Rangers set up Loftus Road one-off with cagey first leg – report
Sunday, 11th May 2014 12:24 by Clive Whittingham
Queens Park Rangers held Wigan to a 0-0 draw in the away leg of their play-off semi final on Friday night, to set up a one-off cup tie at Loftus Road on Monday.
In theory, Harry Redknapp was right.
“We’ll give it a go” he said before Friday night’s game with Wigan. QPR haven’t really been ones for “giving it a go” this season, happy instead to hold onto the ball on the halfway line and wait for either Charlie Austin to do something special, or the opposition to make a mistake. Was that about to change now the monotony of a 46 game league campaign has been replaced by the pulsating, do or die play-off situation?
The team selection suggested something different was afoot. QPR played 4-4-2, not a formation they’ve used much this season or looked terribly comfortable with when they have. Armand Traore and Junior Hoilett started as out and out wingers with Ravel Morrison pushed up alongside Austin in attack. Gary O’Neil was a surprise selection next to Joey Barton in midfield – no Little Tom Carroll and his little sideways passes, no Karl ‘The Destroyer’ Henry to protect the back four. “An open team, a team far more open than many of my coaching staff thought I should pick, a team to try and win the game,” said Redknapp afterwards.
And then the football started. By accident or design, this was a team sent out to get a goalless draw from the first leg of the semi-final.
QPR’s record against the top six sides in the Championship this season is poor and certainly doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in the chances of progressing through this end of season knock-out into the land of television riches and £52 tickets to stand in that lousy away end at Upton Park. Should the R’s make the final at Wembley they’ll face either Derby or Brighton who they failed to score against in three of the four regular season meetings this season, winning one and taking just a single point from the other three.
What they have shown though is an ability to keep a Wigan side that was itself relegated from the Premier League last season and possesses a decent array of attacking talent – the club’s player of the year Jordi Gomez is too good for this league and Manchester United loanee Nick Powell soon will be – scoreless. The goalless draw on this ground in the league before Christmas was one of the worst football matches ever played in the history of the sport and then at Loftus Road a combination of spirited defence, excellent Rob Green goalkeeping and a wonderfully worked Yossi Benayoun goal sealed a 1-0 win for Redknapp’s side.
Since Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks successfully lobbied his FA board colleagues for a rule change after the Tractor Boys kept falling victim to away goals in the play-offs there’s been no incentive for the away team in the first leg to do anything other than draw the game, reducing the tie to a one-off match on their own ground in the second leg. Loftus Road, as Oldham Athletic will testify to, can rock for play-off games, in stark contrast to a sparsely populated DW Stadium where the majority of the noise was made by the 3,500 QPR fans behind the goal. QPR’s mission was clearly to frustrate rather than compete.
In the first 45 minutes Rangers barely got out of their half. The defence sits deep at the best of times when Richard Dunne is selected, worried about the Irishman being caught on the turn, but here they were so far back it almost seemed unfair that they hadn’t been charged for tickets on the front row of the stand behind them.
Wigan’s tactics to break down this rearguard effort came in two forms. Firstly, they targeted right back Danny Simpson with long diagonal balls from right to left, isolating the former Newcastle man in one on one defensive situations and pinning him back in his own half to prevet him getting forward and supporting Armand Traore ahead of him in attack. With Clint Hill and his cement-mixer ankle selected at left back it mean Rangers had zero go-forward from the full back positions, which in turn made Harry’s two wingers less effective and easier to defend against, and starved Austin and Morrison of any service at all. One particularly hairy moment for Simpson saw Gomez bring a ball down on his chest in the penalty area afater the QPR man had become disorientated under the flight of the ball, but when the Spaniard unleashed a volley at goal from an acute angle Rob Green stood tall and saved well. At the other end Morrison saw none of the ball, and Austin could only win the occasional header.
The second very obvious instruction from Wigan’s highly rated manager Uwe Rosler was much more rudimentary, and far less admirable. The Latics were obviously sent out to rough up their visitors, particularly the more temperamental, egotistical members of the QPR squad, and see if they really had the stomach for a play-off.
Callum McManaman, who we’re frequently told is “not that sort of player” but who somehow never seems to waste an opportunity to leave an opponent’s leg hanging by its nerve endings launched an eleventh minute hack on Danny Simpson that most referees would have shown an immediate red card for. Mike Jones, dropped down from the Premier League especially for the occasion, didn’t even give a free kick.
The feeling of injustice about that only grew when, ten minutes later, Dunne was caught too high up the field and having been turned by McManaman launched a desperate lunging tackle to deny him a clear run into the penalty area. Unusually for Dunne, he actually executed it well, taking the ball cleanly, and the linesman agreed with that verdict from a distance of two yards away. Jones, from the middle of the pitch, raced across to award a free kick and a yellow card.
Shaun Maloney dived into another bad tackle on Simpson – free kick, no yellow card. James McArthur halted Armand Traore’s run with a forearm to the throat – free kick, no yellow card. When Wigan whipped an early corner over to the back post Clint Hill inexplicably ran towards home defender Rob Kiernan at the near post and elbowed him straight in the back of the head – no penalty awarded. Jones, who was presumably sent down from the top flight because his extra experience of big, pressure matches means he’s able to keep control of such occasions, was fast losing his grip on proceedings.
In the end he could ignore it no longer. McManaman (not that sort of player) cracked into Simpson again and then McArthur came across and nailed Gary O’Neil a split second later. Both players were, finally, yellow carded and had the game been refereed properly it would have been a second booking for both. Moments later Gary Caldwell saw Junior Hoilett making a run off the ball and deliberately stepped across his line and left a shoulder on him. Another booking. Plenty of needle to take from this to the second leg.
Chances were few and far between amongst the violent attacks. Armand Traore will perhaps reflect that he should have done better with a header from a Junior Hoilett cross that was begging to be guided over goalkeeper Scott Carson and into the far corner but which he got horribly wrong. O’Neil saw a shot blocked after excellent hold up and lay play from Charlie Austin. But that, and the Gomez shot, really was it from 45 minutes of football. “A slow burner,” said Sky’s Simon Thomas at half time. In truth it was absolute crap.
QPR were much, much better in the second half – ten yards further up the pitch, much keener to affect the game rather than simply watch it take place in front of them, far more intelligent with the possession they had, and showing slightly more attacking ambition. The improvements seemed to catch Wigan cold initially and Carson had to get down smartly to his left and save a shot on the turn from Traore.
But the hosts were soon on the offensive again. Shaun Maloney, who curled in a spectacular 20 yard free kick in the very last second of a league meeting between these sides at Loftus Road last season to equalise and effectively condemn QPR to relegation, could only find the wall with a shot from a similar distance here after a dumb foul by Richard Dunne on Wigan’s lone striker Marc-Antoine Fortuné.
The presence of Fortuné in attack surprised me almost as much as Harry Redknapp’s team selection. Nick Powell, so impressive at Loftus Road in March, has been suffering with tonsillitis but one would have thought – without seeing a good deal of Wigan this season – that either Martyn Waghorn or Nicky Maynard would have carried greater threat than Fortuné who has scored just five times in 21 starts and 28 sub appearances this season. Twice jean Bausejour delivered world class quality crosses right through the heart of the QPR penalty area from the left back position with no Wigan striker anywhere close to getting a killer touch.
No doubt I’m condemning QPR to a second leg defeat to a Fortuné goal by saying this but Nedum Onuoha needn’t have changed out of his club suit for this particular individual battle and the Wigan man rather summed up his performance by missing the chance of the match on the hour – a goalmouth scramble from a well flighted corner fell his way at the back post but he skied the sitter hopelessly over the bar.
Rosler, perhaps recognising his mistake, brought Maynard and Waghorn on for Fortuné and McManaman soon after. Redknapp added Kevin Doyle to his attack instead of Armand Traore and soon replaced the ineffective Ravel Morrison with Niko Kranjcar as well.
The changes did nothing to change the pattern of the game. The needle continued – Shaun Maloney tossing his carcass to the ground and writhing around in apparent agony after what the replays showed to be zero contact at all from QPR midfielder Joey Barton. Credit to Mike Jones for not falling for that pathetic pantomime routine. And chances remained at a premium – O’Neil smacked a 20 yarder hopelessly over the bar after the best QPR move of the second half. Wigan looked like a team that realised a number was being done on them, and ran out of ideas to combat that approach as the second half wore on. A goalless draw looked certain a long time before the final whistle and so it proved.
The question now is, having once again proved their ability to kill a football match and hold an opponent scoreless – QPR kept 17 clean sheets in the regular league season – do they have it within them to be more positive, more attacking, and force the issue at Loftus Road, particularly if Wigan happen to score first? Don’t rule out extra time. Bring a spare pair of penalty pants.
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Wigan: Carson 6; Kiernan 6, Caldwell 6, Boyce 6, Bausejour 7; Perch 7, McArthur 6, Gomez 6, Maloney 6, McManaman 6 (Maynard 76, 6); Fortuné 4 (Waghorn 76, 6)
Subs not used: McClean, Espinoza, Barnett, Al-Habsi, Collison
Bookings: McArthur 23 (repetitive fouling), McManaman 23 (repetitive fouling), Caldwell 32 (foul)
QPR: Green 6; Simpson 6, Onuoha 8, Dunne 5, Hill 6; Traore 6 (Doyle 70, 6), O’Neil 6, Barton 6, Hoilett 6 (Suk-Young 88, -); Morrison 5 (Kranjcar 78, 6), Austin 6
Subs not used: Carroll, Hughes, Henry, Murphy
Bookings: Dunne 22 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Nedum Onuoha 8 Arguably the form player in the QPR team and although his selection moves Clint Hill away from his favoured centre back spot (because Redknapp cannot possibly, ever drop Richard Dunne of course) we saw the value of his inclusion here with a calm, composed, muscular centre half performance which nullified the threat of all three strikers Wigan tried against him and gave QPR an excellent chance of keeping a clean sheet.
Referee – Mike Jones (Cheshire) 5 Needed to recognise much, much sooner that one of Wigan’s prime tactics was to rough up certain temperamental QPR players and see if they could provoke a reaction and clamp down on it. McManaman and McArthur were essentially given a free swing each at Danny Simpson and Armand Traore when both fouls were worthy of a yellow card and, arguably, McManaman’s a red. That meant they were free to do so again, and both were later booked for equally nasty tackles on Simpson and O’Neil. Also missed a blatant Wigan penalty for an elbow by Clint Hill in the first half. Not his finest night.
Attendance – 14,560 (3,500 QPR approximately) A disappointingly large number of empty seats for a play-off semi final, but perhaps after five recent trips to Wembley, and 61 matches this season, perhaps the economics of so much football have caught up with the home support. Creditable following from West London on a Friday night with less than a week’s notice to book tickets, and a terrific noise from the away end all night. The prospect of Loftus Road in full voice on Monday night is a mouth watering one.
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