|Queens Park Rangers 2 v 1 Middlesbrough|
Saturday, 15th December 2018 Kick-off 15:00
QPR puncture the Pulisball in welcome return to form - Report
Sunday, 16th Dec 2018 20:28 by Clive Whittingham
Just as a typical mid-winter slide seemed to be gathering momentum, QPR returned to form at Loftus Road on Saturday with a nicely executed gameplan, eye-catching performance and 2-1 home win against promotion chasing Middlesbrough.
From the highs of the autumn, you couldn’t help but fear for QPR’s winter prior to Saturday’s home fixture with Middlesbrough. From three clean sheets in a week to 11 goals conceded in five games; from five wins in six matches to no wins in four; from a clean bill of health to a mounting injury list to key players. It was beginning to feel a lot like a traditional Loftus Road Christmas, from eighth in the table to the warm, familiar embrace of sixteenth by the time the turkey was carved. Home for the festivities, like good boys.
Riding in at just the wrong time, Tony Pulis, like that wanker uncle who doesn’t get you anything because he thinks Christmas has become too commercialised but still sticks around the house until all the good food, wine and Galaxy from the Celebrations selection box have run out. A mean man with a mean team - sixth in the league, with the best defence in the competition and squad of players physically better equipped for the NBA. A wizened old ball bag of a man for whom football is a test to be endured rather than a sport to be enjoyed. A walking, talking haemorrhoid who thinks it’s a restraint of trade that his players aren’t allowed to take to the field with a wheeled cannon. In relentless rain that soaked you through immediately, froze you in your seat and then set about rotting your toes, Pulis and his Space Jam Monstars were as welcome at this festive table as a conversation about whether you should squeeze genital warts or not. We traipsed from the pub and settled in for the 0-1 Pulisball masterclass.
What transpired instead was beautiful. God I love you QPR.
Two changes to a previously settled team, with Darnell Furlong finally back from his knee surgery with a first start of the season at right back in place of the injured Angel Rangel and Jordan Cousins preferred to Josh Scowen as Geoff Cameron’s replacement in midfield. No matter. Fast start. Really fast start. Nahki Wells, painted-on hair untroubled by the monsoon, swiftly to the byline in the right channel after two minutes, firing a lethal cross shot right through the goal mouth. Not even 60 seconds later and Jake Bidwell was in an identical position down the left, crossing low for Pawel Wszolek to steam in and blast into the roof of the net via Darren Randolph the Boro keeper. The most pleasant of pleasant surprises. A real statement piece.
Turned out, Rangers didn’t mind mixing it either. Toni Leistner relished, and dominated, a mud wrestle with Jordan Hugill. Furlong, faced with Britt Assombalonga playing wide left and George Friend behind him who’s caused him problems before, won everything in the air. Mass Luongo tackled like an angry Millwall fan and Cousins rewarded his manager’s faith with an athletic midfield display far better than anything an out of sorts Josh Scowen has produced in that position this season. Wszolek was relentless wide right, Freeman showed exactly why Boro had wanted to buy him in the summer, and Wells played around the towering pair of Daniel Aayala and Aden Flint with such effortless, smooth effectiveness he could teach a class in it.
Middlesbrough pumped it high and long and hoped for the best. High and long. High and long. Over and over and over again. A deflected shot wide from Stewart Downing on 14 minutes all they had to show for 47 minutes of considerable, morale-sapping, soul-destroying, stupefying toil. A magnificent travelling support from the other end of the country deserved much better.
A shot from Joel Lynch deflected up and behind the Boro defence on eight minutes but squirmed away from Wells. Later the loaned Burnley striker glanced a header wide at the near post from a fine Furlong cross. When Freeman provided him with a decoy run as he brought the ball down with his back to goal after 28 minutes he spun the other way and nearly found the far bottom corner with a deflected, bobbly effort that had Randolph beaten. One nil at half time. Well done. Well bloody done. After a few indifferent displays, this was much more like the QPR that had played so well and won so brilliantly against Villa, Brentford and Millwall. This was what we’ve come to expect from the best of Steve McClaren’s QPR, and it couldn’t have been better timed.
Still the rain came. All the rain.
So too did the injuries to experienced defensive players, though nobody in Loftus Road can have been in the least bit surprised to see Joel Lynch limping around before half time, then giving it the obligatory five minutes after half time before disappearing down the tunnel. Leistner seemed to be limping too, but finished the game on one leg, with Hugill in his back pocket.
Having inexplicably smashed through the back of a Hull player four minutes before the end of a game we’d lost a fortnight ago with a challenge that could, with another referee, have brought a red card and three match ban and then smashed through the back of a Leeds player four minutes before the end of a game we’d lost a week ago with a challenge that could, with another referee, have brought a red card and a three match ban now comes this latest unfortunately timed bout of tinselitis for Lynch. If he fails to recover for next week’s game at Nottingham Forest it’ll be the ninth time in ten seasons (2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14, 2014/15, 2016/17, 2017/18) that he’s been injured or suspended for at least one of the games between December 20 and 30.
Despite that, Rangers seemed very underprepared. No defender at all on the bench would be risky at any time of the year, and Scowen not properly dressed to immediately replace Lynch despite him struggling well before half time was unprofessional. It left QPR to defend a quickly taken throw in with ten men and when Furlong, filling in at centre half, got caught in two minds between heading and chesting the ball clear he set it up plum for Boro’s best player George Saville to volley cleanly into the far corner from 20 yards. I was gutted for him, it was his one misstep in an impressive return.
Scowen on, Cousins desperately unlucky to be moved away from his best performance in midfield since his Charlton days to an emergency shift at full back once more, but the damage had been done. It would turn out to be Boro’s only shot on target in the game, but with Rangers rocked and the crowd quiet the visitors really piled it on in the next few minutes and looked set to steamroller their way to another away win – six unbeaten on the road prior to this game. Whatever you say about Pulis, and we’ll be saying plenty more shortly, that bastard builds an effective side. An effective, almost entirely unwatchable, side.
McClaren’s team needed a way of getting the ball out of their half and keeping it there and Pawel Wszolek, running at a tired looking George Friend, proved a very effective way of doing that. One storming run down the full length of the right win to the byline drew an improvised foot save from Randolph at his near post to change the flow of the game and the mood of the sodden crowd. When the Pole got going at Friend again on the hour he found Wells in space and he used a crowd of defenders and Randolph’s lousy positioning to bend a second goal right into the centre of the net. I grew up watching Tony Roberts building walls and standing behind them, but Randolph’s positioning here way over to his left and behind a crowdscene seemed odd. Fucks given? Few if any.
Back in the game, Rangers played the final half an hour expertly. In defence, Furlong and Leistner stood tall at the heart of the backline, winning a stupid amount of headers. Only once did Boro manage to drag the big German out into some deep water wide of the penalty area and scoot around him as he did his very best impression of the Exxon Valdez, but his defensive colleagues muscled up and survived the scare.
Despite being the ones with something to hold onto, QPR were the team posing the main threats on the counter. A beautifully worked short corner (I know, I’m getting a picture of it framed for my wall) saw Freeman cut a ball back for Eze whose shot was blocked. Later the youth team graduate just undercooked a pass through to Scowen preventing him from streaking clear, then when Scowen returned the ball to him he got munched by a brilliant Ryan Shotton tackle as he was about to shoot. Muscular approach work from Eze on 86 set up Luongo for a left footed shot over – Mass’ best performance of the season this for me, Eze looking right at home at this level.
Downstairs, discount tracksuit from Mike Ashley’s Sporting Goods Emporium soaked through to the skin, Pulis yawped, and moaned, made one unimaginative substitution after another, and pined for Jonathan Walters. Go on Jon. One enormous human being after another was summoned – Ashley Fletcher (£6.5m) on for Saville, Lewis Wing on for Stewart Downing, Marcus Tavernier on for Jonny Howson. Once made, each substitute disappeared into the quagmire as if they’d never been introduced. Boro have Martin Braithwaite (£8m) and Rudy Gestede (£7m) at home. Britt Assombalonga, a £15m centre forward, played left wing here and got no change from either Furlong or Cousins. Jordan Hugill, an £8m buy for West Ham from Preston last January, had his arse handed to him by Leistner.
In injury time, Joe Lumley rather naively kicked the ball out in his own half for a non-existent clock running injury to Wells – Pulis ordered his team not to return it. I’d probably have done the same. In the first half, he appealed long and loud that Assombalonga had been wrestled to the ground in the penalty area – referee Oliver Langford said no. I’d have wanted it too. Afterwards he blamed the referee for the whole thing, including QPR second goal which he says came from a free kick for an offside that wasn’t (it was) taken from the wrong place (not by much) with a moving ball (which wasn’t). He didn’t mention Assombalonga craftily creating a chance early in the second half by laying on top of Jake Bidwell by Lumley’s goal post, pinning him to the ground and playing everybody onside. Nor that Aden Flint spent more time with Langford on Saturday – screaming, shouting, arguing, sarcastically applauding – than Mrs Langford has in the last five years put together. He will, almost certainly, be demanding yet more money to spend in January, so defeats to teams with three youth team players in the starting 11, two senior defenders out injured and a third leaving the pitch at half time, and a loaned striker from Burnley running rings round an expensively assembled defence, definitely don’t happen again. Not that this one was anything to do with him, you understand. Pesky referees.
For now all Pulis has to cheer him up is whatever he does to pass the time between systematically destroying football matches. One imagines Aden Flint coming round to his house and pretending to be an ogre while he eats boiled potatoes. Flint stomping around a Brio town on Pulis' living room carpet shouting “fee fi fo fum” with a hint of embarrassment while Tony slaps his thighs and howls with laughter with half chewed potato tumbling down his chops. He may get Boro up, they may never concede a goal again, but I could no more pay to watch his team play than sit through an episode of Good Morning Britain.
QPR, who’d been on the thin end of some questionable refereeing themselves at Leeds a week ago, deserved their win. Bar the mess around the Lynch injury and the goal that immediately proceeded it, this was an excellent performance with a number of man of the match candidates and a beautifully executed gameplan from Steve McClaren. They matched Middlesbrough physically without the ball, and outplayed them with it. In possession, so lovely, exactly as you’d want a team of ours to be – one pass with the outside of the boot from Freeman to free Bidwell wide of him down the left in the second half was so gorgeous I wanted to have sex with it. Out of possession, we were even out-Pulising Pulis at times with ballboys tarting about to the point that Ayala started on one of them at the Loft End, and red towels placed around the pitch to aid their long throws stolen as soon as they’d been laid out. The plague of clock running, injury feigning and gamesmanship that infests this season’s Championship continued, but this time it was us doing it to them.
With Reading and Ipswich to come here over Christmas the R’s are daring to believe they may be upwardly mobile once more. Not sure where we are next week though, you?
QPR: Lumley 6; Furlong 7, Leistner 8, Lynch 5 (Scowen 52, 6), Bidwell 6; Cousins 7, Luongo 8; Wszolek 8, Eze 7 (Smith 88, -), Freeman 8; Wells 8 (Oteh 90+3, -)
Subs not used: Ingram, Chair, Osayi-Samuel, Smyth
Goals: Wszolek 3 (assisted Bidwell), Wells 60 (assisted Wszolek)
Boro: Randolph 5; Shotton 6, Ayala 6, Flint 6, Friend 5; Howson 6 (Wing 64, 6), Clayton 6; Saville 7 (Fletcher 82, -), Downing 6 (Tavernier 64, 6), Assombalonga 5; Hugill 5
Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Batth, McNair, Fry
Goals: Saville 51 (unassisted)
Bookings: Saville 58 (foul), Flint 73 (persistent fuckwittery), Assombalonga 88 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Nahki Wells 8 Loads of candidates for this, which is nice. Leistner was a tower of strength at the back while Lynch was popping off early, Furlong impressed at both right back and centre half but was at fault for their goal, Luongo was so strong and dominant in midfield against a physically strong side, Freeman showed why Boro were so keen to buy him in the summer and Wszolek was back to his best after a couple of lean weeks. But a winning goal, all action display and complete lesson in how to play lone striker – all against the division’s best and biggest defence – means it’s Wells for me.
Referee – Oliver Langford (West Midlands) 6 I like him. I like his style. I like how unfussy he is. But I do think it could have been a penalty for the foul on Assombalonga, it’s an absolute liberty that Wszolek wasn’t booked for at least one of his two dire fouls in the second half, and although it was us doing the time wasting this time rather than having it done to us it was another example of a referee just allowing it to go on and then not adding sufficient time at the end. An absolute plague of Championship matches this season. So not too high a mark, but I enjoyed his performance and much prefer this to the constant interference and card fest that referees like Simpson, Woolmer and Robinson often preside over.
Attendance – 14,088 (2,500 Boro approx) Got to mention the Boro fans, travelling all that way in those conditions just before Christmas to watch this Pulisball shite is worthy of enormous praise and sympathy. Fantastic support.
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