought the hope that Hull would be reunited the striker who proved the catalyst to promotion.

Instead, Wigan thrashed them and, in the process, showed Hull the gulf between the Championship and the Premier League. 'These are the teams we still have to beat,' added their manager. 'There are three divisions in the Premier League. Last year, we nearly finished top of our division.' The affable Bruce's words were not meant with menace, but they hardly bode well. Wigan, from the bottom third of the Premier League, scored five times away at another of their counterparts.

'They've had five shots on target and they've won 5-0. It is a tough one to swallow,' said Phil Brown. Nevertheless, Hull's role in their own downfall means sympathy should be mitigated. Two of Wigan's goals - the first and fourth - came gift-wrapped. The others merely suggested the home side were being outclassed by more technically gifted opponents. Their manager summed up the problems facing Hull, who featured 10 survivors from their promotion-winning campaign. 'We had to put really a Championship team out,' explaining that with reference to the injuries incurred by George Boateng and Anthony Gardner, plus the absence of the 'loan-tied' Marlon King.

After acquitting themselves well in their two previous games, the lower-league players appeared intent on justifying comparisons to Derby County. For the opening goal, Kevin Kilbane's scuffed corner went in, via the despairing Sam Ricketts, who had erred in leaving his post. A Wigan corner had brought a goal, and so did Hull's first. Wigan counter-attacked with Amr Zaki releasing Antonio Valencia, whose 50-yard sprint from his own half culminated in a cool finish.

'At half-time, Hull City were beating Hull City,' lamented Brown. 'Wigan Athletic weren't beating us. 'We slipped up at a set-piece at one end and we slipped up at a set-piece at the other end. I can't accept the defending for the first goal and I can't accept the defending when we're taking a corner.'

Yet it is hard to claim it improved. Zaki placed the third goal in after a cut-back from Valencia before Chris Kirkland booted the ball 70 yards and Wayne Brown misjudged his back header to such an extent that he found Emile Heskey, who scored. Zaki, who looks a wonderful signing, supplied the fifth with a rasping shot.

'I thought the outstanding player on the pitch was Valencia,' added Bruce. 'Zaki was doing what we thought he could do.' His cosmopolitan recruitment policy is bearing fruit. The difference between Premier League and Championship appeared to lie in speed and skill - particularly that of Valencia and Zaki - plus the physical strength of Lee Cattermole and Wilson Palacios.

Campbell, yet to score a Premier League goal, would at least supply some much-needed acceleration. That chairman Paul Duffen is willing to pay £7 million suggests Hull won't go down for a lack of investment. Yet a striker can be irrelevant unless the defending improves. While City's largesse may help Manchester United fund their bid for Dimitar Berbatov, the question can be posed if the defence requires reinforcements even more than the attack.

While their team floundered, at least the Hull supporters kept the volume high. Outside the KC Stadium, meanwhile, the club sponsors erected what they term a fun park. They needn't have done. Wigan found plenty of ways of entertaining themselves inside the ground.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Valencia (Wigan) - A superb solo goal was the highlight of his performance, but Valencia's assist for Zaki's goal was a further reason why Bruce will be grateful when the transfer window closes with the Ecuadorian still at the JJB Stadium. Zaki, it has to be said, was an equally deserving candidate.

HULL VERDICT: There are so many causes for concern. The defence - excellent at Blackburn a week ago - was awful in the absence of the injury-prone Gardner. Boateng, too, is another whose reputation grew when he didn't take the field. As was feared, too few of the City players remotely resembled Premier League performers today. That, as Brown suggested, Hull had as many opportunities as Wigan should provide scant consolation. The visitors had the class to take theirs.

WIGAN VERDICT: Bruce has quietly built an excellent side. Wigan may lack strength in depth, but they possess a blend of physical force and flair that should serve them well. If Zaki can prove prolific, they might sneak into the top 10. Bruce may believe they are in the Premier League's third division, but the table may soon tell a different story.

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