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Rangers prosper in land of the giants
Rangers prosper in land of the giants
Tuesday, 3rd Apr 2007 22:07

QPR added a priceless three points to their total in a game in hand against Preston North End at Loftus Road on Tuesday night.

After Saturday's defeat to West Brom I said if we're relegated we'll be looking back on that Paul Furlong penalty miss on the long trips to Hartlepool and Oldham next season. Three points turned to zero with the kick of one ball. The moment it all finally came apart for us.

In the same spirit, if we stay up, just how crucial could Lee Camp's sprawling save from Danny Dichio's header late in the game last night be? The script seemed written when the former QPR striker went up with Agyemang and the ball flicked off one of them towards goal but Camp's footwork was immaculate and he pushed the ball wide of his goal to preserve the 1-0 lead.

An equaliser at that point after a huge effort from the entire team on the night may have been a blow too far, but Camp saved the day and we're now four points clear of the third bottom side going into the Easter weekend.

It was always likely to be a header that undid QPR in the second half. After a slow start to the match the home side came into the game more and more culminating in a fantastic opening goal by Dexter Blackstock. This was the cue for Preston manager Paul Simpson to start utilising his reserves - the Preston bench resembled a freaky Frankenstein's laboratory rather than a dugout, as time ticked on one unfeasibly tall monster after another stripped off and entered the fray until they had five or six colossal presences in the QPR penalty area.

I struggle to recall a more physical team at Loftus Road since Dave Bassett picked up the phone to Millwall and said "ere, how much do you want for that Fashanu lad?" in 1986. David Nugent would operate as a target man in most Championship sides and yet he was the smallest as Dichio, Agyemang, Ricketts and later even Wilson battled up alongside him.

Cullip and Stewart were towers of strength for most of the second half and when one of the visiting giants finally, finally got a clean header away Lee Camp was there with a crucial save to keep the quest for three points, and the white hot atmosphere alive.

That was Preston's last clear cut chance of the game. The first had come inside the opening sixty seconds.

Gregory was forced into changes following Saturday's defeat with Inigo Idiakez injured. He was replaced in midfield by Steve Lomas alongside Adam Bolder between Cook and Ainsworth. Up front Paul Furlong paid for his profligacy with his starting place, Blackstock partnered Nygaard.

The same back four of Mancienne, Cullip, Stewart and Bignot started in front of Camp but within seconds of the kick off they failed in their key job of the night - staying tight to David Nugent. Preston partnered him with Michael Ricketts despite his glaring miss at Leeds on Friday and also welcomed one time QPR target Matt Hill back into the side at full back. It was the former Bristol City man who supplied Nugent, a cross from the left found England's latest international in acres of space in front of goal but his side footed half volley finish went two yards past the post.

QPR didn't respond to this. They started the game very sluggishly with Damion Stewart having a complete nightmare at centre half. He punctuated the first 20 minutes with numerous wild clearances, poorly played passes and terrifying mistakes in his own area culminating in a back header to Lee Camp which he had two attempts at and still nearly presented to Nugent - thankfully after that one he calmed down and was magnificent in the second half.

Going forward Rangers struggled to trouble Preston at all early on. Lee Cook cut inside Alexander and looked threatening after eight minutes before being crudely blocked off by Sean St Ledger - the former Peterborough man picked up the first booking of the game for it which seemed a little harsh. Cook picked himself up to deliver an excellent cross to the back post but Nygaard was slow to react and Ricketts got the ball behind for a corner. A little later Cook received treatment on the knee injury that had looked set to keep him out of the game altogether, he played on but clearly wasn't happy, had little effect on the game and was withdrawn at half time.

Once Rangers settled their game plan was clear - direct football up to the front two or wide midfield players as quickly as possible. A little heading exhibition on the edge of the box from Nygaard gave Blackstock a chance to hook a shot towards goal but Lonergan covered it as the ball flew over.

Blackstock and Ainsworth both sent weak headers wide of the target while at the other end Nugent robbed an unusually static Mancienne of possession and crossed for Hill to head goalwards but Camp made a fine one handed save to deny him. Simon Whaley was next to try his luck on the half hour, cutting in and firing in a low shot but Camp was again equal to it.

When awarded their first corner of the game Preston worked it out to Songo'o on the edge of the box but Bolder raced out to get a block on his shot. The visitors, and the ever mouthy Graham Alexander in particular, appealed for handball but the referee waved them away. They'd have an even more crucial handball decision go against them later in the game as well.

As the half wore on Gareth Ainsworth came into the game more and more, as he had done against West Brom, and started to cause his former club some real problems. In the final ten minutes two gilt edge chances went begging and he was at the heart of both of them.

First he smashed in one of his trademark ambitious volleys from the corner of the penalty area after a poor clearance from Chilvers. An earlier effort had bounced meekly through to Lonergan but this one bounced viciously in front of goal and looked destined to go very close to the bottom corner. From nowhere Marc Nygaard appeared, onside, and sliding in on the ball. He got a boot to it at full stretch but somehow diverted the chance high into the Loft when the pace of the ball surely meant that any kind of touch couldn't help but divert it into the goal. It may even have gone in of its own accord.

It was one of those chances that brings and anguished cry of disbelief from the Loft which is usually followed by a load of groaning and abuse for the player until he is substituted, especially when it's Nygaard. Luckily a combination of the fans being in a forgiving mood and Nygaard working himself to a standstill throughout the game prevented that happening here. Despite the missed chance this was one of the Dane's better games in a QPR shirt.

More cries of disbelief followed soon after though as Ainsworth burst into the area and rampaged towards goal. He seemed certain to shoot, and probably score, but he'd already made his mind up to pull the ball back. Blackstock hadn't read his intentions though and the ball found only acres of open grass around the penalty spot as the chance went begging.

Half time came and went with the faithful wondering if they'd live to regret missing two of the game's best three chances.

That feeling only grew as the teams emerged for the second half. Arguably the two best players Rangers have failed to reappear after the break. Michael Mancienne took a nasty boot to the face as time ticked down in the first half and he was replaced at right back by Pat Kanyuka. Lee Cook also got a knock in the first half, and looked well out of sorts for the second game running, Rohan Ricketts came on for him as QPR restarted kicking towards the School End for the second half for a change.

There was a nervousness around the ground as the game recommenced. Two missed chances and now two injuries, a QPR win was looking more and more unlikely, but then Dexter Blackstock blew the doubts away with the opening goal.

Marc Nygaard retrieved possession just inside his own half and floated a glorious forty yard ball straight onto Blackstock's chest. Dexter brought the ball down with a killer touch, completely taking St Ledger out of the game, and then hammered an unstoppable shot past Lonergan and into the roof of the net. Loftus Road erupted and for the second time in as many games Blackstock was booked for over celebrating by referee Keith Stroud.

Preston almost came up with an immediate response. Michael Ricketts turned Cullip on the edge of the penalty area and was hauled to the ground. Ricketts leapt to his feet screaming and waving his arms around demanding Cullip be sent off, Graham Alexander was, as he had been for the entire first half, right next to the referee having a whinge and all this gamesmanship was too much for Steve Lomas who steamed in with some choice words and was booked for his troubles. Only Pat Kanyuka covering in round the back saved Cullip a red card.

When Ricketts had finally collected all his toys he stepped up to take the free kick himself, curling the ball round the wall and past the post with Camp beaten and twelve thousand QPR fans holding their breathe and/or soiling themselves.

Preston added Patrick Agyemang to their attack on the hour and started to pepper the QPR penalty area with high balls but Cullip and Stewart stood firm. In front of them Lomas seemed to have been fired up by his booking and was charging around with Bolder winning challenges left right and centre. Both strikers were also working their socks off and with Ainsworth outstanding wide on the right again and Ricketts showing some decent touches wide left this was a wholehearted, committed display.

Marc Nygaard attempted a repeat of his Leicester wonder goal with 20 minutes left, cutting round the back of a pass from Blackstock and firing a yard over the bar. If he'd been striding onto the ball instead of trying to wrap his foot round it this could have gone very close to the goal his performance deserved. Both Blackstock and Nygaard put in a fantastic level of work, won an incredible amount of ball in the air and never stopped running.

At the Loft End Ricketts and Alexander had good reason for a moan, not that a lack of reason had stopped them to this point, as time ticked away and Stroud missed a blatant penalty decision. Wilson, on for Matt Hill, won the ball at the back post under challenge from Blackstock who had his arms up above his head and inadvertently killed the ball stone dead with his elbow. It was a blatant penalty, but with Stroud unsighted he was relying on his linesman who kept his flag firmly down by his side.

Perhaps he just couldn't be doing with the hassle of giving such a crucial decision on that side of the ground. The fans in and around the P, Q and R blocks were magnificent in the second half, getting increasingly louder and more vociferous in their support as the half went on. By the end of the night it was hard to recall an atmosphere like it since the Oldham play off semi final. I wouldn't like to have given a penalty against them and then stand in that corner for another twenty minutes.

QPR were on the end of some rough decisions as well, Steve Lomas was absolutely cleaned out by a nasty fore arm smash from Alexander who was barely even spoken to by the referee. Within thirty seconds Adam Bolder had been booked for a sneaky push and kicking the ball away. Dexter Blackstock also looked to have a good penalty claim after beating Lonergan to a loose ball and collapsing but the free kick went against him.

Lee Camp claimed two corners from Pugh magnificently under his cross bar with crowds of men seemingly twice his size vying for the ball and then, with the fourth official preparing to signal five minutes of added time, his wonder save to keep the scores level - denying Dichio and/or Agyeman down in the bottom corner.

John Gregory introduced Jimmy Smith for Rohan Ricketts, the loaned Wolves man picked up a knock earlier in the half, and when Chris Sedgwick's last gasp free kick was cleared from the penalty area Smith found himself with the freedom of Loftus Road and a raucous home crowd roaring him on. He carried the ball down the line, looked up and squared a glorious ball across the face of the area. Despite working tirelessly for more than 90 minutes to this point Dexter Blackstock ran fully 90 yards from his own area to get on the end of the cross but Lonergan brilliantly saved down low to his right to prevent a second goal. The roof might well have come off had that one gone in.

The final whistle was met with celebrations worthy of a much bigger occasion than this, but the hard work required to cling to the point and terrifying last half hour provoked an outpouring of relief when Mr Stroud finally brought the game to a close just the right side of 10pm.

As Gregory said afterwards, this wasn't pretty. The success was built almost exclusively on hard work and graft. If you wanted to bring a foreigner to see what English football is like you'd struggle to have found a better example - two physical teams leathering the crap out of each other in a bruising battle.

For that reason QPR couldn't have won without the spine of the side. Apart from Damion Stewart in the first twenty minutes the two centre halves, central midfielders and centre forwards all had fantastic games. The work ethic and never say die attitude was led by Gareth Ainsworth who was magnificent for the second game in a row. Not pretty, but hard to fault anybody.

QPR now go to Coventry knowing that whatever happens they'll still be outside the bottom three by the time they take on Luton at Loftus Road on Easter Monday. That really is a massive match.

QPR: Camp 8, Bignot 7, Cullip 8, Stewart 7, Mancienne 6 (Kanyuka 46, 6), Ainsworth 8 Bolder 8, Lomas 7, Cook 5 (Ricketts 46, 6) (Smith 82, -) , Nygaard 7, Blackstock 8
Subs not used: Cole, Furlong.
Scorers: Blackstock 49
Bookings: Blackstock 50 (over celebrating), Cullip 54 (foul), Lomas 54 (dissent) Bolder 73 (foul/kicking the ball away)

Preston North End: Lonergan 7, Alexander 6, Pugh 6, St Ledger 7, Chilvers 7, Sedgwick 6, Whaley 7 (Dichio 75, 7), Hill 7 (Wilson 77, 7), Songo'o 7 (Agyemang 61, 7) Ricketts 7, Nugent 6
Subs not used: Henderson, Nowland.
Bookings: St Ledger 8 (foul)

QPR Star Man: Gareth Ainsworth 8 - Lots of candidates for a change, Adam Bolder went very close but I thought Ainsworth was just superb again. Worked his arse off from first until last and led from the front. He's been fantastic in the last two games.

Referee: K P Stroud 5 - He's a referee I like but it's hard to give him a higher mark than five because he missed the most blatant handball penalty you're ever likely to see, booked Lomas for dissent and yet allowed Alexander to moan on and on and on and on and on at him all night, and allowed a forearm smash on Lomas to go without a card. Inconsistent.

Attendance: 11, 910

Photo: Action Images



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