Sabah bien Cissé - full match report
Wednesday, 18th Jul 2012 22:11 by HKRanger
LFW is indebted to our man in Hong Kong for a comprehensive match report chock full of first impressions of the new look QPR side, following a 5-0 win in the first match of the club’s Asia Tour against a Sabah Select XI.
How’s your luck? A few weeks back, a request arrived asking for preferred dates to attend some meetings in Kuala Lumpur. Coincidentally, QPR had just released their initial Asian tour schedule and I had been pondering how to convince the missus that I really, definitely had to go early to Bangkok for the weekend before flying on to KL. The Thai leg was subsequently pulled, so that particular problem was (sub-optimally) resolved leaving a rather easier sell of coming back home to Hong Kong via a Kota Kinabalu transit. This just left the snagging of decent KK tickets. However, a few calls to some Malaysian friends who were well aware of my exotic “real life QPR fan” status (believe me it is exotic in this part of the world) turned up a very much appreciated invite to watch the match in the AirAsia VIP box. Sorted….
As those of you who have watched the brief highlights posted on the official website the Likas Stadium is a good old-fashioned open oval surrounding a wide running track and a rather bumpy pitch – a bit like Watford’s Vicarage Road in the old days, but with better weather and less of a stench. I reckon the place – 30,000 capacity – was half to two-thirds full. This seemed a decent result since I had only seen one QPR shirt on display while wandering around town earlier in the day and the fellow wearing it had only the sketchiest idea when interrogated of how honoured he should have been feeling. Nevertheless, plenty of hooped jerseys were on display at the ground and they complemented nicely the normal sensory bombardment of sights, smells, and cuisines one always gets at matches in this part of the world.
The Sabah Select XI for the game was principally drawn from Sabah FA who, rather like the R’s, just escaped relegation from the Malaysian Super League (the country’s top division) last season. Unlike the R’s, they at least managed a decent cup run reaching the quarter finals of the premier local tournament. Kelantan FA, the next opponents in KL on Friday, are the reigning champions and should provide a sterner test in theory. However, to put East Asian football into context, especially if we exclude the far more competitive Japanese and Korean leagues, the standard out here is pretty poor – probably one league below Conference standard in my experience. It is also regularly racked by corruption scandals which is perhaps a subject for another day.
Asia produces a lot of fast, skilful, “tippy-tappy” (in the words of Clive) players who are rarely fit enough to last a full 90 and just don’t like it up them. Hence most professional teams tend to import a foreign spine normally comprising of a big lump-it centre back, a Shaun Derry-wannabe midfield enforcer, and a lumbering, awkward centre forward. Perhaps this is where Dave’s future lies? For those of you of a certain vintage, one Dale Tempest was one of Hong Kong’s most successful players of all time whereas, closer to home, Tony Sealy, who is a top bloke albeit one with a rather mixed reputation amongst Rangers’ fans, finished up his playing career out here and has subsequently built a successful career in management.
Sabah duly trotted out with a couple of big yet seemingly technically limited foreign centre backs, but further up field it seemed there was nobody above 5ft 6ins. QPR also lined up with their own mixture of little and large but they still seemed Brobdingnagian in comparison. For the first half, Brian Murphy was in goal behind a back four of Michael Harriman, Anton “brother of Rio” Ferdinand (as announced by the MC), Clint Hill and Max Ehmer. Samba Diakité and Ji-Sung Park anchored the midfield with Shaun Wright-Phillips and Michael Doughty wide right and left respectively. Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson were up top. Rangers are clearly in Asia for (important and seemingly successful) marketing and brand-building purposes as much as for full-on footballing competition. Nevertheless, Mark Hughes had gone on record as saying that he also wanted the Asian friendlies to be serious work-outs for his charges. Yet it quickly became apparent that the Rs were not going to be unduly challenged by the willing yet limited Sabah team. Hughes was also unlucky with the weather which was idiosyncratically cool and dry – 30 degrees plus with maximum humidity is usually the norm at this time of year – and therefore robbed his players of an even better opportunity to sweat.
It soon became clear that Sabah were intent on playing a very flat and high back-four which did not seem particularly smart in the absence of anyone in midfield able to tackle and close down the Rs’ talented international duo. The opportunity was afforded time and time again for passes to be slotted over or inside the defenders. The first of these came within five minutes with Johnson, who looked lively and up for it throughout, beating the offside trap, rounding the keeper, and wheeling away to celebrate. To the immense credit of the Sabah centre back, he launched himself across goal and miraculously turned the ball around for a corner much to Johnson’s chagrin. It proved temporary respite however as, from the corner, Sabah’s keeper Irwan Jamil could only parry Ferdinand’s point-blank header into the path of Zamora who tapped in.
Jamil was excellent throughout and pulled off a simply stunning save from Cissé at the beginning of the second half. Sadly though Zamora’s goal was the only contribution I could remember him making; he seemed pretty disinterested throughout. His strike partner, by contrast, ran his balls off and was only denied a couple of goals by excellent last-ditch blocks and tackles.
Within a couple minutes, Rangers had sprung the offside trap again and Shaun Wright-Phillips was clean through on goal. Unfortunately, the summer off has not done much for his finishing ability and he shot tamely at a keeper who had, to his credit, stood up well. Poor Shaun’s body language said it all and he subsequently managed to further destroy his confidence by being caught offside three or four times in the next 15 minutes or so. Then when he finally managed to time a run properly, he chose not to shoot but to wait for support and square the ball to Johnson whose effort was blocked. It is hard not to feel sorry for Wright-Phillips. He never hides and always puts in a full shift. Whether he can ever regain his confidence (at QPR at least) has to be a question mark. A hat-trick on Friday one hopes….
The effort of the half came from our resident Mad Malian. Clearly nobody had told Samba this was a friendly and he quickly managed to showcase a wide range of tasty tackles - mostly legal, some borderline. Ji-Sung Park is supposedly Mr Three Lungs but if this is the case, then Diakité is an even stranger pulmonary phenomenon. He was everywhere, picking up the ball from young Max Ehmer -who looked very solid - at left back at one moment, and then popping up on an overlap past Wright-Phillips the next. The moment of the half was when he went for and won a fifty-fifty ball at the edge of the QPR penalty area after the Sabah player decided that self-preservation was the better part of valour and bottled it. He then strode imperiously up-field accelerating thorough a static defence before letting fly from the right hand side of the opposing penalty area. From my angle I could not see how close to the post the ball was but it was below the bar when it passed, and was still rising when it cleared the perimeter fence – remember this is a stadium with a running track. If this guy can manage to stay on the pitch, he will be a world-beater.
Alongside Samba, Park was always neat picking out simple yet effective passes and undertaking a great deal of often unappreciated clean-up work. He is not a player you really notice and whether he would be as effective in the centre of a more combative midfield is questionable but he certainly looked like a class act. His every touch got the Asian crowd going, especially the lovely AirAsia lady sitting next to me who seemed extremely excited that he had denied having a girlfriend at the press conference earlier in the day. She claimed to be a lifelong Manchester United fan, and to be fair she was a good deal more knowledgeable about that execrable team over the past twenty years than most “lifers” you meet. I trust the quick Ferdinand genealogy lesson cemented her conversion though.
To complete the midfield round up, Michael Doughty had a nice touch on the left wing, but given his size and his reluctance to make the final cross, it seems likely that this was not his natural position. Difficult to really judge on one solid half. Ehmer also looked a decent player as already mentioned, but sadly Michael Harriman at right back managed to get himself skinned by Sabah’s best outfield player, a lightning quick winger who could fortunately neither shoot or cross. This left our centre backs and goalkeeper with pretty much nothing to do all half although Murphy did transpire to gift Sabah an opportunity by horribly topping an attempted clearance and managing to scuff it only to the edge of the area. Fortunately, the Sabah player was so surprised that he was closed down before he could pull the trigger.
And so to the second half where a hyper-attacking team-sheet read: Cerny, Fabio (right back), Onuoha, Connolly, Traoré (left back), Mackie (right), Taarabt, Ephraim, Bothroyd (left), Cissé and Helguson. With this line-up, and my expectation that the Malaysian team would quickly tire, I took the 5-0 end result in the sweepstake around me and was not disappointed even though my predictions are normally as shonky as Clive’s. In truth, had the boys moved beyond third gear, it could have been a lot more.
Everyone in this line up seemed keen to prove a point. As per the first half, the back four had little to do. Onouha and Connolly, especially, had a very quiet night. Cerny had to make one save near the end which he dealt with well but was otherwise untroubled. Watching the full backs was fun though. As mentioned earlier, the Sabah left winger had a turn of pace on him and had caused Harriman some trouble in the first half. In the second though, he was up against Fabio, supposedly out of position at right back, but awesome in both defence and attack nonetheless. The winger tried his push and run trick on the Brazilian a couple of times and was nonchalantly outpaced and outmuscled each time. And when Fabio went forward, his crossing was sublime too. We may only have him for a year, but he looks the dog’s bollocks to me.
On the other flank, Armand, resplendent with his new yellow hair, was on fire in attack too. In fact it was only a combination of wonderful keeping and mistimed heading/positioning that prevented more goals delivered from the flanks. Unfortunately, Armand had also decided that he could dribble his way out of any defensive situation and was badly caught out on at least two occasions. Still at least it gave Matt and Nedum something to do.
And so to the midfield. Adel looked sharp and fit, and increasingly showboated as proceedings unwound. One trick on the right hand flank left two opposing players mouthing a Joe Allen “oh fuck” and was worth the admission money by itself. Taraabt was subsequently kicked after nutmegging an opponent one time too many towards the end of the match with shades of the Stan Bowles-Willie Donachie apocryphal story. I hope he will be OK but I would have done the same if I had been playing against him. More importantly, he was running around demanding the ball, and playing simple passes when required instead of trying to pick the match-winning ball on every occasion. Having now signed an extended contract, we all hope that this is the year he becomes a truly class Premiership player.
Alongside him, Hogan was equally creative and neat as ever. I have to admit to having a soft spot for Ephraim who comes across as being an extremely thoughtful and dedicated professional. He has a tendency to be bullied by more aggressive teams but against lesser opposition – shades of Akos Buszaky who I was sad but not unsurprised to see go this week; thanks for everything Akos – he perhaps lacks the pace and physicality to flourish. He could still do well as a player in a “nasty” midfield, but a bit like SWP, I suspect not with us in the medium term.
As for our wide players, Mackie gave his all as ever and, like Diakité in the first half, his ground coverage was exceptional. Bothroyd, meanwhile, seemed as lethargic as always but his well-taken goal was a direct result of him putting himself about resulting in space opening up for him and a neat finish into the corner. A bad and easier miss after just reinforced the frustration he produces.
Further forward, Helguson, like Zamora, got his goal but did little otherwise. To try to be fair to the two of them, QPR generally concentrated on playing their way through the defence rather than knocking long balls to a hold-up man, so neither had a chance to really shine. As a purist, I hope we do this successfully all season. Cissé, by contrast, was a joy to watch, all swagger and an almost binary ability to switch things on and off. For half the time he was walking around watching surroundings. Then the on-switch would be flicked and the pace and guile revealed. It is always easy to award man-of-the-match awards to the forward who scores, and I would probably have given it to Samba, but you can understand why he was given the nod and didn’t the crowd love it. As with Diakité, keep him on the pitch and we have our best centre forward since Sir Les.
So in summary, this was a decent warm up against a rather poor opposition. The next two matches should provide rather stiffer tests but nothing that will be particularly hard to surmount. In the interim, the body language on the pitch and the general fitness levels look good, and from the point of keeping our owners engaged, the building of local interest continues apace. Those of us lucky enough to have cut our Rangers teeth from the early 1970s feel for those of you whose formative years were more Morrow, Rehman and Ready, rather than Bowles, Thomas and Ferdinand. Dare not say it out loud, but we look like we have the nucleus here of an extremely exciting team. QPR Boleh as they say in this neck of the woods.
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