THE Premier League has spent much of the past few weeks lickings its wounds following the chastening exit of England’s last three clubs from European competition.
But surely there can be no other domestic competition capable of producing a contest involving an odds-on favourite to lift the title that could be as dramatic as the one that yesterday left the KC Stadium and a watching audience of millions around the globe breathless.
Thrills and spills abounded in a quite remarkable 90 minutes, as Chelsea raced into an early two-goal lead only to be pegged back by the quickest back-to-back strikes of the season in the Premier League
Then, after Thibaut Courtois had pulled off a world-class triple save to prevent Hull City taking the lead during a second half that saw play swing from one end to the other, Jose Mourinho’s men displayed the ruthless streak of all great champions by snatching the three points through a decisive first touch from substitute Loic Remy.
As Chelsea headed for the Humber Bridge last night with a six-point advantage at the summit safely in their possession, Hull were able to reflect on a performance that suggested they have in abundance the mettle and resolve required to prevail in a relegation fight.
Just as importantly, QPR’s defeat at home to Everton meant it was a case of ‘as you were’ at the foot of the table but, crucially, with one fewer game to play.
All the bottom six lost over the weekend. None, though, will have been able to take anything like the hope or satisfaction that Hull can from how they pushed the champions-elect all the way.
Bruce rated his side’s display as “arguably our best in 18 months” and it was hard to disagree, especially in attack where Dame N’Doye impressed and Gaston Ramirez had his best game in a Tigers shirt.
Out wide, Andrew Robertson and Ahmed Elmohamady also proved a constant menace to an unusually wobbly Chelsea back-line, and if Hull can replicate yesterday’s attacking performance over the last eight games then safety should be theirs.
What the Tigers cannot do, however, is repeat the defending of the opening 10 minutes that allowed Chelsea to take what, at the time, looked like an iron grip on proceedings.
Eden Hazard was the first to benefit after just 77 seconds, the Belgian being afforded sufficient time and space by a back-pedalling Michael Dawson that he could pick his spot in Allan McGregor’s goal from 20 yards.
Dawson was also culpable for Chelsea’s second, Diego Costa able to collect a sweeping ball from Cesc Fabregas before setting himself up for a shot from a tight angle that McGregor could not get near. To make matters more frustrating for the locals, sandwiched in between the two strikes had been a truly woeful miss by Abel Hernandez.
It suggested Hull could be in for the kind of afternoon that would decimate a goal difference that, as it stands right now, is set to be worth an extra point in the scrap to stay out of the bottom three. Then, though, something extraordinary happened.
Bruce ditched the three-man defence that had served the Tigers so well for much of the season in favour of a 4-2-3-1 formation that sparked a quite remarkable turnaround.
The fightback began on 26 minutes courtesy of a dart down the left flank by Andrew Robertson that left Branislav Ivanovic trailing.
Elmohamady, pushed further forward in the tactical re-jig, reacted by racing into the area to ensure he was in exactly the right place to meet Robertson’s subsequent cross with a clinical finish.
Seventy four seconds later, Hull were level following an almighty howler by Courtois. On receiving a back pass from Ivanovic, the Belgian goalkeeper should have immediately cleared his lines. Instead, the approaching figure of Ramirez brought an attempt to knock the ball past the Uruguayan that was never going to work.
Sure enough, Courtois’s touch was too heavy and Hernandez tapped in to claim a first goal for Hull in five months.
Chelsea, looking as rattled as at any stage of the season, were clearly desperate for half-time to arrive, a point underlined by Mourinho heading down the tunnel a couple of minutes before anyone else. Fabregas had a great chance to provide the response the Portuguese craved four minutes after the restart but the Spaniard fired wide.
Ditto Costa from Filipe Luis’s cross on the hour but the Blues’ top scorer was crowded out by Dawson and Robertson before the moment that Bruce believes settled an absorbing contest arrived.
Courtois’s blunder may have led to Hull’s equaliser but he more than made amends with the triple save that denied Elmohamady, Jake Livermore and Ramirez in quick succession.
The last of those stops was probably the pick and it laid the foundation for what proved to be the winner 13 minutes from time.
Neat play by Oscar and Willian led to the ball being played in to Remy. The striker had only been on the field for 92 seconds and it showed in a rather scuffed finish, but a wrong-footed McGregor was still unable to keep the ball out.
The game was up for Hull, who despite a late chance for N’Doye could not find a response to match that of the first half as Chelsea returned south with all three points.
Hull City: McGregor; Bruce, Dawson, McShane; Elmohamady, Meyler (Quinn 80), Ramirez (Aluko 80), Robertson (Brady 80); N’Doye, Hernandez. Unused substitutes: Harper, Rosenior, Davies, Sagbo.
Chelsea: Courtois; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Luis; Matic; Willian (Zouma 80), Fabregas, Ramires (Oscar 61); Hazard; Costa (Remy 75). Unused substitutes: Cech, Cuadrado, Azpilicueta, Loftus-Cheek.