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Brave Rangers narrowly beaten at Bridge
Brave Rangers narrowly beaten at Bridge
Sunday, 6th Jan 2008 15:32

QPR bowed out of the FA Cup with a spirited but ultimately fruitless display against holders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

If the less partisan QPR fans went to Stamford Bridge on Saturday just hoping the team didn’t get embarrassed, then they probably came away thinking ‘what if’. What if Buzsaky had still been on the pitch when we had our best spell of the game at the start of the second half? What if Dexter Blackstock hadn’t got injured and forced us to effectively play the last 20 minutes with ten men? What if Pizarro’s shot had hit the post and come out instead of hitting Camp and going in?

Quite possibly if just one of those things had gone for us we’d be looking forward to a replay a week on Tuesday, or maybe even the draw on Monday lunch time. They may have been facing the cup holders, a team worth a hundred million pounds, on their own patch but Luigi De Canio’s team did themselves proud and never once looked out of their depth or overawed.

Previous visits by lower league sides to Stamford Bridge have yielded 3-1 defeats for Huddersfield and Scunthorpe, and proper hammerings for Forest and Norwich. This never, ever looked like it was going to be that with Rowlands and Mahon superb in midfield and the two new boys in the defence settling right in and playing superbly against difficult opposition. Chelsea just about shaded this at times drab and lifeless game, on both possession and chances, but they shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking they were a great deal better than their Championship opponents. QPR matched Chelsea in most departments and by the end the hosts, who will be playing Champions League football while we battle the likes of Colchester and Scunthorpe in the coming months, were wasting time and running the clock down by trying to keep the ball in the corner.

A humbling experience, if the Chelsea fans who seem to have miraculously more than doubled in numbers since our last visit, are capable of humility.

QPR huddled together before the kick off, not for team spirit or motivation but as a method of introducing themselves to each other. Four full debutants in the first choice 11, and another two new boys waiting on the bench, it had the feeling of the first game of a season with a completely new look team. The biggest overhaul came in the defence where Bob Malcolm was replaced at right back by Matt Connolly after he returned to Derby, and Zesh Rehman was dropped in favour of Fitz Hall. Damion Stewart and Chris Barker maintained their places ahead of Lee Camp in goal.

In midfield there was no Rowan Vine, expected to sign permanently on Monday, so Hogan Ephraim started his second spell with Rangers wide on the left. Gavin Mahon made his first start in the middle instead of Adam Bolder alongside Martin Rowlands. Gareth Ainsworth kept his place wide right. Up front Blackstock led the line with Buzsaky in just behind. Patrick Agyemang was made to wait for his first appearance in a QPR shirt from the bench.

The big Chelsea team news saw Didier Drogba return from injury as a substitute. Kalou and Pizarro started up front for the home side with Shaun Wright Phillips apparently carrying the biggest threat from the midfield. Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ricardo Carvalho and Andrei Shevchenko were all missing with injury or suspension, Joe Cole only made the bench.

The game quickly settled into a predictable pattern of play. Chelsea dominated possession and QPR were forced to be well organised without the ball, and rely on counter attacks for their own opportunities. That worked very well for the visitors with Chelsea struggling to create anything in the opening ten minutes while both Blackstock and Ainsworth had balls threaded through into the Chelsea penalty area but just couldn’t get shots away in time.

That pair almost combined for the opening goal after a quarter of an hour when Ainsworth made everybody’s favourite footballer Ashley Cole look foolish by robbing him of the ball on the corner of his own box. Ainsworth sent a low cross right through the Chelsea penalty area with Blackstock just too far back to get on the end of it and give QPR the lead. With Blackstock a massive 16/1 for the first goal there were a few betting slips fluttering in the away end as that ball went in.

As the half wore on Chelsea sent in two or three dangerous crosses of their own. Kalou was inches away from sliding one in from a couple of yards out while another was allowed to fly all the way through the six yard box and out for a goal kick. Overall though Chelsea didn’t get the ball out to Wright Phillips as often as I thought they would – I expected him to give Barker a really hard time but he didn’t really. When he got the ball the poor final delivery that England fans have bemoaned from him was in evidence again with two crosses hit straight into the QPR fans and one wild shot into the upper tier when he had men up in support. He certainly didn’t look as threatening as he did the last time we faced him, when he ripped us apart at Loftus Road for Man City.

Chelsea took the lead on the half hour. Claudio Pizarro collected possession wide on the Chelsea left and cut inside across the face of the area. Gavin Mahon and Fitz hall both tried to close the Peruvian down but couldn’t get close enough and he unloaded a low drive towards goal from 20 yards which bounced off the foot of the post, hit Lee Camp on the back and rolled agonizingly over the line in front of the despairing QPR fans. Camp’s second own goal in three games, and he could do very little about either of them.

A minute before the break Blackstock touched a ball off on the edge of the box and Buzsaky hammered it a foot or so over the bar with his weaker foot.

Right on half time Chelsea went very close to making it 2-0 on the counter attack from a QPR free kick. Damion Stewart launched the ball towards the penalty area but it was cleared away and Shaun Wright Phillips made ground into the QPR half. The ball was worked through Pizarro to Sidwell who struck a low first time shot off the base of the post from fully 25 yards. This was the best move of the game and Chelsea could count themselves unlucky not to be two nil up as a result on it – still, that would have been harsh on QPR who’d shown enough with the ball and worked hard enough without it during the first half to go in level at half time.

Rangers made a change at half time with Patrick ‘Dave’ Agyemang brought on for his QPR debut instead of Gareth Ainsworth. That meant a more orthodox front two with Agyemang joining Blackstock in attack and Buzsaky moving back into midfield.

Chelsea had the first chance of the half when Mikel collapsed theatrically under minimal contact from the excellent Martin Rowlands and won a free kick – Mike Dean’s only poor decision of the game in my opinion. Alex stepped up from fully 40 yards and although he beat the wall the shot was never going to seriously trouble Camp and he gathered easily.

Before the new set up had even had a chance to settle down De Canio had to change it around again. Buzsaky worked hard to chase Ferreira down by his own corner flag but collapsed off the pitch after executing a block. After lengthy treatment on his ankle he rejoined the action but quickly signaled to the bench that he wasn’t able to continue. That meant a debut for Kieran Lee who played wide right in midfield for the majority of the second half and showed good touches, awareness and ability during his time on the pitch – I’m very excited about having him in our line up for the rest of the season, I think he’s going to be a big hit.

The change didn’t affect QPR immediately and they had their ten minutes of pressure that every team enjoys in a match before the hour mark. Rangers were able to pack the penalty area with the likes of hall and Stewart on two occasions for free kicks but Chelsea cleared one, and Hall was penalized for climbing over his man under another. The closest they came to scoring all afternoon was when martin Rowlands let rip with a half volley from the edge of the area, it flew narrowly over the bar with Hilario well beaten in the Chelsea goal.

Had that dipped into the top corner it would have been no more than Rowlands deserved. Him and Mahon were outstanding in the middle of midfield and played Chelsea really, really well. Rowlands in particular was awesome, the best player on the pitch in my opinion, and is in the form of his QPR career at the moment. Long may it continue.

Rowlands had another shot saved before Agyemang went close to becoming an instant QPR legend. Alex got the wrong side of the big target man as a ball was lofted into the grass behind the Chelsea defence by Mahon. Dave raced onto the ball, held off Alex into the area and unloaded a low shot on goal. Alex got back to execute a block and for one glorious moment it looked like the deflection had taken the ball up and over Hilario into the net but that turned out to simply be the angle I was watching the game from the upper tier and in the end the ball was safely and comfortably gathered in by the keeper.

Rangers sent on Balanta for Ephraim with 24 minutes left for play, Hogan had little joy against Ferriera overall but then you don’t come up against many full backs as good as Ferreira in the Championship and he’ll turn out to be a good signing. Balanta, as he had done at Watford, showed good confidence and touch for one so young.

Sadly shortly after making his third and final sub De Canio saw Dexter Blackstock pick up an injury. I think he would have been replaced if we’d been able to but he hobbled back on after treatment and basically played the final 20 minutes on one leg. This went unnoticed by many QPR fans who gave Blackstock some very unfair stick for his work rate near the end of the game, despite the fact he could barely run.

That finished QPR as an attacking force in the game and with Chelsea showing little attacking ambition of their own the match just sort of petered out. Pizarro should have scored a second when he jinked his way to the corner of the six yard box from the right side of the penalty area but he blasted over with the goal at his mercy.

Didier Drogba enjoyed a good run out, coming on for Scott Sinclair who’d shown the same brainless desire to run and run and run and run until he crashed into something that had infuriated the QPR fans while he was on loan at Loftus Road. If he’d only get his head up and look for a pass every now and again he’d be a much better player. Drogba looked rusty but went close to doubling the lead with a searing 20 yard shot that Lee Camp parried away from the bottom corner with both hands.

Fitz Hall became the first and only player to enter the referee’s book for a crude lunge on Shaun Wright Phillips after indecision by Chris Barker had let the winger in behind him. Wright Phillips was replaced by Cole moments later but didn’t appear to be carrying any lasting damage from the tackle.

The final five minutes and stoppage time consisted of a series of QPR free kicks on the halfway line which Chelsea dealt with as they were launched into a crowded penalty area. The QPR players were warmly applauded by their own supporters at the final whistle – beaten but with their heads held high.

There were lots of lots of positives for QPR fans to take from this - particularly the midfield partnership between Rowlands and Mahon who were both excellent. Lee looked very bright on his debut in the second half and Fitz Hall looked like the big, commanding, confident and composed centre half we’ve been crying out for. It’s very hard to see why Titus Bramble is preferred to him at Wigan, their loss and our gain I would suggest. Hall and Stewart look like a fearsome partnership and one I’m looking forward to seeing against less talented opposition than Kalou, Pizarro and Drogba. Agyemang won lots of ball in the air, and looked pacy and powerful, when he came on although his first touch did let him down on occasions.

I thought it was a real shame that Chris Barker got some stick from his own fans at the end of the game for swapping shirts with a Chelsea player. Barker had played well against Wright Phillips and took the time to come over to the away end and thank us for our support and only got abuse from some in return. That’s a bit small minded in my opinion.

My biggest worry before this game was that our recent good run of form and performances have built up a level of confidence and momentum that could have taken a real bashing at the hands of the cup holders. I needn’t have worried, the lads did themselves really proud on the day and could easily have earned a replay. There’s a very bright future for our team, hopefully starting with us getting my favourite manager the sack at Sheff Utd next Saturday.

Chelsea: Hilario 7, Ferreira 8, Ben-Haim 7, Alex 7, Ashley Cole 6, Wright-Phillips 5 (Joe Cole 79, 6), Obi 6, Sidwell 8, Sinclair 5 (Drogba 60, 6), Kalou 6, Pizarro 7 (Ballack 71, 7)
Subs Not Used: Taylor, Belletti
Goals: Camp 28 og (assisted Pizarro)

QPR: Camp 7, Hall 8, Stewart 8, Barker 7, Ainsworth 6 (Agyemang 46, 6), Connolly 8, Mahon 8, Rowlands 8, Ephraim 6 (Balanta 65, 6), Blackstock 6, Buzsaky 6 (Lee 50, 7)
Subs Not Used: Bolder, Walton
Booked: Hall (foul)

QPR Star Man – Martin Rowlands 8 - Another outstanding display from Rowlands in the middle of midfield, I sincerely hope he’s staying with us long term because he’s showing a great ability to fit into De Canio’s style of play. Along with Mahon he controlled the midfield for long periods and looked Premiership class. Fitz Hall was also excellent as was Connolly.

Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral) 9 - An almost faultless display with just one free kick given for a foul on Mikel that I would question. Allowed the game to flow, only showed one card. Great stuff.

Attendance: 41,289 (6800 QPR fans approx) As you would expect really, the QPR fans made a bit of a racket until Chelsea scored and were a bit quieter after that, the Chelsea fans said very little all afternoon – well, at least 22,000 of them weren’t anywhere near Stamford Bridge the last time we were here a decade ago so you can’t expect them to really know who we are or get very excited about a proper derby game.


Photo: Action Images

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