QPR and Leicester bring Championship farce to top flight - report
Monday, 1st Dec 2014 02:03 by Clive Whittingham
QPR started a crucial December period of fixtures with a frantic, hard-fought win against fellow strugglers Leicester at Loftus Road on Saturday.
As Harry Redknapp prepares to mark two years in charge of Queens Park Rangers, perhaps the most surprising element of a tumultuous reign has been just how dull a lot of the football has been.
Prior to arriving at Loftus Road, Redknapp had always seemed like a Cockney version of Kevin Keegan. Tactics? Little mints. Football’s about players. If they get three we’ll get four. Stories about Paolo Di Canio. That sort of thing.
The two fixtures with Leicester City last season, played in the division below, summed up the Redknapp QPR found themselves guided by better than most. The Foxes won both 1-0, with Rangers threatening sporadically, and an overriding air of boredom and apathy drifting down from the stands and being reflected by the playing squad.
With a transfer budget and wage bill enough to sink 20 of the other 23 teams in the league, and the Championship’s best centre forward marauding around in attack, one would have thought QPR might have been capable of repeating Newcastle’s free-scoring, 100 point assault on the league title from a couple of seasons ago. Instead the Loftus Road faithful was treated to a dull, laboured, slow-paced, monotonous, possession-based, dirge. It was like visiting mediocre art galleries in non-descript commuter towns – you’d heard paintings could be so beautiful, and yet here was something you fancied you could do better yourself.
Now in the league above, these two clubs have gone from big fish to cannon fodder. Their roles in life are now clearly defined. When Sky Sports talks about “games that matter” QPR and Leicester are about as far away from their thoughts as the concerns of constituents to a career politician. The R’s and the Foxes are supposed to be relegated this season, and if they are to survive it’s going to be done with their backs to the wall, playing not to lose, clinging frantically on to whatever scraps may fall from the table.
Bizarrely, having bored the tits off everybody for 180 minutes in a division where there are so many games to play individual results don’t matter a great deal until you assemble them into runs of half a dozen wins or defeats, these two newly promoted teams decided on Saturday to serve up a happy, entertaining sort of farce with five goals and 51 shots on the goal in the Premier League. No top flight game has produced as many shots since 2006.
Tactically, it was a complete mess. Gary Neville can breathe a sigh of relief that there is no Monday Night Football this week because trying to analyse this and pick out coherent patterns and thoughts would be like knitting fog. These two looked desperate, like two dogs fighting over a final scrap of meat. They essentially threw stuff at each other for 90 minutes and then, when the final whistle blew, stopped to check on the score. It was like a Saturday evening entertainment format for ITV, not a professional football game at the highest level. It was a total mess. It was absolutely wonderful. So engrossing you wanted to pay more for your ticket. Well, maybe not quite…
This is what I expected we’d see a lot more of from Harry Redknapp: shapes, formations, tactical plans and structure all mere suggestions to be ignored. Sling the best 11 players out there, tell them to try and score every time they have the ball, see how it goes, and get Bondy Bond to drive home. Rangers, ostensibly, played 4-4-2 but picked Niko Kranjcar and Leroy Fer on the wings – neither of whom are wingers… neither of whom would include “tracking back” on their LinkedIn profiles. In the absence of Sandro, who’s starting to make Matthew Rose look like Zeus, Joey Barton moved to the centre of midfield where, for the first hour at least, he decided his role was to attempt Hollywood passes that conceded possession, and ludicrous 35 yard Hail Mary shots on the goal with more chance of killing an old lady shopping round Shepherd’s Bush Green than finding the back of Kasper Schmeichel’s net.
The result was a totally exposed back four. Full backs Mauricio Isla and Yun Suk-Young were swamped. Nedum Onuoha, whose move to centre half to replace Richard Dunne rather than a recall for Rio Ferdinand was a popular choice, struggled with his weight of work. Only Steven Caulker, who spent a lot of the first half doubling up as a third striker, looked comfortable with the stress of the situation. He was a man swimming against the tide.
Caulker’s frustration was clear when, after a bright opening two minutes, Rangers contrived to concede to Leicester’s first attack when a series of missed tackles and two on one situations ended with the exceptional Esteban Cambiasso delicately placing a 20 yarder against the base of Robert Green’s post and into the net. The lack of pace on the shot had cynics blaming the goalkeeper until the replays revealed the truth – Leicester’s Argentinean midfielder is still a talent at 34 years of age and that was a terrific finish.
Leicester would probably have taken a point before the kick-off, and now had half a foot planted firmly in all three. Schmeichel started to waste time after five minutes - meticulously cleaning his boots by banging them against the post before every. Single. Goal. Kick. I’d have fancied myself to complete an oil painting of the scene before he finally got round to leathering a couple of them away down the field. Annoyingly, Schmeichel’s clearances are so long, and QPR’s defence so unprotected, that Leicester’s goal kicks posed more danger to Rangers on Saturday than the average team’s corners – Caulker and Onuoha were bailing water out of a leaky boat the whole game, unable to deal with the aerial bombardment.
What choice did the home team have but to attack? The entire match took on the feel of the stoppage time period of a play-off semi-final. By the end it felt like you’d been through an ordeal, not a day at the football.
Niko Kranjcar, a swaggering influence when QPR had the ball and a total liability when they didn’t, had a free kick deflected over and then provoked a goal-mouth scramble with a corner. Joey Barton’s protracted punts straight onto the head of the defender at the near post were mercifully cast aside this week with the return of a man who can actually take a set piece. Karl Henry skipped (really!) into the penalty box only to panic when the space opened up for a shot and take just enough touches (roughly 37) to allow Leicester to scramble back and clear the danger. Charlie Austin had a shot blocked. Henry crossed low, inches away from Eduardo Vargas.
A goal felt inevitable. Steven Caulker took it upon himself to stay forward as a makeshift centre forward having journeyed downfield for a corner and his optimism/lunacy paid off when he sent a low cross into the six yard box that seemed designed for Vargas to tap home until big clumsy Wes Morgan slid in and poked the ball into his own goal while trying to clear.
But let’s not pretend QPR were dominating completely - unlucky to concede early in the game and destined to assert superiority thereafter. Leicester should have made it 2-0 before Morgan’s personal disaster: Onuoha slow to recognise a problem with Vardy in the right channel and allowing a low cross to come in that Mahrez should have converted from close range. From the kick off (from the kick off!) Jamie Vardy raced through on goal onto a fine pass from Mahrez but found Green in determined form and able to produce a block.
Mahrez, incidentally, never fails to impress me when I see Leicester. Nigel Pearson, with no wins from seven going into this game, took him off and sent on Marc Albrighton after an hour, and the former Villa man contributed next to nothing to the final half hour. Answers on a post card, addressed to Leicester’s no-doubt-concerned Malaysian owners please.
Only QPR could struggle to defend kick offs.
The equaliser did nothing to calm this relentless cartoon of a football match. Rangers led at half time. Joey Barton’s well flighted cross to the back post found Charlie Austin arriving late and although his powerful header was blocked by Schmeichel, Leroy Fer was on hand to smash the rebound into the ground and up into the roof of the net. Austin, who is growing into his role as a Premier League striker and will surely be attracting agent-inspired newspaper headlines about big money moves shortly, would have scored that nine times out of ten, and may find profit in late penalty box arrivals moving forwards. His leap is so prodigious that no centre half can deal with it, and on this occasion the timing was all about him having to put his boot back on before he could run forwards.
The half time mood was buoyant, with oxygen being gulped. Calm down boys, stay in shape, hold what we have? Not a bit of it. After a break of 15 minutes, QPR and Leicester retook the field and recommenced lobbing bits of rubble at each other. It was like a chimp’s tea party.
Mahrez cut inside Suk-Young and forced a low save from Green. The South Korean had seen yellow before half time for a cynical hack – QPR would be well served to do that more rather than allow counter attacks to flow – as his struggles continued. Within seconds a fine cross from the same flank had been skilfully flicked onto the cross bar by Jamie Vardy. Soon Armand Traore was summoned as a replacement.
Pearson’s decision to withdraw Mahrez was mystifying. The introduction of David Nugent for an ineffective, heavy-legged, labouring Leonardo Ulloa less so. Leicester attacked with renewed purpose.
A quick free kick just after the hour, which only Green realised had been taken, was toed wide by Vardy by way of a shot across the bows. QPR must snap out of this belief that a free kick concession means the game is stopped indefinitely and they can have an amble about and discuss other matters. Green was furious with his team and he was dead right.
Warning unheeded, Leicester equalised four minutes later. Steven Caulker can count himself unfortunate - having produced a brave block from the initial shot as a corner caused panic -but the rebound was dispatched powerfully into the corner of the net from 20 yards by Jeffrey Schlupp. He’s one of those footballers who looks laughably awful in every game you see him until the day he plays against QPR at which point he morphs into some sort of Ronaldo-Messi hybrid. He was excellent here, second only to Cambiasso, and deserved his beautifully struck equaliser.
QPR looked spent. Momentum was swinging against them. Robert Green entered into a fool’s errand under a high cross from the left, succeeding only in taking out Caulker as he flapped at a ball that was never his and leaving first Cambiasso to have a header cleared from the line, and then Morgan to spoon a close-range effort over when he should have scored. Terrifying stuff. In the next attack Joey Barton, finally realising his role was about blocks and simple passes rather than Hollywood attempts at raking crossfield balls and unlikely shots, produced a fine tackle as Leicester threatened a third.
But the Londoners rallied. Leroy Fer channeled the club’s new director of football operations Les Ferdinand and hung in the air at the back post for an inordinate amount of time before powering a header towards goal that only Schmeichel could have saved. The value of having a corner taker who can actually take corners was starting to be felt and when Caulker headed a Kranjcar delivery down into the path of Onuoha, Charlie Austin was on hand to head the ball home after the defender’s shot was blocked on the line. His celebratory tribute to two supporters sadly lost in separate circumstances this week summed up the class and ethics of the man. Whatever QPR were offering by way of a new contract last week, they’re probably going to have to up that this.
That set up a cliffhanger ending. Schmiechel had been like the minutes taker at an arthritis care meeting in the first half but was suddenly racing around like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, retrieving balls and pumping them straight to the heart of the QPR defence. Charlie Austin was booked for kicking the ball away by East – you wondered why Schmeichel hadn’t suffered similar treatment before half time.
Steven Caulker picked up an injury but refused to leave the field. There was a pump to be manned here and QPR needed all hands. Redknapp sent on Jordon Mutch instead of the excellent Vargas to add a body to midfield. It was the first hint at a plan, shape or formation either team had showed all afternoon. Yun Suk-Young succumbed to a worrying looking injury – replaced by Armand Traore who is notoriously awful at the defensive side of the game. There would be no closed shop. In the dimming light both teams loaded for a final assault.
Leicester corners caused panic routinely. When Jordon Mutch encroached on a late free kick and blocked it before it reach the area the Foxes were understandably furious, but it was the first time you could really fault referee Roger East who controlled a mentally unsound football match with deft understanding. He added six minutes to the end of it for the benefit of the neutrals – those inside Loftus Road with a vested interest reached for the Beta-blockers.
There was still time for a flare up in front of the Ellerslie Road stand – Marc Albrighton appearing to lash out at Henry after fouling him. Robert Green raced from his goal to cause a scene, more interested in wasting time than any genuine belief the Leicester man should have been red carded. Albrighton, and Green, were booked. Schmeichel will have looked on with a knowing smile. Nugent saw yellow as well.
From a low starting point, the contest was descending into a total shemozzle. There was even time, shortly before the second reading of the classified football results, for Matty James to strike a crisp volley a foot over the bar with Green beaten after Rangers had allowed a ball to drop on the edge of the area. East drew a merciful conclusion to a breathless nonsense a short time later.
Championship football in the Premier League. QPR need three more such outcomes in winnable home games this month, and a similar attitude in their away games, if they’re to keep it that way.
Rip roaring stuff.
QPR: Green 7; Isla 6, Onuoha 6, Caulker 8, Suk-Young 6 (Traore 51, 6); Kranjcar 7 (Hoilett 90, -), Barton 6, Henry 6, Fer 6, Vargas 7 (Mutch 76, 6), Austin 8
Subs not used: Ferdinand, Phillips, Wright-Phillips, McCarthy
Goals: Morgan own goal 37 (assisted Caulker), Fer 45 (assisted Barton/Austin), Austin 73 (assisted Kranjcar/Caulker/Onuoha)
Bookings: Suk-Young 43 (foul), Austin 76 (kicking ball away), Green 90+3 (dissent)
Leicester: Schmeichel 5; De Laet 5, Morgan 6, Wasilewski 6, Konchesky 6; Mahrez 8 (Albrighton 60, 5), James 6, Cambiasso 8 (King 89, -), Schlupp 7; Vardy 6, Ulloa 4 (Nugent 60, 6)
Subs not used: Drinkwater, Hamer, Moore, Knockaert
Goals: Cambiasso 4 (assisted Schlupp/Ulloa), Schlupp 67 (unassisted)
Bookings: Nugent 90+2 (foul), Albrighton 90+4 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Steven Caulker 7 Odd decision, perhaps, given that QPR’s defence looked so exposed and troubled, but with little protecting in wide areas, or from midfield, I thought Caulker stood up and carried a broken defensive system on his shoulders. Doubled as a centre forward for a lot of the first half, leading to the crucial equaliser.
Referee – Roger East (Wiltshire) 8 As this was a Championship match in quality, style and pattern it’s perhaps no surprise to see East excelling, because he is a Football League referee who has struggled to step up to the top division. But he handled this very well, two teams throwing things at each other and he let them get on with it. Could have done more to stop Schmeichel’s blatant time-wasting in the first half.
Attendance – 18,504 (1,800 Leicester approx) Great atmosphere inside Loftus Road, aided by the stressful nature of the clash.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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