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Sublime Kranjcar ensures unhappy return for Hughes – report
Sunday, 21st Sep 2014 22:59 by Clive Whittingham

A wonderful late free kick from Niko Kranjcar, crowning a mesmeric personal performance, won QPR a point they scarcely deserved from a controversial match against Mark Hughes’ Stoke City on Saturday.

The QPR fans came to bury Mark Hughes, but left Loftus Road thankful to Niko Kranjcar for a virtuoso display and goal which spared the London side the ignominy of defeat to the Welshman on his first return to the club.

Rangers have been relegated, promoted, and turned over more than two dozen players since Hughes was handed a cardboard box and told to clear his desk after a disastrous spell at Loftus Road just under two years ago. But he’ll have recognised a few traits in this new-look Rangers team from his shambolic ten months with the club which didn’t include a single away victory.

The R’s, on this evidence, are still a collection of individuals, doing their own thing, rather than a team with a cohesive structure and plan. The way Leicester City romped to the Championship title last season meant they knew what division they would be playing in this season long before QPR did, and were able to plan accordingly, but the difference in attitude, fitness and structure between the Foxes and Harry Redknapp’s side is there for all to see. Nigel Pearson’s team beat Manchester United 5-3 today having trailed 3-1 in the second half – last week Rangers surrendered meekly against the same opponents and lost 4-0 in a fixture Redknapp described as a “bonus game”.

A week later, and QPR still looked like a bit of a rabble at home to Stoke City. Redknapp spent the summer preparing to play with three centre halves and wing backs only to abandon that just two matches into the season. It’s done his team few favours. For a start the midfield is a collection of players – Jordon Mutch, Niko Kranjcar and Leroy Fer with Eduardo Vargas ahead of them for the first time on Saturday – who would all ideally like to play in the number ten role behind Charlie Austin. Against Stoke they lined up in a diamond with Joey Barton at the base, but their collective lack of defensive instinct or willingness to track back left the home side hopelessly exposed on the counter attack. Stoke scored twice and should have had several ore. Only they will know how they failed to win the game.

Chilean international Mauricio Isla has made his name as a right wing back, and so confident were Rangers in not only his ability on the field but also his capability to settle in a new country off it, and of course sign permanently at the end of his loan spell next summer, that they allowed previous right back Danny Simpson to leave the club. Now pressed into service as a conventional full back, Isla had a nightmarish afternoon here at the hands of Victor Moses and was culpable for both Stoke goals.

First Isla stood off the former Wigan and Liverpool winger, on loan at the Britannia Stadium from Chelsea, and then bought a dummy to such an extent that he was closer to Holland Park tube station than Loftus Road by the time Moses stood the ball up for former R Peter Crouch to head down and the recalled Mame Biram Diouf converted from close range.

Then, in the second half, admittedly placed in a difficult situation tight to the touchline by a poor pass from substitute Matt Phillips, he attempted an ambitious back heel that conceded possession in a bad area and allowed Moses to cross once more for Crouch who this time finished crisply himself.

Crouch is likely to return to Loftus Road to finish his career where it started in the January transfer window with his Stoke contract coming to a conclusion – 34 he may be but on this evidence still a highly effective Premier League striker. Rio Ferdinand failed to cope with him all afternoon.

The sale of Simpson didn’t look to make a lot of sense even when Rangers were lining up in a 3-5-2 which seemed to suit Isla down to the ground. It looks like a bloody catastrophe now.

The appalling job Mark Hughes did at Loftus Road should have precluded him from landing on his feet at such a well settled, set up and stocked club as Stoke City. Tony Pulis may be gone, and the football is easier on the eye, but this is still a big, athletic, aggressive opponent to face. Against physical, pacy players like Steven Nzoni, Moses and Diouf QPR looked sluggish and unfit.

Redknapp gambled on the fitness of Joey Barton and Jordon Mutch who both came into the game nursing hamstring injuries and neither got close to making it through 90 minutes. The enforced introductions of Phillips and Karl Henry did little to help the cohesion of the team, and a quiet, disgruntled home crowd grew increasingly frustrated with the amount of times Ferdinand and centre half partner Steven Caulker stood with the ball at feet, looking forward for options and finding no movement ahead of them. Henry though, it should be said, did a very decent job as a holding midfielder after his introduction.

Stoke took the lead for the first time after ten minutes and little more than 60 seconds later Moses was toasting Isla and running clear at Caulker once more, this time shooting low at Robert Green. Before the half hour Peter Crouch took a turn to accelerate into the wide open spaces between QPR’s defence and midfield and poked a shot a fraction wide from the edge of the area with Green beaten.

The match notes simply read “no pace, no movement, no shape” at that point. At one stage Joey Barton looked up to move the ball forward in broken play and found four of his team mates crowding the left wing position. On another, before his hamstring gave up while chasing Crouch back, Barton followed a Charlie Austin shot that deflected over with a pathetic, ego-driven short corner routine that saw him lose the ball and set up another counter attack for the visiting team. When Rangers are playing this poorly, and refusing to get men into the penalty box in open play, they can’t afford to turn down chances to cross the ball into the area from set pieces on a Joey Barton whim.

After half time Vargas reached the byline only to find no hooped shirts had been able to keep up with him, so he had to look 30 yards back down the field to complete a pass. When that move subsequently broke down another speedy Stoke counter attack ended with Nzonzi firing wide when he should have at least hit the target. Rangers were all over the place. Rio Ferdinand particularly poor by his personal standards – off the pace, totally dominated by Crouch, regularly three yards deeper than the rest of the back four busting any attempts at a successful offside trap. Different surnames and Nedum Onuoha would surely be recalled alongside Caulker for the trip to Southampton next week.

And yet…

QPR had enough about them, and the required spirit, to come through a difficult game against a decent side that finished ninth in the league last season and win a point. Despite the lack of fitness, shape, movement, coherence and losing two of the four starting midfielders to injury, the R’s found a way to get a point from the game. For that they deserve huge credit. Hughes’ QPR team would have folded to a 4-0 loss over long before the final whistle.

Three minutes before half time Rangers equalised for the first time – Steven Caulker escaping the clutches of Ryan Shawcross at a Jordon Mutch corner to head powerfully past goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and into the net via Peter Crouch’s outstretched boot.

Caulker was everything Ferdinand was not – passionate, on his toes, rugged, uncompromising, and impressive. He and Leroy Fer at least look like they care about playing well for their new club – far from a given with new QPR signings over the past few years – although Fer constantly allowing runners to bomb past him unmarked is going to cost Rangers plenty of goals this season if it continues.

A purposeful run and cross from Matt Phillips at the start of the second half, just out of Charlie Austin’s reach, suggested there would be more to come, but increasingly QPR looked to Niko Kranjcar for their inspiration and creativity. The Croatian international missed the top corner by inches with an outrageous 35 yarder in the first half and spent the second period tormenting Stoke around the edge of the box, dragging one wide with his right foot and another with his left.

The visitors soon cottoned onto Kranjcar’s threat and decided to try and kick him out of the game. Shawcross’ vile hack through the back of the QPR man’s standing leg seven minutes from the end was disgusting, and worthy of far more than the yellow card shown by referee Martin Atkinson. Kranjcar was fortunate to get up from that one with his legs still attached and then just three minutes later he was chopped down again, this time by Steven Sidwell who’d come on for Charlie Adam with 20 minutes left for play to fill the hatchet-man role he’d previously performed on this ground for Fulham against Adel Taarabt. This time the foul was within shooting range though, and Kranjcar dusted himself down to deliver a sumptuous free kick plum into the top corner, beating the tallest wall you’re ever likely to see in this league and a fine goalkeeper in Begovic into the bargain.

Kranjcar was worth the entrance fee alone and carried many of his team mates. One couldn’t help but wonder how much easier QPR would have found the Championship last season if he’d turned up in this physical shape, and this mood, every week in the second tier, rather than the fat, sluggish mess that had most Rangers fans unsure whether re-signing him really was the best idea this summer. No doubt about the merits of his addition on this evidence, he was superb.

So the Super Hoops got out of jail then? Well, to some extent, yes. Especially considering that had the people’s champion Joey Barton still been on the field then the corner for the first goal and the free kick for the second almost certainly would have been taken by him, and no doubt planted crisply onto the forehead of the nearest Stoke City player. But then on another day, with another referee, Rangers would have won this fixture with penalty kicks alone.

Martin Atkinson is not an official either QPR or Stoke have a particularly happy history with – he was the referee for the Clint Hill goal that never was at Bolton, while last season he sent two Stoke players and their manager off in a farcical 5-1 loss at Newcastle United. But this doesn’t mean that Martin Atkinson has anything against either QPR or Stoke, it just means he’s a piss poor referee, and has been for some time.

The main bone of contention was Ryan Shawcross’ behaviour at set pieces: eyes only for Steven Caulker, right in front of the referee, with both arms wrapped around the QPR man, wrestling him out of contention. QPR complained bitterly to Atkinson before, during and after every set piece. The referee stood and looked and saw it go on and did nothing. This isn’t an interpretation of the laws, it’s just the laws not being applied correctly. When free kicks were awarded he marched the wall back ten yards, then regressed a couple of steps and put the sprayed white line down seven yards away from the ball. The game became a farce, entirely perpetuated by a referee completely out of his depth. It would have been laughable had it not been so frustrating.

Shawcross should have seen red for his smash on Kranjcar, but only received the same punishment as Leroy Fer who was booked for complaining about the severity of the tackle, and Erik Pieters on the stroke of half time – incredibly harshly – for handling a bouncing ball while attempting to attack down the left wing.

Even the first Stoke goal would have been disallowed on another day for Crouch’s obvious climb on Ferdinand’s shoulders – although the QPR man is good enough and experienced enough not to position himself so poorly in those situations.

He’s an official who in a decade in the middle has, miraculously, gained no feel for the sport whatsoever. A dreadful referee, refereeing dreadfully.

So what to think? QPR slip into the bottom three, with the league’s worst goal difference, and not a single goal scored from open play in six league and cup games. Two of the headline acquisitions of the summer are playing poorly, two of the team’s key midfielders have hamstring injuries and another – Sandro – wasn’t fit even for the bench here. The team lacks fitness, the shape and formation changes every week.

But the spirit is there. And the ability – as Kranjcar showed in this game and Fer in the home match before. QPR have played Hull, Sunderland and Stoke at home and taken four points which could easily have been nine. They will get fitter, and surely more organised, and are picking up points regardless of poor performances in the meantime, which can only bode well.

4This bizarre, drifting quality to QPR has been prevalent since Harry Redknapp arrived at the club. The shape of the team and the personnel change every week, the fitness is lacking, and it’s hard to say for certain whether they’re a good team yet to get up to speed, or just a poor side full stop. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be resolved any time soon.

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QPR: Green 6; Isla 4, Caulker 7, Ferdinand 5, Traore 6; Barton 5 (Phillips 34, 6), Mutch 6 (Henry 50, 7), Fer 6, Kranjcar 8; Vargas 6 (Zamora 70, 5), Austin 6

Subs not used: McCarthy, Onuoha, Dunne, Hoilett

Goals: Crouch og 42 (assisted Mutch/Caulker), Kranjcar 86 (free kick, won Kranjcar)

Yellow cards: Traore 73 (foul), Fer 84 (dissent)

Stoke: Begovic 6; Bardsley 6, Shawcross 6, Wilson 6, Pieters 6; Whelen 6, Adam 6 (Sidwell 70, 5), Nzonzi 7, Moses 8 (Arnautovic 79, 6); Crouch 8, Diouf 7

Subs not used: Huth, Muniesa, Assaidi, Bojan, Sorensen

Goals: Diouf 10 (assisted Moses/Crouch), Crouch 50 (assisted Moses)

Bookings: Pieters 45 (handball), Diouf 80 (foul), Shawcross 83 (foul), Sidwell 87 (foul)

QPR Star Man – Niko Kranjcar 8 By a country mile. A beautiful equaliser to win a point, and not far away from a world class goal in open play in the first half. Looks far slimmer and fitter than he did last season and twice as effective as a result. Probably needs to play further up the field, behind the strikers, although QPR certainly aren’t short of players for that role.

Referee – Martin Atkinson 3 (West Yorkshire) Failed to apply the laws of the game correctly, turning the scene underneath QPR corners into a farce. Failed to ensure the safety of the players, allowing a late hack-a-thon against Niko Kranjcar to go relatively unpunished given the seriousness of the fouls – a more competent referee would have awarded penalties against Shawcross on several occasions, and sent him off for a disgraceful lunge on the Croatian midfielder. The kind of performance we’re coming to expect from a referee who is rated as one of the league’s best, but for me has been abject for several years now. Pathetic, unprofessional, at times dangerous mishandling of a reasonably easy fixture.

Attendance – 16, 163 (600 Stoke approx) The lunchtime kick offs are always terrible for the atmosphere at Loftus Road, and this one was worse than normal. A tiny away following, and poor performance on the pitch didn’t help, but for me the big problem was the Lower Loft. Back in the Premier League following a dramatic win at Wembley, playing only the third home game of the season, in decent weather, on a Saturday. with Mark Hughes back for the first time – the place should be packed and jumping. Instead, the Lower Loft had dozens of empty seats, with many supporters stuck outside until well after kick off, and several turned away altogether by several accounts, thanks to the heavy-handed application of the draconian rules the club is enforcing to try and press through its policy of having the part of the ground where the most vociferous support used to gather rebadged and used as some sort of crèche. The idea behind Phil Beard’s controversial plan is to build QPR support for the future, but how alienating existing fans, turning them away at the turnstiles despite possession of fully paid for tickets, destroying the atmosphere at home games, and having scores of empty seats right behind the goal for the players and TV viewers to see is doing that is beyond me. QPR supporters are treated badly enough at away matches, without having this sort of hassle at home fixtures as well. You have to question whether somebody forcing this down supporters’ throats in this way really has the foggiest idea about the sport in this country, and the club that we’ve all supported long before he was here and will do so long after he’s gone. An urgent rethink required.

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westsurreyR added 23:43 - Sep 21
My first visit to Loftus Rd this season, and it looked alarmingly like some of the Hughes era matches to me. The 3-2 defeat to Reading in the League Cup particularly comes to mind. A mediocre team with plenty of pace made it look like a fox had got into the Rangers hen-house with every counter attack.

A great free-kick from Nico saved the day. But as he said himself in his post match interview, the quality of football needs a lot of improvement.

Maybe as you say we had too many natural number 10s and no holding midfield players (until Henry came on). But certainly that type of performance won't help us out of the bottom 3.

Oh - and I liked your piece in the programme about clapping former players. I always clap former players unless they have done something pretty inexcusable. I remember being in the Loft when Phil Parkes first came back with West Ham. That was the first time I experienced a former player getting warm applause and it had a great effect on me. Maybe that's why I still like doing it today.
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PunteR added 00:18 - Sep 22
16000 in attendance is very poor for a premier league club,it has to be said.Turning away fans is just insane.
Cheers for the report Clive,I'm sure you must be nursing a sore head after hitting the big 3-0.
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AussieRs added 00:28 - Sep 22
Thanks Clive for your report. Your comparison with Leicester very appropriate. Fact is, having now watched many Prem League games played this season, I am yet to see a team move the ball with less speed and precision than Rangers. I am worried. Harry has now made it clear he doesn't think the Rs have enough quality up front but to me, this applies pretty much across the board, though agree that Caulker looks very good. And when you see the speed and quality of the good teams, it is just frightening. Could be a long season unless things lift appreciably.

ps. Great to see Niko respond to my criticism of last week so superbly :)
Wonderful goal. Shawcross butcher.
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HastingsRanger added 00:47 - Sep 22
As always, agree with a lot you've said here. I cannot see how their first goal could stand, as it was a blatant climb from Crouch. And the clear manhandling that wasn't refereed gave Stoke some advantage. I am probably the only one but I think a draw was fair. But right now draw just isn't enough for morale.

Isla gave the worst full back performance I have seen in years - at this point, he is a liability. What is the situation with Harriman? The centre backs lack of pace is scary, this is going to cost us too.

I thought Barton in midfield was excellent until his bad decision, which was soon followed by the hamstring. With Much going as well it leaves me worried about strength in depth in midfield.

Vargas did a lot right but never got fed the ball - back to a team not knowing each other here. Really don't understand the substitution of Zamora for Vargas, surely it should have been Austin, who on the day looked ponderous in movement and decision making.

There were positives though - Traore turned in a solid performance and the midfield looked like they had a goal in them going forward (until most of them got broken). Kranjcar was superb in his work rate and contribution, regardless of the super strike. Henry is a basic player but surprised me by doing his job.

Thing is, the Premiership is all over the place at the moment, good teams in disarray, just we are in greater disarray at the minute and missed points and rubbish goal difference this could cost us dear. Another long season?


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Match82 added 01:09 - Sep 22
Can't argue with that Clive, nailed it.
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062259 added 03:56 - Sep 22
A very ominous set of results this weekend. West Brom win 1-0 at Spurs where we were crushed and embarrassed. Leicester maul Man United's Gaalacticos where we were supine and respectful. Palace win at Goodison, scoring another three goals on the road. Where is Ranger's eye-catching performance going to come from? Next Saturday at Southampton? I'm already struggling to think of three teams we'll finish above. Burnley has to be one of them, otherwise we can all go home. Then who? Newcastle? Sunderland? Leicester? Palace? Someone help me....

And as for 'arry's well-documented two-year contract extension that he just hasn't got around to signing. What's that about? Oldest manager in the game, and it shows......

Tony's got a lot on his plate.
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probbo added 08:31 - Sep 22
Thanks for the report Clive. I can't imagine that Rio will start every match this season given his age etc but I'm wondering if Redknapp guaranteed him a first team spot when he signed on. He's shown very little so far and its very galling for Onuoha.

The main positives are Kranjcar and Traore - we've been lacking a bit of creativity in midfield for ages and hopefully these two will start to fill that void a bit although more work is needed linking up play with the forwards.

Overall though this was surely one of our 'must win' games. Yes its still very early days but on current play and looking at most of the other teams in the Prem suggests a long season looms.

Just as an aside, I have to say well done to Leicester for their win yesterday. Just goes to show what a detailed analysis by management and squad of the opposition, their perceived weaknesses and putting out a team to exploit them can yield. Even when they were 3-1 down their players fought for everything and never gave up.
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ngbqpr added 09:07 - Sep 22
Hastings I actually agree we deserved the draw. I was at work Saturday so watched the match 'as live' at tea time, knowing the score bit nothing else at all (ie not been on here or read any media reports). We looked very ropey at the back, and we didn't create as many clear chances as them, but I saw promise in other areas, especially given the disruption to the midfield before and during the game.

Having said that...I agree with 062259 - others picking up the sort of results you struggle to see us getting is a worry. In terms of trying to think of teams who may finish below us, the straws I was clutching at were Burnley, WBA & Palace - then two of them go & pick up away wins at top 7 clubs!

Also agree with Clive that it seems Harry's tombola approach has returned in terms of personnel & formation which is a worry - tho of course H will say it's about players not formations,

But...there are definite signs of team spirit, which IS a straw to clutch at
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wrinklyhoop added 09:42 - Sep 22
Thanks for the report Clive, interesting stuff as always. Still early days, but starting to fear for our survival if we can't improve on that display. At least Niko is worth the entrance money! Nothing much to add, but agree with somebody above who was surprised BZ replaced Vargas - would have thought it should have been Charlie getting the hook, and it would have been interesting to see how well Bobby and Vargas could combine.
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GloryHunter added 10:36 - Sep 22
Back heel.
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adhoc_qpr added 10:58 - Sep 22
Happy enough with the point given the poor performance (and any point is a good one in a relegation battle).

While normally sacking the manager is just a sticky plaster attempting to cover up a host of problems - i honestly feel that if we had a proper manager and coaching staff in place we have the players to do well in this league.

Last time in the prem under Redknapp we just gave up, then we sleepwalked through the Championship after throwing cash at it without ever putting in a decent performance and now again we look a shapeless, unfit rabble thrown together with no coherent plan!

I never thought Tony Pulis would look an appealing prospect, but that is what Redknapp, Jordan and Bondy Bond have driven me too!

Still Redknapp it is - so let's hope that Hoddle can make a difference as i can't see who else will!
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stevec added 11:57 - Sep 22
A good and fair report.

As long as the team are giving there all, and they are, then we should stick right behind them and the management.
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Antti_Heinola added 13:51 - Sep 22
Thought Kranjcar played well, but was hardly sublime (although the FK certainly was - beautifully timed - he took it the millisecond that Begovic took two paces to his right, ensuring he'd get nowhere near it. But he was wasteful much of the time and his shooting until the free kick was as bad as last season - never hitting the target and always trying to hit it too hard instead of aiming the thing. too slow in possession too. But certainly man of the match, for us at least. 7/10.
Thought the stoke handball yellow was fair - it was deliberate handball, no accident about it, he stuck his hand out and hit it. That's an automatic yellow.
And hughes's team would not have capitulated to 4-0. The season he left, although we lost a lot, we only twice lost by more than a goal after the opening day debacle (which everyone forgets was for a long period a pretty exciting display from us) - away at Man City, and the his last game v Southampton. both of those were 3-1.
But enough history - credit to today's players to use Atkinson's decisions as a driving force to fight back into the game. Shame Redknapp can't get that same fight out of them from the start, really.
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tsbains64 added 16:02 - Sep 22
Good balanced report Chris. Agree that there is still potential for us to do well this season. It will take time for the team to gel and remember we had to wait until November before we picked up 4 points last time out
Shame Simpson was released-he would have been good competiton for Isla
Impressed with Nico -the slim line figure was the difference between us and defeat
What did everyone think of the MH boos-thoight they would be louder and more persistant. Henry put agood shift in
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RonisRs added 17:49 - Sep 22
5 home points out of 9 lost. we had 25 shots and 10 corners in our favour vs Stock .
I just wonder why we cant score goals.
the next 4 games are going to be tough. Sthmptn away, West Ham away, Pool at home, and then onto the probable league winners Chelsea.

I worry that we may not even get a point from that lot.

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terryb added 18:19 - Sep 22
Thanks Clive.

I hadn't realised that we were meant to be playing a diamond in the first half. I couldn't work out what the system was as we had four players all strolling around in the same ten yard circumference!
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TacticalR added 23:49 - Sep 22
In the first half I thought 'how come we can't get a cross in and yet we can't stop crosses?' We looked very vulnerable because Traoré is not a left-back and Isla was having a mare. However, we hung on and deserved a point because we were never completely out of the game.

Kranjčar. Great strike in the first half that whistled past the post, and a brilliant free kick to get us the point, plus he had to put up with outrageous fouls from Stoke players.

Fer. For some reason he has had a lot of criticism. He had to play more defensively than he did against Sunderland, and I'm not sure if that's his natural game. He was very good on the ball. The only weakness I saw was when he trying to pass a bit too far forward from defence through midfield and those passes were easily read and intercepted by the opposition.
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Jon_in_Oz added 02:44 - Sep 23
We need to improve quickly. I agree with the posters who have said that they are struggling to see 3 poorer teams than us based on the matches so far. It's obviously still early days. Perhaps Burnley, Newcastle and Sunderland? Whatever way you look at it we seem absolute certainties for the bottom 5 unless we can start playing much better football than we are currently. I'd like to think we could go to Southampton and get a point but you look at their results so far and ours and we are much more likely to get thumped. West Ham away we could get something if everyone gives 100% and fights for a result, Liverpool - hmm. Good in some ways to see them lose at West Ham but you would think Sterling is bound to score at LR. Let's hope Sandro is fit for Saturday with Mutch & Barton rushed back too soon so now likely to be out for at least 2 weeks you would think.
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westberksr added 10:03 - Sep 23
3 out of 10 for ref was very generous Clive; spot on with the summary though.

i'll put it down to you accidentally missing the 2 key and hitting the 3 instead!
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pedrosqpr added 19:17 - Sep 23
Before the match I thought Stoke would be a tough fixture because they are everything a counter attacking away from home should be, the only time I want to give credit to Mark smug Hughes.
Leroy Fer ,Steven Caulker and Nico are good signingsby Harry but as all my Spurs mates at work Harry hasn't clue about tactics sometimes.
Our home form will probably save us but southampton on saturday I shudder to think since they are a better team than Man U and Spurs .
By the way can someone help me with what exactly is Glenn Hoddle doing ? Why isn't Nedum doing on the bench could have tracked Moses saturday.
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