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Balanta's first QPR goal earns point
Balanta's first QPR goal earns point
Sunday, 24th Feb 2008 14:02

QPR and Sheff Utd shared the points in a dull and drab draw at Loftus Road on Saturday. Angelo Balanta scored his first senior goal for the club.

If somebody wanted an example of a typical Championship match I think I’d probably send them a video of this one. Occasional moments of quality drowned out by a lot of distinctly average play from two mediocre looking teams, ball retention often poor from both sides, too much long ball played and ultimately it petered out into a draw that did neither club very much good or harm. The only difference from the standard Championship fair was the presence of a Premiership referee who didn’t really need to change out of his suit to run this, at times, lifeless encounter and was probably the best man on the pitch.

While Steve Bennett looked like a man at the top of his profession, the same could not be said for most of the players. Occasionally QPR got the ball down and strung a move together, but too often it was just turfed down the field towards Agyemang who struggled to win anything in the air against the ever physical Chris Morgan. Fitz Hall, almost faultless in his defending, was chief culprit in the aimless punt department. Occasionally Sheff Utd looked good and threatened, particularly when they got the ball wide either in open play or from dead ball situations, but in the main there was a lot of huff and puff from Kevin Blackwell’s men without results.

After the tonking by Burnley and a week away in Portugal Luigi De Canio made several changes to his line up. Out went centre halves Damion Stewart and Zesh Rehman, replaced by Matt Connolly and fit again Fitz Hall. There was a lot of support for Stewart and Rehman despite the footballing lesson Cole and Burnley handed out ten days ago – I think this team selection certainly makes De Canio’s feelings on their performances abundantly clear. Mancienne played right back with Delaney left in front of Camp in goal.

In midfield Rangers were without Akos Buzsaky who was suspended and rather than remove Martin Rowlands from the middle of midfield, a disastrous move in recent matches, Angelo Balanta got the nod instead of the Hungarian and started wide left with Ephraim on the right. Leigertwood started alongside Rowlands in the middle with Gavin Mahon out with a foot injury. Vine partnered Sgyemang in attack.

Sheff Utd were already without Gary Speed and Lee Hendrie through injury and lost Lee Martin before the game with a hip injury, he was replaced by Chris Armstrong. Blackwell went with James Beattie and Billy Sharp in attack with Cotterill, Hulse and Shelton all available on the bench. Sharp is still without a league goal for the Blades and normally that means a 30 yard wonder strike against QPR, thankfully he proved to be ineffective once again.

The two teams were only separated by goal difference at the start of play and predictably the game started very evenly, and slowly. Two balls left the ground via the South Africa stand roof in the opening ten minutes, we’re normally unlucky to lose two a season that way never mind two in two minutes, before Mikele Leigertwood headed a Martin Rowlands corner into the Sheff Utd fans after eight minutes. This was a rare positive contribution from Leigertwood on the day, he’s certainly suffered a loss of form in recent weeks and was pretty poor once again on Saturday.

Sheff Utd played three or four very dangerous corners of their own into the box in the opening stages – it needed a terrific flicked, headed clearance from Hall to deny Sharp a free header at the back post after 11 minutes.

It took a quarter of an hour for either team to put anything together that didn’t involve a set piece. It was QPR that came up with it – Agyemang, Ephraim and Mancienne combining beautifully down the right to feed the ball into Vine who was off target with his shot from 20 yards out. Rangers took the lead after 19 minutes thank to a first goal for the club from Angelo Balanta. Martin Rowlands spread the ball to the right wing with a lovely pass and Hogan Ephraim tricked and teased Naysmith before delivering a wicked cross to the near post which was met by Balanta who side footed home from three yards out. United had failed to pick the youngster up at all as he arrived late and attacked the near post from the opposite side of the field.

The assist from Ephraim was an eye catching one, and he seemed much more effective coming in from the right flank than he has done recently coming from the left. Naysmith looked very uncomfortable with him all afternoon. Sadly he faded out of the game in the second half, as did Balanta, as QPR sat back too deep and tried in vain to defend their lead.

The closest The Blades came in the first half was from a James Beattie volley when another of their wicked corners dropped at the far post – although the ball came through a crowd of legs Lee Camp watched it well and saved brilliantly away to his left. The ball bounced up and looked certain to be scrambled in at the back post but Camp sprang back to his feet and between him, Matt Connolly, Fitz Hall and the post they managed to get enough between the ball and the goal to keep the scores level. Referee Bennett had already awarded a free kick for a push though.

At the School End Martin Rowlands dragged a shot wide after good work from Ephraim but after three minutes of stoppage time the half came to a close to muted applause from both sets of supporters. Rangers were in front, but the game was poor overall.

QPR started the second half brighter than their visitors as they had done the first but the excitement of the occasion got to Angelo Balanta somewhat as he sent a shot straight at Kenny when Ephraim was well placed to receive a pass. Vine fired wide a moment later but QPR didn’t threaten again until stoppage time at the end of the match as United pressed for an equaliser and started to dominate.

On the hour Stead went past Delaney, a rare occurrence in the first half but increasingly a problem in the second, and delivered a cross to the back post where Armstrong and Beattie seemed to get in each other’s way as the ball was bundled wide when it really should have been in the back of the net. Tonge drilled a low shot wide of the upright before Connolly’s timely interception at the near post prevented a cross from Armstrong flying across the face of goal. Martin Rowlands did likewise from the other side as Stead started to get on top of Delaney and deliver some wicked crosses into the box. We often don't do enough to stop crosses coming into the box in the first place in my opinion.

With just under 20 minutes to go De Canio was forced to make a change to his defence. Fitz Hall didn’t look to be moving too freely by this stage but Matt Connolly had also picked up a knock and it was the former Arsenal youngster who made way for Damion Stewart. Connolly was probably just about QPR’s best player on the day – like Hall he defended well but unlike One Size his distribution from the back was very decent as well. Since arriving from Arsenal in January Connolly has looked very good to me whenever he’s played – the problem is fitness. Injured off against Cardiff and subsequently left on the bench for Bristol City, he went off again on Saturday and this is a concern.

A team defends well when it has a settled back line that knows each other’s games and develops an understanding between them. Over the past month we’ve had Hall and Connolly, Hall and Stewart, Stewart and Rehman and Stewart and Mancienne as centre half partnerships at one time or another. This does not breed familiarity, it breeds mistakes. It was therefore very worrying to see Connolly having to go off and the defence didn’t look as secure as it had once he’d departed. Sheff Utd slung Cotterill and Hulse on around the same time for Beattie and Sharp and upped the tempo in their search for an equaliser.

Rangers also made a change in attack with Blackstock replacing Balanta and Vine going out to the wing. This had no effect whatsoever – we hadn’t been servicing the strikers well enough before that and we certainly didn’t change after the introduction of Blackstock.

The inevitable leveller came immediately after the introduction of Hulse, indeed the score board was still displaying his name as Paddy Kenny launched a long ball down the field into the heart of the QPR penalty area. Chirs Morgan beat Fitz Hall to it and flicked the ball on but Michael Mancienne managed to get a boot on the loose ball as it dropped on the penalty spot. His weak clearance went straight back to Morgan who sent an instinctive low shot towards goal and with the help of two deflections the ball rolled agonisingly out of Camp’s reach and into the bottom corner. It was no more than the Blades deserved on the balance of play in the second half.

QPR had a chance to snatch all three points in the first minute of time added on when Damien Dealney was hauled down by Derek Geary after a typically purposeful run down the left flank. That foul, for which Geary was booked, set up a dangerous free kick level with the edge of the area wide on the left. Hogan Ephraim came across to take it and whipped a ball across that initially looked like it was too high but ultimately caused Kenny a problem – he needed two attempts to grasp the ball under the cross bar, any kind of pressure on him from a QPR player may have yielded greater reward. From his clearance down field Sheff Utd won another corner which Rangers managed to get away and although it’s often difficult to be happy with a point at home this breakaway from the Blades meant most in the ground were happy to hear the final whistle when it sounded seconds later.

All in all a fairly bog standard match then, and the draw was a fair result on the balance of play. The teams were evenly matched, but play the game in different ways with Rangers normally trying to play football and Sheff Utd relying very much on set pieces and percentages – i.e. if you lump the ball into the danger area often enough you’ll score. Their goal typified the way they play and ours did likewise. Sadly we didn’t do enough of what we’re good at to win the game.

I can’t remember Vine or Agyemang being as anonymous and ineffective as they were on Saturday. I know Morgan and Kilgallon are good centre halves but we caused them many more problems at Bramall Lane than we did in this return fixture. The absence of Buzsaky was most keenly felt by the two forwards I think, we just lacked the bit of somthign different and extra class when we had the ball - that's not meant as a slight on either Ephraim or Balanta though as they both played well. 

The crowd seemed to be getting at Vine in the second half as one flick and trick after another came to nothing – I thought that was a bit unfair on a player who has done brilliantly for us since arriving from Birmingham. Flicks, tricks and trying outlandish things are his game – when it comes off he looks like a world beater, when it doesn’t he looks like an idiot. On more than one occasion I was disappointed to see him flick a first time lay off straight to a Sheff Utd player when we needed him to hold the ball and bring others into play but like I say that’s his game. If it came off more often than not then he wouldn’t be playing in the Championship would he? Needs to improve for Tuesday night though.

I always go to QPR with very low expectations so that would explain why I was probably a lot more content and philosophical about the game than many QPR fans afterwards. There were some moans and groans at the final whistle and a lot of disgruntled people on the tube but the way I see it Sheffield United are not as bad a team as their league position suggests – it’s only because Captain Calamity has been in charge until last week that they’re so low in the table. They’re a decent side and the two teams looked well matched to me. Neither of them played particularly well or badly, it just looked like a game towards the end of the season between two sides with little to play for.

Onwards now to Barnsley where QPR fans will be hoping the home side has its mind on other things – they play Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter finals in early March. We can go there and win, but we’ll need to play better than we did against the Blades to do it.

QPR: Camp 6, Mancienne 6, Connolly 7 (Stewart 73, 6), Hall 7, Delaney 7, Ephraim 7, Rowlands 7, Leigertwood 5, Balanta 7 (Blackstock 73, 6), Vine 5, Agyemang 5
Subs Not Used: Pickens, Lee, Rehman
Goals: Ba Balanta 19 (assisted Ephraim)

Sheff Utd: Kenny 6, Geary 6, Morgan 7, Kilgallon 7, Naysmith 5, Stead 7 (Shelton 77, 6), Tonge 6, Armstrong 7, Quinn 7, Sharp 5 (Cotterill 70, 6), Beattie 6 (Hulse 77, 6)
Subs Not Used: Gillespie, Lucketti
Booked: Morgan (foul), Geary (foul)
Goals: Morgan 78 (unassisted)

QPR Star Man – Matt Connolly 7 - Difficult one this because everybody was just about as average and mediocre as everybody else. I was going to go for Fitz Hall initially because his defending was excellent, but he misses out because every time he got that ball he just hoofed it down field – that’s not how we play the game any more and it gave our two strikers a bit of a thankless task. That left it between Connolly and Delaney for me, both did very little wrong while defending and distributed the ball better than Hall. I’ve gone for Connolly in the end, the defence didn’t look as solid without him and quickly conceded a very sloppy and soft goal while Delaney seemed to let Stead get on top a bit in the second half and often doesn’t do enough to stop a dangerous cross coming in for me. I hope Connolly and Hall can get a few games together at centre half and start building a partnership.

Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent) 8 - Can be like a fussy old woman at times but he was well on top of this game at all times. Never more than 15 yards away from a decision, no histrionics, no needless cards just a quick blast of the whistle, ball down and away we go again. Refereed it very well in my opinion.

Attendance: 15,383 (2000 Sheff Utd fans approx) A decent crowd but the atmosphere was pretty flat at times which is understandable considering the lack of prolonged periods of excitement on the pitch.

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