If Hull City versus Manchester United still has an unusual ring to it, their last encounter ended with a distinctly strange sight and sound as well. As the Premier League season drew to a close in May, with Hull being defeated by what almost amounted to Manchester United's third-choice team, Newcastle United's loss at Aston Villa meant the Tigers had avoided relegation, albeit in rather ignominious fashion.
To widespread bemusement, Hull manager Phil Brown took the public announcer's microphone and stood on the halfway line, belting out one of the supporters' favourite chants, sung - in the loosest sense of the word - to the tune of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B. It is safe to say that there will be no impromptu attempts at karaoke today. Brown has been ordered to adopt a lower profile by his chairman, Adam Pearson, instructions that have coincided with an improvement in Hull's form.
His United counterpart, Sir Alex Ferguson, has spent more of the campaign raging than singing. He departed Fulham last Saturday in uncharacteristically downbeat mood, talking about a lack of light at the end of the tunnel. United's defensive injuries left Ferguson unusually despondent. Seven were sidelined in the 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage, a setback that means United have already lost more league games in the current campaign than they did in the whole of last season.
Under the circumstances, Gary Neville's declaration that the title race will be more open could appear wishful thinking. Their 1-0 win in East Yorkshire in May, while featuring such luminaries as Lee Martin, Rodrigo Possebon and Richard Eckersley, allowed United to reach 90 points. At their current rate of progress, Ferguson's side are on course for 78. Encouragement is being offered to opponents, partly because of United's crippling injury list, but partly because of other frailties.
Cristiano Ronaldo's recent suggestion that he is missing his former employers was enlightening: the feeling is entirely mutual. While Antonio Valencia has proved a qualified success on the right flank and the other winger recruited, Gabriel Obertan, has displayed promise, it was unrealistic to expect either to replicate Ronaldo's return in front of goal. The knock-on effect has meant his absence his felt across the pitch. While Ferguson initially reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, it is telling that United's last two away league wins occurred with a more fluid 4-3-3 formation that gave the defence added protection and freed Valencia and Ryan Giggs to attack on the flanks.
It also placed a greater reliance on Wayne Rooney, the sole striker. It was also an indictment of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen that neither starts in that system. Yet, as has been the case in recent weeks, the focus will be on the other end of the pitch. References to United's creativity have tended to invoke flair players; of late, they have involved Ferguson's selection when he has been without a senior central defender. For Hull, Fulham's display should provide a blueprint. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Hull City v Manchester United, KO 8pm, Showsports 1&2