Late farce sees QPR restore pride, but add no points, with spirited Liverpool show – report
Tuesday, 21st Oct 2014 11:11 by Clive Whittingham
QPR turned in their best performance of the season so far on Sunday, comprehensively outplaying Liverpool for long periods, only to master their own downfall with two farcical own goals.
A horrible, vile concoction of encouragement, optimism, hope, euphoria, devastation, euphoria again and ultimately crushing disappointment.
After a dire start to the season culminated in an abject display and defeat at West Ham prior to the international break, what a blessed relief it was to see QPR play in such a swashbuckling style, casting aside the shackles of budgets and squad strength to put Liverpool to the sword. How infuriating it is that it’s taken then eight games of the season to do it. How gut wrenching that at the end of it all, no points have been added to a meagre total of four so far this season. For it all, QPR remain dead last.
They came to Loftus Road on Sunday to bury Harry Redknapp. His steady stream of excuses, non-existent touchline presence, wild team selections, dull football and poor results had worn thin, culminating in the pathetic surrender at Upton Park a fortnight ago. Gentlemen of the press filled the role of the priest reading the last rights in the Friday build-up, driving the experienced manager to the point of distraction with questions about the pressure he was under, and whether Tim Sherwood would make a decent replacement for him. Redknapp, almost for the first time since he arrived at QPR, seemed rattled, angry, and interested.
Widespread changes were made to the starting 11. Redknapp’s go-to poster boy Rio Ferdinand was dropped to the bench in a long overdue move. Ferdinand would do well to cancel this week’s book signings and concentrate on the job he’s paid to do. Credit to the manager for having the balls to do it, although a cynic would suggest it only happened because his job was on the line. Nedum Onuoha, selected on the right of a narrow back four, showed why he should never have been dropped in the first place, comprehensively marking Adam Lallana out of the first half, physically dominating the £25m man, rendering him totally ineffective. He was terrific.
As was, on the other side, Yun Suk-Young. A man Redknapp has done everything possible not to pick since he arrived at the club. The South Korean went to the World Cup, and looked decent, but for some unfathomable reason has been unable to make the left back spot his own at QPR ahead of the terminally inconsistent Armand Traore, or ageing centre half Clint Hill. Here, finally given his bow, he was an obvious man of the match for the home team. Immaculate first touch, faultless use of the football when in possession, up and down like a bride’s nightie, positionally sound – excellent all round. Again, you didn’t know whether to be delighted for the lad, or frustrated that it’s taken this long for him to be given a chance.
Those two set the tone for a first half which QPR completely dominated and should have led 3-0 by the time referee Phil Dowd brought it to a close. The Hoops were on it, tackling hard, running strongly, working for each other - they were unrecognisable from the earlier games this season. Play like this for the rest of the season they’ll survive with plenty to spare – but there lies the rub.
Liverpool didn’t like it one bit. Steven Gerrard played in an advanced role in the first half but found his influenced crowded by Sandro and the excellent Karl Henry. With Lallana mauled by Onuoha it was left to Raheem Sterling to try and effect the game on his first return to Loftus Road since leaving the QPR youth set up for Liverpool three years ago. He found Suk-Young in undaunted mood and got little change.
It didn’t help the visitors’ cause that they effectively played with ten-men. Under-fire centre forward Mario Balotelli responding to external and internal criticism in the North West by turning in one of the worst striking performances seen on this ground since Brett Angell and Sammy Koejoe roamed the earth. Rarely has a player looked so disinterested in the game going on around him. Richard Dunne and Steven Caulker, paired together as a two man centre back combination for the first time this season, needn’t have changed out of their club suits, and as the game wore on the exasperation of the other Liverpool players with their £16m Italian grew. Jose Enrique, Jordan Henderson and Lallana all delivered volleys of abuse down the field at the non-plussed striker who responded by dragging long range shots miles wide of the target when there were better options for a pass. The more Dunne dominated him physically, the less interested Balotelli became. The less interested he became, the more encouragement it gave Dunne. Rodgers should have thrown a towel in and sent Rickie Lambert on after half an hour.
All it needed was for QPR to score, and with Liverpool’s defence creaking from the first minute that seemed a matter of when rather than if. The style was unashamedly direct; long towards veteran striker Bobby Zamora making a rare start and pinning the centre backs in position for fun. Charlie Ausin and Leroy Fer worked off him and both should have scored in the first half hour. First Austin bundled his way into clear space in the penalty area, drew a save from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, and then skewed the rebound into the side netting at full strength.
That built belief, and noise, inside Loftus Road, and a goal seemed certain to follow when Mauricio Isla, turning in by far and away his best performance in Hoops in a wide right midfield role, reached the byline and cut the ball back low, behind a defence that had been sucked into the six yard box, for Fer to stride onto unmarked and inexplicably sky onto the cross bar and over from point-blank range with the goal gaping. Only he will know how he contrived to miss. An absolute sitter.
Liverpool looked wholly uncomfortable with the entire situation. Later Mignolet, who mixed decent shot stopping with remedial decision making all afternoon, came for a routine cross only to allow Fer to get there first and nod towards the open goal. Somehow Liverpool kept the ball out, first via the cross bar, then with Glen Johnson executing a flying, two footed challenge into Sandro’s chest as he tried to convert on the line, and finally when Charlie Austin had his feet taken from underneath him by Mignolet with a sneaky glove. The ball rolled agonisingly along the line and was cleared away. No penalty was awarded.
You couldn’t help but feel the chance had gone. Liverpool couldn’t possibly be as bad again in the second half. Changes would surely follow. Steven Gerrard’s curled finish from ten yards out, round debutant goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, in for the allegedly ill Robert Green, and a fraction wide of the post right on half time felt like a marker for what was to come.
But problems started to surface for the home side at half time. Nedum Onuoha seemingly can’t catch a break at the moment, and he had to be withdrawn with a hamstring problem. That meant Isla had to drop back from the wide right role he’d been so effective in, to the right back one where he looks out of his depth in this league. Matt Philips was introduced ahead of him and remains in chronically bad form. Rangers were weakened, fatally as it turned out, down their right flank.
Worse was to follow. Sandro, the least durable Beast ever to carry the nickname, added a groin strain to his catalogue of injuries and also headed for the early bathwater, also to be inadequately replaced. The difference in ability, concentration and value to the team in Suk-Young and Armand Traore was seen almost immediately with the opening goal. Yes, Raheem Sterling dived to win a free kick, falling on the ball and picking it up. Yes, referee Phil Dowd should have strapped on a pair and penalised him for handball. No, Rangers didn’t get a damn thing from the referee all afternoon, a performance that whiffed of big-club bias from the first whistle. But to make any kind of challenge at all when Sterling had his back to goal was foolish of Traore, and to then stand and remonstrate instead of getting back in shape while Liverpool took a quick free kick was criminal. Still, only Richard Dunne will know how he contrived to turn the resulting low cross into his own net under no pressure inside the six yard box.
And it looked like that would be that. Zamora started to tire, as he does, and stopped winning the headers and knock downs. Charlie Austin disappeared from the game as a result – one side-footed shot from 20 yards brought a routine save from Mignolet but little else. Phillips huffed and puffed and did more harm than good down the right. Liverpool sent on Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen for Emre Can and Lallana and looked 1000% better immediately – a forthcoming Champions League tie with Real Madrid can be the only reason for them being left out in the first place, and Balotelli being left on for the duration. Alex McCarthy deserves credit for a wondrous, sprawling save to deny Coutinho but how Balotelli skied the rebound over the open goal only he and Leroy Fer will be able to explain.
Brave effort, 1-0 defeat, Villa game looming large next Monday.
Not so. Harry Redknapp came out fighting afterwards, telling the press that he’s seen the names being linked with his job and that “nobody could do a better job here than me”, while throwing in some unnecessary abuse of “overweight” and “lazy” Adel Taarabt into the bargain. But, for once, there was also some proactive management and aggressive tactics during the game as well. Redknapp chucked on Chilean striker Eduardo Vargas for Zamora and Rangers came alive once more. They pinned Liverpool back, making an ordinary back four look exactly that, and set sail in search of a deserved equaliser. Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtl both saw yellow for bad fouls, Coutinho for delaying the taking of a free kick. The chances missed earlier gave the distinct impression it wasn’t to be their day, but Liverpool were rocking and Vargas added a pace and movement not previously seen in Hoops this season. With four minutes left for play the substitute crafted a clever equaliser.
Picking the ball up on the right corner of the area during a sustained period of pressure, he curled a cross to the back post with the outside of his right boot where, after a flick on, Austin was able to guide the ball expertly back across the goal, taking Mignolet out of the game, and leaving Vargas to finish emphatically from close range as reward for a positive run when the defenders around him had stopped. Loftus Road erupted. Redknapp celebrated like never before. A deserved reprieve.
And you sensed there was more to come. Liverpool had looked wholly uncomfortable with everything QPR had thrown at them all afternoon, and now they were in a full blown panic. If you can’t cope with the distinctly Championship style of Zamora and Austin then the genuine talent of Vargas is going to terrify in this mood. The Chilean, a pugnacious, muscular ball of testosterone and goal threat, looked set to steal in for a second identical to his first until Skrtl thrust out a desperate leg and diverted the ball away from his head at the far post.
But Liverpool didn’t go close to a league title last season for nothing, and QPR aren’t bottom of the table by accident either. Raheem Sterling, who’d spent most of the day frustrated, or prostrate on the ground, came to life in an extraordinary final five minutes of the game. Given that Enrique had been allowed to deliberately pull back Isla without a yellow card in the first half, and Balotelli was allowed to obstruct Alex McCarthy’s kick in the second without further recourse, Karl Henry could consider himself unlucky to be booked by Dowd for a run-of-the-mill foul in centre-field midway through the second half. A decision that would never have been given against a Liverpool player in a month of wet Sundays and one that would play a crucial role in the heartbreak to come. Henry has never been shy of engaging in the dark arts and would surely have chopped Sterling down as the youngster turned in his own half as the clock struck 90. Instead, nursing the yellow card burden, he let the speedy youngster run into space and from then on Rangers were always struggling. Ultimately it was Coutinho, with plenty still to do, who stole in from that weakened QPR right and felt out the far corner of the net with a precise, low finish.
Rangers have carried as much threat as the Andrex puppy so far this season and having spent 90 minutes, and several gilt-edged chances, getting to one goal it seemed unlikely they’d manage a second in the four added minutes. That reckoned without Vargas, and a Liverpool defence completely unable to deal with any sort of cross into the penalty area. As thoughts turned to an early traffic-beating exit, Vargas sent the place into orbit with a brilliantly angled near post header from a Fer corner that Mignolet could only palm back from behind the line. Thank heavens for goal-line technology, if Dowd had awarded that of his own accord, against Liverpool, in the last minute, to seemingly deny them two points, I’d have given you the money myself.
Given all that, you can forgive QPR wanting to put the ball in the area again when they were awarded a free kick in the very final minute of stoppage time 40 yards from goal. Fer looked like he was going to shoot initially, but would eventually chip the ball into the area seeking the head of a team mate. It would prove a catastrophic misjudgement. QPR were too strung out. Richard Dunne had seen the danger and called reinforcements back but it was to no avail. The chipped straight ball into the box is never a notable route to success and this one was too chipped and too straight. When Liverpool cleared they smelt the chance for an unlikely win. Sterling ran in behind and squared the ball. Steven Caulker, tracking back, couldn’t help but turn it into his own net. I’ve seen some things in my time…
QPR defended appallingly, picked up more injuries to key players, and showed incredible naivety in a frantic finish. Like a 3-2 defeat at home to Spurs in the 1995/96 relegation season, it felt like one of those moments only a team destined for a trip to the division below could conjure.
The farcical nature of it all was pure Queens Park Rangers.
But standing ovations for the team at half time and full time should tell the players and their under-fire manager plenty about what is demanded between now and May. QPR fans want to be entertained, they want to see their team have a go, they want to see effort, they want to see attacking football, and they want to see commitment. They want to see people like Nedum Onuoha and Yun Suk-Young starting and trying their best, not ageing old big-names on book promotion tours – as it turns out, such decisions improve the team considerably as well. They don’t want to hear excuses, they don’t want to see people sitting on the bench looking bored, they don’t want to see people ambling about, and they don’t want their fucking away fixtures described as ‘bonus games’. This was a performance to be really proud of which, if replicated, will bring enough points for survival, starting with three against Villa next week. That game, against a side on a four match losing run without scoring a goal, is a huge one for QPR in the context of the league table, but also to see whether this was a one-off performance on a big occasion, or a fairer indication of what Rangers are capable of.
QPR deserve criticism, for the way the club is run, the way the team is assembled, the money that’s spent, the lack of infrastructure, the management and everything else besides. But on Sunday they deserved praise for a brave, enthusiastic, shrewd, entertaining performance. And they deserved three points.
Cruel, cruel game.
QPR: McCarthy 7; Onuoha 8 (Phillips 46, 5), Caulker 6, Dunne 6, Suk-Young 8; Isla 7, Fer 6, Sandro 6 (Traore 60, 5), Henry 8, Zamora 8 (Vargas 79, 8), Austin 6
Subs not used: Ferdinand, Kranjcar, Murphy, Hoilett
Goals: Vargas 86 (assisted Austin), 90+2 (assisted Fer)
Bookings: Dunne 45+1 (foul), Henry 79 (repetitive fouling)
Liverpool: Mignolet 5; Johnson 5, Skrtel 5, Lovren 3, Enrique 6; Henderson 6, Can 5 (Allen 66, 7), Sterling 7 (Toure 90+6, -), Gerrard 6, Lallana 5 (Countinho 66, 8), Balotelli
Subs not used: Jones, Marquillo, Markovic, Lambert
Goals: Dunne og 67 (assisted Sterling), Coutinho 90 (assisted Gerrard), Caulker og 90+6 (assisted Sterling)
Bookings: Johnson 70 (foul), Skrtl 81 (foul), Coutinho 86 (obstructing free kick)
QPR Star Man – Yun Suk-Young 8 A performance that had me harking back to Gino Padula’s breakthrough at the club, against Barnsley midway through the 2002/03 season. Previously ignored by Ian Holloway in favour of less talented options, Padula went on to be a cult hero at QPR and a fine player for the club. No reason to believe our latest South Korean can’t do the same on this evidence.
Referee – Phil Dowd (Staffordshire) 5 A difficult game to referee, highly competitive, played at a high tempo, two committed teams – but too many poor decisions here to be considered for a high mark. QPR should have had a penalty in the first half, Liverpool had a big appeal in the second when Dunne shouldered Balotelli off the ball although I think that one was called right. Enrique executed a cynical shirt-pull after being beaten by a man and escaped without a yellow card when that’s usually a given in those circumstances these days, and yet Henry was booked for an ordinary foul deep in the Liverpool half. Coutinho committed a couple of fouls after his yellow as well and was never spoken to.
Attendance: 18,009 (1,700 Liverpool approx) Far better atmosphere inside Loftus Road, buoyed by the improved performance. If the crowd make that noise, and the team play that well, the Villa game could yield a much needed win.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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