QPR left inches from the Premiership – full match report
Sunday, 24th Apr 2011 11:37 by Clive Whittingham
QPR are now within touching distance of promotion after drawing 2-2 with Cardiff City in South Wales on Saturday. But it could have been even better still.
”You find out that life is just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game- life or football - the margin for error is so small. I mean one half step too late or to early you don't quite make it, one half second too slow or too fast and you don't quite catch it - the inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in ever break of the game every minute, every second.
“On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves, and everyone around us, to pieces for that inch. We claw with our finger nails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches that's going to make the fucking difference between winning and losing, between living and dying.
“I'll tell you this; in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch. And I know if I am going to have any life anymore it is because I am still willing to fight and die for that inch because that is what living is. The six inches in front of your face.” – Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday.
And that’s about as far as we were away from the prize. Six inches. The crucial inches in the final minute of a pulsating Championship encounter that made the difference between Heidar Helguson sealing the promotion or finding the side netting. The fractions of a second where he could have set off but didn’t, the inches he needed to stretch but couldn’t, the fractions of inches he missed by when the ball finally arrived at his outstretched boot. Miles offside but not flagged, Helguson just wasn’t alert enough, quick enough, tall enough to convert Adel Taarabt’s ball across the face of the goal. It was agonising stuff in keeping with a match that was a tight as a mouse’s ear from the first whistle.
Had the Icelandic striker scored in the eighty ninth minute instead of sliding it into the side netting Cardiff would have felt, with some justification, as if they’d had their pockets picked. They were in front twice, and denied further goals by three or four fine Paddy Kenny saves. But there is a mental weakness about this Cardiff side that has history of choking at the end of the season which clearly plays heavily on their minds. Twice they let QPR back into the game, and in the last 20 minutes they found themselves hanging on having been much the better team before that.
The demeanour of the managers after the match said it all. Neil Warnock was positive, determined and delighted, Dave Jones was miserable, downcast, and eager to blame officials and life in general rather than examining just why he has been unable to guide this incredibly talented side to a title at the expense of a QPR side that is inferior on paper. Their teams are a direct reflection of them – QPR take responsibility for their performances and results and never say die, Cardiff are mentally weak and look for excuses and scapegoats to mask their own failings.
Both teams went into the game unchanged but in somewhat different form. Cardiff, bucking their reputation for choking at this time of the season, had four straight wins to their name prior to this game and were able to recall Michael Chopra to their substitutes bench after five weeks out with a torn hamstring. They kept faith with high profile strike pair Jay Bothroyd and Craig Bellamy in attack.
QPR on the other hand have rather crawled towards their target in recent weeks. After a 3-0 thumping of Sheffield United when the R’s looked like they might cruise through to the title Neil Warnock’s men have been thrashed at the bottom club Scunthorpe, scraped a 1-0 win at Barnsley and endured a frustrating 90 minutes at home to Derby on Monday evening.
Nevertheless Warnock kept faith with his team to get the job done – Paddy Kenny overcame an ankle injury to play in goal and Adel Taarabt took his place in attack behind Heidar Helguson a week after being named in the Championship team of the week, looking to prove their worth against a team who, despite sitting third, didn’t get a representative in the divisional side. Taarabt was joined in the attacking midfield trio by Tommy Smith and Wayne Routledge who was playing against one of his many former clubs and received a hostile reaction for his decision, two years ago, to join Rangers instead of Cardiff. Shaun Derry and Alejandro Faurlin protected a back four of Bradley Orr, Kaspars Gorkss, Matthew Connolly and Clint Hill.
QPR went on the offensive right from the kick off after the toss of the coin had seen the teams turn around. Clint Hill worked a throw in to the feet of Alejandro Faurlin who produced a sublime reverse pass into Taarabt’s feet. The Moroccan twice dropped his shoulder to create space on the edge of the area and then drilled his shot over the bar from 20 yards out.
If the noisy QPR support high in the corner of the ground thought that was going to be the start of an afternoon of domination from their team then they were quickly given a reality check by two Cardiff chances in as many minutes. First McPhail was given too much time to produce a cross from the right Cardiff channel, a repeat problem for QPR on the day, and he almost picked out Jay Bothroyd in the box – Paddy Kenny couldn’t move until he was sure Bothroyd would make no contact with the ball and then had to dive at full stretch to gather the ball at the second attempt as it threatened to fly all the way in by itself. Within 30 seconds he was called into action again, saving one on one from Whittingham from an acute angle with the QPR defence, not for the first time, caught out by a simple through ball in behind them.
That problem of allowing Cardiff too much time and space in the channels reared its head again in the sixth minute as the home side took the lead in spectacular fashion. Clint Hill probably thought he’d done the right thing by showing Jay Bothroyd infield after the one time England international had collected the ball tight to the touchline but Bothroyd made light of the distance and angle with a ferocious left footed drive that flew past Paddy Kenny and crashed spectacularly into the net off the underside of the bar right in the top corner. One of, if not the, Championship goals of the season and in front of a live television audience as well.
The noise inside the ground at this point was absolutely deafening and Cardiff were flying forwards at every opportunity. QPR’s already difficult task was starting to look like an impossible one but Rangers drew themselves level with their first serious attack of the game in the tenth minute. Tommy Smith took Paul Quinn to the byline and won a corner from him, although the Cardiff man protested vehemently that the ball had not gone behind as he slid in to block Smith’s cross. The initial set piece from Taarabt was cleared but Faurlin intelligently headed the ball back out to the Moroccan and from that point on it was pure Taarabt. Cardiff failed to close him down quickly enough and that was all the invitation he needed to try his luck with an audacious right footed curling shot that sailed over Bywater and into the far corner of the net to send the away fans behind him into absolute raptures.
This was a chance for QPR to start again, and hopefully start defending properly against Cardiff’s lively attack. It wasn’t an opportunity they looked like they wanted to take though and within a minute of equalising they could easily have been behind again when Bothroyd played Bellamy in behind Gorkss and Connolly and he forced another fine save from Kenny. Rangers were repeatedly caught out by these simple balls in behind all afternoon though.
The sloppy defending continued on the quarter hour, although QPR were perhaps a little unfortunate to be defending at all after J’Lloyd Samuel had overrun the ball down the left flank and then taken an obvious dive to win a free kick from Bradley Orr – one of the few decisions referee Lee Mason got wrong on the day. Peter Whittingham whipped in the free kick from wide and Cardiff appealed for a penalty after Dekel Keinan hit the deck at the back post after clashing with Heidar Helguson. It looked to me, from the far end of the ground, like they’d just got tangled up with each other and it was the very definition of six of one and half a dozen of another. From the resulting throw in Cardiff were able to find Burke completely unmarked in the area and he drilled wide when well placed to do better.
QPR then had a chance from a soft free kick of their own after Faurlin collapsed at the feet of Olofinjana and Taarabt delivered a set piece that Gorkss glanced wide from a similar position to the one he scored a goal from against Cardiff at Loftus Road back in November.
And Rangers were back on the attack within 60 seconds as Heidar Helguson brilliantly leapt and nodded a long ball down and into the path of Wayne Routledge down the right flank. He accelerated towards the corner flag and produced a back post cross that Alejandro Faurlin met in the air after arriving late from a deep lying position but his header was directed off target and Cardiff were happy to see it drift away for a goal kick.
Wayne Routledge down the right was proving to be a useful outlet for QPR and when he got going again and produced a bouncing, half volleyed cross that Kaspars Gorkss flicked on at the near post Tommy Smith directed a header towards goal but it was comfortably gathered under the crossbar by Stephen Bywater.
I’ve written in my notes around the half hour mark that the game seemed to be settling down. QPR were keeping possession better than they have in the three most recent games, though still not doing so that well, while Cardiff were happy, mostly through Whittingham, to keep pumping balls in behind the QPR defence and turning what seemed to be a very nervous back four around. Lee Mason showed a yellow card for the first time in the game when Whittingham deliberately thrust up and arm to bring a ball down and prevent it going through to Bradley Orr who would have been flying into space down the right had the ball reached him but overall there was little to choose between the sides at this point and the game seemed to be calming down.
I cannot possibly describe to you therefore just how frustrating it was to concede another goal having weathered the early Cardiff storm. Some repeat themes led to it – a ball in behind QPR into the right channel had the defence in trouble and Jay Bothroyd was given far too much time and space having collected it to do as he wanted. On this occasion, rather than shooting, he crossed into the area and after the ball had been deflected into his path by Matt Connolly’s hand Bellamy lashed the ball into the top corner to give his side the lead. Lee Mason held his hands aloft to indicate that an advantage had been played and a penalty would have been awarded anyway had Bellamy not scored.
QPR, with just five defeats all season and 24 clean sheets to their name prior to this game, simply weren’t defending well enough to take anything from the game. Three minutes after falling behind they were again almost caught out by a simple ball over the top from the back – Bywater went long trying to set Bellamy away and almost succeeded but the loaned Man City striker couldn’t bring the ball down out of the bright sunlight.
And so it continued. Gorkss conceded possession on halfway ten before half time and allowed Bellamy to spring into the right channel before delivering a cross into the area that Derry had to clear behind with Olofinjana loitering. The giant Nigerian met the corner powerfully himself but could only steer the ball into the Cardiff fans behind the goal. Olofinjana, on loan from Hull and half heartedly linked to a move to QPR this summer in some of the scandal rags, is more of a holding midfield player than an attacking threat but in Cardiff’s next attack he was the man on the end of the final pass again, this time diverting a volley wide from the edge of the box with Whittingham in acres of space to his left screaming for a pass.
Cardiff were much the better side at this stage but QPR could so easily have been level three minutes before half time. After a small spat between Taarabt and Bellamy QPR restarted with a throw in and Shaun Derry went chasing his first goal for the club with a low shot that deflected once off Quinn, then again off Taarabt and Bywater did well to adjust his feet and divert it wide.
Relieved, the home side immediately went back on the attack with first Bellamy and then Burke attacking down the QPR right and producing crosses that no team mate could get on the end of.
Despite a lack of injuries and substitutions in the first half three extra minutes were added to the end of it, which passed without incident, and although they were behind I suspect QPR were happier than their hosts to hear the half time whistle.
The second half began with Taarabt attempting a ridiculous 50 yard lob that cleared Bywater but missed the goal with something to spare as well.
Then we had one of those incredibly frustrating situations where a player goes down injured, Stephen McPhail in this case, and nobody quite knows whether to stop the game or not. Cardiff certainly didn’t feel the need to, Peter Whittingham tried to lay on with a cross field pass, and yet when that ball was intercepted they insisted that QPR put the ball out of play and Craig Bellamy subsequently gestured towards the away end when the QPR fans voiced their displeasure at this situation. For me if you have a player down injured and choose to play on, then your opponents are perfectly within their rights to play on and try and take advantage of the situation if they win the ball back.
Anyway, back to the action, a poor piece of play by Faurlin in midfield gave Bellamy a chance to move into the left channel and cut a ball back for Whittingham to sky high over the bar. Bellamy got going down that wing again within a minute, this time his cross was deflected up and over Paddy Kenny but thankfully the ball landed on the roof of the net rather than in the back of it. Rangers cleared the subsequent corner but Paul Quinn was allowed to turn on the loose ball far too easily by Helguson and his cut back was hammered goalwards by Olofinjana but deflected away by Bradley Orr when it seemed certain the net may bulge.
But QPR started to come back into the game a bit after this point. On Monday night against Derby I felt Warnock was too quick to sling on big powerful strikers and revert to a long ball game. Here he did what I thought we should have done against the Rams and kept trying to get the ball to the feet of Taarabt and Routledge as often as possible. After a tough spell in the game Rangers started to snap the passes between themselves with a little more purpose. Routledge nudged a through ball towards Shaun Derry who was muscled out on the edge of the area but the R’s quickly retook possession and started to force Cardiff onto the back foot. Down on the touchline we could see Patrick Agyemang being prepared for an introduction but after a couple of minutes Warnock told him to sit back down because it was clear that QPR were improving in the game without a need for a change.
A foul on Smith by Quinn wide on the left gave Taarabt a chance to cross from wide but he overhit and missed the seven waiting players in the penalty area. Then Tommy Smith, who certainly wasn’t having his best game for the club, kept a Paddy Kenny pass in right on the touchline and set up Routledge to cross for Helguson at the back post. The big Icelandic striker became embroiled in a wrestling match with Quinn as the cross arrived and when both players crashed to the floor Mason awarded a free kick to Cardiff – whoever was the man on the goal side was always likely to get that decision, had it been Helguson Rangers could have had a penalty.
Rangers conceded another free kick, right at the other end of the field, almost immediately. Burke moved the ball past Gorkss on the edge of the area and then ran into the Latvian who could hardly get out of the way but was penalised by Lee Mason anyway. The free kick seemed perfectly placed, right of centre and right on the edge of the area, for Peter Whittingham to try with his left foot and although he did just that his shot was poor, drilled low and straight into the wall which held firm.
Having penalised Gorkss when he couldn’t really get out of the way Mason then booked Quinn in a similar situation, Routledge was the man blocked off on this occasion as he steamed forward in a pacey counter attack. Taarabt’s free kick was delivered into a better area than his last attempt but Bywater flew off his line and claimed it well.
The pace of the game was starting to increase again, with both teams flying from end to end looking for more goals. A rare moment of poor play by Derry conceded possession setting up a three on three Cardiff break that ground to a shuddering halt when Connolly crunched Bellamy in the penalty area, winning the ball and leaving Bellamy nursing a knock at the same time.
At this point, 20 minutes from time, Warnock did introduce Agyemang. Now personally I don’t understand the preference of Agyemang over Miller, and think he should only be used when every other possibility and avenue has been explored. But to give him his due Dave came on here and did a terrific job for the team, replacing the ineffective Tommy Smith and providing a pacey, physical threat down the flank.
The effect, although Agyemang had little to do with it, was immediate. Within two minutes the R’s were level. Routledge got the assist, lofting a delicate pass into the heart of the Cardiff defence with the outside of his right boot. Taarabt pulled it out of the sky on his chest, turned McNaughton who was tight to him and then finished perfectly with his left foot past Bywater and into the bottom corner. The value of sticking with Taarabt and Routledge and not going too long too soon there for all to see.
Sensing they were perhaps drifting out of the game Cardiff prepared Jay Emmanuel Thomas from the bench, but before he could come and replace Chris Burke Taarabt and Routledge got going down the middle again. A weaving, mazy run from Routledge ended with a pass to Orr, then Derry and finally Taarabt who delivered a cross in behind the Cardiff defence looking for Helguson but the ball was fractionally out of reach. There’s those inches between winning and losing again.
For all QPR’s improvements they could easily have gone behind again 13 minutes from time when Bellamy got the wrong side of Gorkss and eased him underneath a misdirected header from Bradley Orr. Suddenly the Welsh international was through and Rangers were indebted once more to Paddy Kenny who raced out, thrust his arms up and produced a strong one on one save to keep the scores tied. Bellamy caught Kenny accidently after shooting, and then stood moaning at the amount of treatment Kenny required – this the same Bellamy you’ll recall who objected to the QPR fan booing McPhail when he was injured earlier in the game. A good player, but an odious little rat with it.
QPR’s second change of the game came with ten minutes remaining and saw Fitz Hall replace Matthew Connolly. After a nervous first half Connolly had improved slightly in the second so I can only presume an injury was involved. For the second time in the game Warnock had brought on a player I don’t personally rate very highly, and for the second time the player proved me dead wrong during his time on the pitch – both Agyemang and Fitz Hall played well.
Consequently QPR finished the game very strongly. In the final ten minutes Taarabt accelerated down the left and brilliantly tricked his way past Samuel before seeing a cross cleared. Then Routledge took on and beat Thomas on his way to the byline and his low cross was also cleared away. When Routledge accelerated away again four minutes from time and combined well with Agyemang he made a poor decision by shooting from distance and sprayed the ball high, wide and not very handsome. The final agonising moment was still to come though.
Cardiff sent on Chopra for Bellamy, although that struck me as a poor decision from Dave Jones as Chopra is predominantly a penalty box striker who relies on sniffing chances out inside the 18 yard box and at this stage Cardiff simply weren’t getting anywhere near the QPR penalty area. Sure enough, Chopra barely got a touch of the ball.
Then, the big moment with a minute to go. In similar style to the second goal Routledge lofted a ball forward to Taarabt on the edge of the box. He brilliantly brought the ball down on his chest, moved to the corner of the box and then played what seemed to be the perfect ball across the face of goal for Helguson to steam in on at the back post. Somehow, and only he will really know how, Helguson diverted the ball into the side netting when it seemed easier to score. QPR were literally inches from the Premiership.
Mason, having added three minutes to a first half with no injuries or substitutions, then added just two to a second half of several stoppages and four substitutions but Cardiff were a spent force by this point while QPR had missed their one big chance. A draw was a much better result for the Londoners anyway, and the reaction of the players when the whistle duly followed said everything about what the result and performance meant.
I said in the match preview that I felt whatever happened this season Cardiff had underachieved. The players they have, particularly in attack, should have meant a comfortable procession to the title in my opinion. So why are they staring down the barrel of another play off campaign? And why have they failed to beat QPR on either occasion this season? For me, it’s about mental strength.
QPR have been behind three times in the two games against Cardiff this season and have come back every time to take four points from losing positions. When faced with adversity in the two fixtures Rangers have stuck at it, not panicked, played well and got their reward. QPR have found a way to get something from games whereas Cardiff have shown their soft underbelly time and again in the two fixtures.
Strangely against a far inferior Derby side on Monday QPR seemed to lose faith in what they were doing and their own ability. They kept going as they were in this game and scored two fine goals as a result. For all the grit and determination QPR have needed in these two games with Dave Jones’ side it has, on three occasions, been the skill and ability of Adel Taarabt that has won us the points. He has scored three fabulous goals against City this season, making Jones’ post match assertion that he was the worst player on the pitch sound like the bitter ramblings of a beaten man – which is exactly what it was.
Cardiff: Bywater 6, McNaughton 6, Quinn 7, Keinan 6, Samuel 6, Burke 6 (Emmanuel-Thomas 77, 6), Whittingham 7, McPhail 7, Olofinjana 7, Bellamy 8 (Chopra 87, -), Bothroyd 8
Subs Not Used: Heaton, Rae, Hudson, Blake, Matthews
Booked: Whittingham (handball), Quinn (foul)
Goals: Bothroyd 6 (unassisted), Bellamy 35 (assisted Bothroyd)
QPR: Kenny 8, Orr 6, Gorkss 5, Connolly 6 (Hall 80, 7), Hill 6, Derry 7, Faurlin 6, Routledge 8, Smith 5 (Agyemang 69, 7), Taarabt 8, Helguson 6
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Buzsaky, Hulse, Ephraim, Miller
Goals: Taarabt 10 (assisted Faurlin), 71 (assisted Routledge)
QPR Star Man – Paddy Kenny 8 A three way tussle for the star man award in my eyes – Taarabt, Routledge and Kenny. I’ve gone for the goalkeeper, just, for making four outstanding saves in the game including a crucial and very brave one on one stop from Bellamy after our second equaliser.
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire) 8 One or two soft decisions, and Cardiff are as usual complaining bitterly about a penalty appeal of theirs he waved away but I think he called that one right. Overall he refereed the game very well, giving it every chance and only handing out cards when absolutely necessary. He’s not normally my favourite referee but he was excellent here.
Attendance: 26,058 (2,000 QPR approx) A tremendous atmosphere inside the ground with fans of both sides playing their part. Amazingly, given the high profile nature of the game and the reputation of the home fans, I didn’t see a single piece of trouble all afternoon. I did laugh at the QPR fans doing the Ayatollah head pat which Cardiff like to do whenever things are going well for them after the final whistle as the home fans slunk away.
Photo: Action Images
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