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.
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.
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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