Benteke's brilliance rescues Sherwood as Ramsey and Phillips shine - report
Thursday, 9th Apr 2015 00:45 by Clive Whittingham
QPR led twice, trailed once, and eventually left Aston Villa with a 3-3 draw on Tuesday night as the relegation battle served up a pulsating six-pointer.
How do you like your arteries? Thickened and throbbing? Good. This was a stressful, blood curdling ordeal.
The money Sky and BT are pumping into the Premier League makes dropping out of it costlier than ever. You could smell the desperation coming off Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers at Villa Park on Tuesday. Two clubs in it up to their tits, facing dire consequences of demotion. Two willing, but flawed teams. Two managers who recognise draws in such fixtures are little use and decided to go for a win instead.
Carnage ensued. The sort of game that makes Paolo Sousa sad, even if he doesn’t watch it, or even know it’s happened. Just generally disappointed that it exists.
Absentees were more keenly felt by the visitors. Rangers' shock 4-1 win up the road at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday had served as a polite knock on a coffin lid apparently nailed shut by Everton the previous week at Loftus Road and sent the travelling faithful scrambling for tickets on Tuesday morning resulting in a box office shambles. Those who did make it into the packed upper tier at one of English football's famous old venues didn't have to wait long for their reward – Bobby Zamora, so key to the Hawthorns rout, intelligently reversed a chipped cross into the danger area with the visitors' first meaningful attack of the game and Matt Phillips arrived late from his right wing berth to head home from close range. Joey Barton's flighted ball out of his own half to Charlie Austin in the build up certainly worthy of note.
But Eduardo Vargas had been ruled out for the season with a knee injury suffered against the Baggies and left back Yun Suk-Young had been knocked into the middle of next week in a collision with his own goalkeeper Rob Green. While the South Korean waits for his team mates in the future, a total change to the left side of the team was required. QPR have been picking central midfielders out of position on the left wing all season thanks to Harry Redknapp's doomed quest to build for a back three formation back in the summer and the lack of options open to his successor Chris Ramsey was clear for all to see with the selection of ageing centre half Clint Hill at left back with Niko Kranjcar ahead of him on the flank.
That combination was a disaster. Villa started with Christian Benteke up front flanked by youth team graduate Jack Grealish on his full league debut and speedster Gabby Agbonlahor. That created a three on two situation for centre halves Nedum Onuoha and Steven Caulker and left Hill stuck between coming infield to help them out, or sticking wide left and trying to stop the right-sided raids of Leandro Bacuna. He needed help from Kranjcar, but the Croatian looked leggy and disinterested from the start, and Villa had the freedom of that side of the pitch as a result. Kranjcar is no kind of left winger, and his ghosting, drifting style can make him a sublime attacking threat at times – but his lethargy and apparent lack of fitness here was hard to forgive.
The attacks were ceaseless, coming in waves. Benteke equalised almost immediately after Villa had fallen behind, picking the ball up in an offside position before marauding into the penalty area and striking a deflected shot past Green and into the top corner. Linesman Mike Mullarkey, who the FA deemed good enough to represent them at the World Cup, was yards behind play when the ball was knocked and kept his flag down – as he did later on when a ball drifted a yard beyond the byline for a goal kick. Play on the verdict.
The annoying thing about the second goal when it did arrive, however, was that QPR were actually on the attack at the time – keeping the ball alive around the edge of the Villa penalty area they somehow contrived to not only lose possession, but also then allow first Agbonlahor and then Benteke to streak away into a totally unmanned half of the pitch. The giant Belgian's finish, wrong footing both Green and the backtracking Hill with one deft touch, was sublime.
Kranjcar's evening didn't improve much. Fed up, he executed a ridiculous lunging tackle on Cleverley and received the easiest yellow card of referee Craig Pawson's career. Agbonlahor glanced the cross from the free kick wide of the post.
It was a miracle that QPR were only 2-1 down at half time. Not only were they wide open down the left side, and losing every ball pumped up towards Benteke, but they were also outnumbered in the middle of midfield, meaning an impossible work load for Barton and Sandro. Villa won every second ball that dropped around the penalty area almost unchallenged and the R's struggled to escape their own penalty area as a result.
Perhaps Villa's loud-mouth manager became complacent, because five minutes after half time his one-time assistant Chris Ramsey made his move and Villa's reaction to it wasn't so much slow as non-existent. In the end the home team would require a moment of Benteke brilliance four minutes from time to rescue a single point from a match they should have finished in the first half. Sherwood may like to consider his own part in that, if he has time between his Life and Times of Harry Kane after dinner speaking circuit engagements. Villa really needed their manager to react to what his opponent had done but he seemed too busy with the histrionics and official baiting.
Rangers began going about their work with three centre halves, and Hill's aerial ability meant the amount of headers Villa won from a steady stream of long balls down the field dropped from 100% to about half. Of those won, QPR were now able to retrieve a good few of the situations, with Henry supporting Barton and Sandro in winning the second balls as they dropped. Henry also pushed on through the middle to challenge Villa's deep lying midfielder Carlos Sanchez – the Colombian had played a quarter back roll completely unchallenged by QPR's midfield in the first half but now, with Henry buzzing around him, his form collapsed. Suddenly Villa looked nervous. Balls were passed back to goalkeeper Brad Guzan more than they were played forward. One free kick, awarded on the left flank, was booted straight into the side stand. QPR were quicker, sharper, more energetic, more effective. They took the game over and dominated it. Even Traore looked half decent.
The visitors were perhaps fortunate a stray pass from Barton that went straight to Grealish was subsequently poked straight at Green, but that was against the run of play and an equaliser arrived a minute later.
It should have come via a Charlie Austin penalty kick. The extra man in midfield, the renewed purpose, the added possession higher up the field, all provided a wonderful platform for Matt Phillips to set to work on Villa left back Kieran Richardson. The former Blackpool winger had a superb second half. Ten minutes after the break he burst past his man and delivered a cross into the area which was, fairly obviously, right in front of Mullarkey, stopped with the palm of Delph’s hand. Mullarkey officiated all evening like somebody who'd been the victim of a blunt trauma to the back of the head in the tunnel immediately before kick-off and he looked right at the incident and scratched his right arse cheek. Craig Pawson, whose grasp of the handball rules could kindly be described as "loose" as anybody at the recent QPR v Spurs game would testify to, also looked gormless and gave nothing.
The Villa fans behind that goal rejoiced and mocked, knowing they'd got away with one. But their joy, and the fury high in the away end, was tempered immediately. Phillips delivered the resulting corner to the near post and Clint Hill glanced in what, officially, will go down as the first Premier League goal of his career.
Instant mood and momentum change. The Villa fans now silent, the home team wilting, QPR flooded forward. Phillips against Richardson a key battle. Austin twice dragging shots wide when well placed. As Sandro tired, Michael Doughty was introduced for an impressive cameo – he should surely be used more when fresh midfield legs are required and was very decent here. Austin was booked for a challenge that Sanchez seemed to make a lot of, but in the modern game and with referees like Pawson you've seen red cards issued. Personally, I don't even think it looked like a foul. I would say that.
It was the confidence and tempo that was noticeable about the second half QPR. They hardly looked like a team ensconced in the drop zone. Given that, they should have gone onto win. With all the momentum behind them they took the lead with 12 minutes left for play as Phillips humiliated Richardson once again and delivered a precise low cross that Charlie Austin controlled, spun around and smacked into Guzan's net. The away end was a seething mass of humanity. The Villa fans in the corner rushed to attack the celebrating QPR striker.
Sherwood, prancing up and down, blaming everybody except himself, made three substitutions either side of the goal – Matt Lowton, Joe Cole and Charles N'Zogbia on for Grealish, Bacuna and Cleverley. But he'd been outdone by Ramsey and somewhere deep within him he'll know it.
In the end, as so often at Aston Villa over the last three seasons, it fell to the brilliant Benteke to pick the jail lock. Make no mistake, without the Belgian they'd have lost here.
Steven Caulker will be disappointed with his poor clearing header, and Hill with his rash tackle and yellow card on N'Zogbia that conceded a free kick in such a dangerous position. But the strike itself was unsaveable, and undefendable – too high for the wall, too accurate for Green, flying into the net off the post.
The fear then was the disappointment would be too much for QPR. That the momentum would swing and the defence would creak once more. You could suddenly feel a late winner in the air, with all the associated pitch invasions and Sherwood histrionics that would have come with it. Cole slid in on a near post cross and diverted the ball wide as four minutes of stoppage time was indicated.
But, finally, it seemed like the energy reserves were spent. If it was indeed a boxing match, it was one of those Frank Bruno bouts from the mid-90s: riotously entertaining, physically exhausting, with zero technique and skill involved – Benteke and Phillips apart. It was a thrilling, absorbing spectacle – Villa's in the first half, QPR's in the second, fairly tied at the end. Both teams were applauded off, despite the result doing little for either campaign, and rightly so.
There was simply no pride and honour in the way Harry Redknapp's QPR went about their away games. "Bonus games", to be written off altogether, and approached with a defence parked on the six yard box and an attitude of "maybe we'll hold out for a point". Roll up, roll fucking up.
QPR have now scored as many goals away from home in one weekend as they did in all of the Redknapp away matches this season. If Rangers had approached all their away games as they have done the two this weekend, they'd almost certainly be in the same position in the league, because the defence is a football equivalent of the rope bridge in an Indiana Jones film. But giving it a go, trying to score, playing to win, leaving it all out there, not dying wondering… it felt strangely elating, despite the failure to win, despite the late goal. Two matches, two performances and seven goals for QPR and their fans to be proud of whatever happens to them at the end of the season.
Links >>> Knee Jerks >>> Photo Gallery >>> Ratings and Reports >>> Message Board Match Thread
Subs not used: Baker, Okore, Weimann, Given
Goals: Benteke 10 (unassisted), 33 (assisted Agbonlahor), 83 (free kick, won N'Zogbia)
QPR: Green 7; Isla 5 (Traore 50, 6), Caulker 5, Onuoha 6, Hill 6; Phillips 8, Barton 7, Sandro 6 (Doughty 70, 7), Kranjcar 4 (Henry 50, 8); Zamora 6, Austin 6
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