Hull City v Chelsea

ESPN Soccernet Preview: Hull City v Chelsea

January 8, 2010
By Robin Hackett

•  Live on ESPN2 at 07.45 ET

As Hull once more find themselves inside the relegation zone, there could be few more unwelcome visitors to the KC Stadium than Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea.

Anthony Gardner
GettyImagesAnthony Gardner will have to be at his best to hold off Chelsea

Having found themselves in freefall for a large part of 2009, they recovered some form in November as Jimmy Bullard finally regained his fitness, recording victories against Stoke and Everton and draws with West Ham and Manchester City. The run ended with their first match of December though, going down to a 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa in a game in which Bullard suffered an injury to his other knee. Hull have not won any of the five matches since.

Chelsea also had a successful November, going the month unbeaten and enjoying victories over Manchester United and Arsenal, but December was equally unhappy: Blackburn knocked them out of the Carling Cup, Manchester City beat them in the league and they had to settle for draws with APOEL Nicosia, Everton, West Ham and Birmingham.

There is nothing to suggest Ancelotti is under pressure for now - particularly after a 2-1 win over local rivals Fulham and a 5-0 demolition of Watford in the FA Cup in their last two games - but those slip-ups in the league have allowed Arsenal to come back into the title race alongside Manchester United. Given that a draw with Hull ended Luiz Felipe Scolari's reign little under a year ago, Ancelotti will not want to jog owner Roman Abramovich's memory this weekend.

Hull player in focus: Stephen Hunt. During his Reading days, Hunt was the man who caused the head injury to Petr Cech that has seen him wear a protective cap ever since. Having made the move to Hull in the summer, he caused Cech further problems as he opened the scoring during Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Hull at Stamford Bridge on the first day of the season. The left winger has been among the more dangerous players for his new club, contributing five goals so far, and could be a threat.

Chelsea player in focus: Nicolas Anelka. Having been out of action with a hamstring injury since the 2-1 win over Portsmouth on December 16, Anelka is set to return at the KC Stadium. With Didier Drogba now unavailable due to his commitment to the African Nations Cup, Anelka will be expected to deliver goals.

Key battle: Anthony Gardner v Nicolas Anelka. While much of the explanation for Hull's upturn in form in November was put down to Bullard's return, Gardner has done plenty to improve things at the back and he will need to be at his best to keep Anelka at bay. With Daniel Sturridge finally among the goals at Chelsea, it could be a busy day for the Hull defence.

Tactics: While Hull's primary concern will no doubt be to protect the defence, the absence of Seyi Olofinjana could mean Geovanni comes into the centre of midfield. His inclusion in that position would, if nothing else, give Hull a greater chance of scoring through free-kicks and long-range efforts. Chelsea's loss of players due to the African Nations Cup in Angola has been well documented but, despite both John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien's absence, they are likely to retain the diamond formation with Juliano Belletti at the base.

Quotes: Hull manager Phil Brown on facing Chelsea: "We have to put in the kind of performance like we did against the bigger boys, against the Arsenals and the Manchester Uniteds, and then put in the character of the performance against Bolton Wanderers and in the first half against Wigan."

Chelsea winger Florent Malouda on the team's disappointing recent form: "I think that you know when you start the season that you will have difficult moments when you drop points and everybody did in December. The most important thing is to try to keep playing the same way. We struggled against Birmingham and, against Fulham, it was really difficult, but we scored five goals (against Watford) and probably we could have scored more."

In the news: Phil Brown has been forced to sell players at Hull as new chairman Adam Pearson seeks to trim the wage bill. Daniel Cousin and Caleb Folan are set to leave and Kevin Kilbane and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink could follow. "I can't do anything else but accept it," Brown said. "(Pearson) is the man in charge and if that is the deal I will try and get on with it." Meanwhile, Hull said on Thursday that they expect the match to go ahead despite the weather: "We're more than confident the game on Saturday will go ahead. Certainly, if the game had been scheduled for today it would have been played."

Stephen Hunt, Phil Brown
GettyImagesStephen Hunt is key to Phil Brown's hopes

Hull team news: Jimmy Bullard remains unavailable until at least the end of the month due to his knee problem, but Paul McShane could come back in after a hamstring injury. Seyi Olofinjana is at the African Nations Cup with Nigeria.

Chelsea team news: Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel are all absent at the African Cup of Nations, meaning Juliano Belletti is likely to play as the holding midfielder while Daniel Sturridge will continue up front. Nicolas Anelka is fit again after his hamstring injury and will start the match, but Jose Bosingwa remains sidelined with a knee injury and Deco is struggling with a groin problem.

Probable Hull line-up (4-4-2): Myhill, Mendy, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson, Garcia, Geovanni, Boateng, Hunt, Altidore, Fagan.

Probable Chelsea line-up (4-4-2): Cech, Ivanovic, Terry, Alex, Ashley Cole, Belletti, Ballack, Malouda, Lampard, Anelka, Sturridge.

Soccernet prediction: Chelsea have shown signs of recovery from their recent blip while Hull still look short of confidence in possession without Bullard. It is difficult to see them posing serious problems for the visitors and, while Anelka will be short of match fitness, his presence should be enough to see his side preserve their advantage at the top of the table.