|Birmingham City 2 v 1 Queens Park Rangers|
Saturday, 27th February 2021 Kick-off 15:00
Birmingham late show stuns below par QPR - Report
Sunday, 28th Feb 2021 18:46 by Clive Whittingham
QPR's unbeaten run is over after the R's contrived to throw away a one goal lead in the final eight minutes of Saturday's dire game at Birmingham City.
One of the most encouraging things about Queens Park Rangers’ recent uptick in form has been their ability to grind a result out of games in which they weren’t at their best. Rangers were excellent in victories at Luton, Watford and Cardiff and deserved more than a point from a spirited and disciplined effort away at league leaders Norwich, but they married that with gritty wins against Blackburn and Bournemouth, a second half fight back after a poor opening against Brentford, and a point from a leggy show at Preston midweek.
At Birmingham City on Saturday it felt for much of the game like they were trying to see how far they could push it. Just how poorly can this new-look Rangers team play and still win? Against a Blues side fourth bottom of the table, with two wins from 16 games, and the worst home record in the division by a mile with nine defeats on their own patch already this season, Rangers turned in a dire first half display and improved upon that only marginally after half time.
The excuses were plentiful and pre-written. As if cramming an already unworkable Championship fixture list into a period of time six weeks shorter than usual, with zero pragmatic thinking about whether we needed things like the League Cup or fortnights off for international friendly matches, wasn’t taxing enough for the players, this year’s midweek dates are split over Tuesday and Wednesday nights to appease the host broadcaster. It means that half the division is having to back up Wednesday-Saturday each week, and that was especially difficult for QPR with their second longest trip of the season plonked in that slot this week. It’s been nothing but motorway for Rangers since Tuesday, and their record this season tells you everything you need to know about how this team responds to such situations – W2 D2 L6 when backing up after a midweek, W3 D3 L0 when playing after a break of eight days or more. Warbs Warburton made three changes, dropping Lyndon Dykes, Ilias Chair and Lee Wallace for Mac Bonne, Chrissy Willock and Niko Hämäläinen.
Birmingham are also one of several Championship teams coming out of harsh recent winter weather and congested Christmas fixture list with a pitch that looks like Rick Waller’s pogo stick practice paddock. The situation at St Andrew’s is, of course, exacerbated by the ground share deal with Coventry and to say the thing played like a rubble car park risks a cease and desist letter from the Association of Rubble Car Park Maintenance Staff. There are bottles of red wine from Pakistan less moody than the run of the ball on this surface.
QPR had plainly decided that attempting to play football to their normal style was impossible, and went unashamedly direct from the off without the players to carry it out. An easier afternoon Harlee Meathead has never had in his life. No sooner did Rangers have the ball back than it was immediately turfed straight back to Birmingham, through one hurried, rushed, snatched at punt down the field after another. The R’s barely made it out of their half, taking 30 minutes to pose any kind of threat at all when Rob Dickie’s downward head from Stefan Johansen’s free kick looked for a moment like it might get Dom Ball in, and were extremely fortunate to be heading towards half time at nil nil.
That was partly down to Seny Dieng, as per, who made a flying save to his right to keep out Gary Gardner’s firm volley after Geoff Cameron’s poor clearance, and then got a firm hand to Bela’s near post drive after Cameron had again given the ball away in a dangerous area. It also owed a lot to Birmingham’s ineptness. This is a team you could kindly say lacks confidence, and for all the possession and field position they really only created Scott Hogan’s hopelessly mistimed and misdirected header wide on the half hour for themselves. When we, justifiably, talk about how important it was to conclude a normal season to appease sponsors and broadcasters during a prolonged period without ticket revenue, there isn’t anywhere near enough acknowledgement that by forcing this fixture list into this period of time on these pitches the product being supplied to Sky Sports, international broadcasters and the title sponsors is utter, utter bilge. Every Championship game you see at the moment is borderline unwatchable, and this wasn't even that good.
And you know what, we would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling Croatians. A minute before half time, with the game so poor as to have become almost farcical, and QPR’s input into it doing nothing to add to its finery, Charlie Austin produced the first and only piece of quality in the half, sweeping the ball beautifully out to the right to free Todd Kane, then spinning round to the back post to meet the perfectly placed return for 1-0. A fourth goal in nine appearances since he returned to the club, a great moment for Todd Kane after the horrors of Deepdale, and an absolute fucking liberty. One nil to QPR at half time after 45 minutes spent unsuccessfully trying to find their own arse with both hands. Will we ever lose again?
Well, we certainly shouldn’t have lost here. A huge counter attack overload from Birmingham’s first corner of the second half saw the otherwise anonymous Willock get going down the left and produce the perfect cross for Stefan Johansen to seize on and make it 2-0, only for all the composure he showed against Bournemouth last week to evaporate in a botched finish over the bar. Brum, circling the drain already, wouldn’t have been coming back from that.
They didn’t really look much like coming back from the single goal deficit to be fair. Rare incursions into the QPR penalty area were almost entirely snuffed out at source by the commanding Seny Dieng, and what few moments of excitement there were in the game came mostly at the other end as Johansen first snatched at a presentable chance with time to do more, then robbed Marc Roberts in the penalty area but turned around to find no support to convert the chance. QPR’s own sub Lyndon Dykes cut in onto a great ball from Kane looking for the far corner on 78 but the shot was blocked, and also had a header comfortably saved by Etheridge. Bonne was pulled back from a one on one situation by an incredibly generous pushing call from inconsistent referee David Webb, who then punished Halilovic for fouling the former Charlton striker when actually it looked like he’d simply passed the ball cleanly away. Pedersen was booked for smashing into Dickie, Hämäläinen somehow not for scything down Sanchez. Time was ticking. Birmingham’s threat was negligible.
Even the equaliser, when it did come, initially looked to have been adequately defended. Roberts, four years into a Harry Redknapp contract and therefore one of the five richest kings of Europe, tried a long throw initially which Dickie planted firmly away, but when the centre back received the ball back and crossed Rangers were outnumbered at the back post and Krystian Pedersen scored with a firm header.
Within three minutes shellshocked Rangers were behind, allowing mercurially talented and perennially injured Croatian wonderkid Alen Halilovic onto his left foot for a splendid 25 yarder into the far corner. Halilovic, once of Barcelona, Hamburg and Milan, has absolutely no business coming off Birmingham’s bench into games like this, and the goal was a moment of true beauty entirely out of keeping with its surroundings, like finding Claudia Schiffer queueing for Bovril at Kenilworth Road.
From wondering how on earth they were leading, QPR were now left dumbfounded to be losing, but it was difficult to be too annoyed or anguished – the performance had been nowhere near the levels the team is capable of, or that required to get an away win at this level of the game. Whether the pitch was so unplayable it justified QPR abandoning their usual style to this extent is open for debate – it’s hard to imagine we could have played any worse for at least trying. We deserved nothing from this performance, and that’s exactly what we got.
As after Preston midweek, it’s important to recognise the progress we’ve made in a couple of months, and how delighted we all would have been to be in this position had we been offered it at the start of January. A big chunk of winnable home games is on the horizon, a push into the top half of the table is still on, and we’re still tracking to beat last season’s points total which would be remarkable given the players that went out of the team between then and now. But there is no doubt that Preston and Birmingham, two of the division’s three worst home records, were there for the taking with better performances.
Warburton is right when he talks about the state of the pitches, the challenges of the fixture list, the difficulty of backing up after midweek games, and you see the results when he’s given time to rest and train his players. Criticism of his substitutions completely ignores the sports science element of the situation – do you really think he wants to take Charlie Austin off for Lyndon Dykes? Repeat, touch wood, Rangers have done remarkably well for injuries, particularly fatigue injuries such as strains and pulls, this season relative to the rest of the league. But at times, like the very public complaints we had about being asked to restart last season after months away with only three weeks or preparation time, it can feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy at QPR. Footballers love an excuse, and we’re providing our team with one even before we’ve kicked off. Next season when we’re back to an August start date the Championship is still going to be hectic, there’s still going to be long stretches of Saturday-midweek-Saturday, there are still going to be pudding pitches after Christmas. We’re never going to get anywhere at this level if we don’t find a way to get positive results when the playing surface isn’t the best, or we have had to do a long northern midweeker.
The Championship is never going to change, bitching and moaning about its schedule and pitches is like shouting at the moon for being a moon.
Birmingham: Etheridge 6; Colin 5, Dean 6, Clarke-Salter 6 (Roberts 63, 6), Pedersen 6; Sunjic 6; Sanchez 6 (Valery 90+1, -), Harper 6, Gardner 6 (Halilovic 63, 7), Bela 6 (Leko 63, 5); Hogan 5 (Jutkiewicz 71, 5)
Subs not used: Prieto, Friend, Clayton, McGree
Goals: Pedersen 82 (assisted Roberts), Halilovic 86 (unassisted)
Bookings: Pedersen 51 (foul), Halilovic 86 (over celebrating), Roberts 90+6 (time wasting)
QPR: Dieng 6; Dickie 6, Cameron 5, Barbet 5; Kane 6, Willock 5 (Field 56, 5), Ball 5, Johansen 5 (Adomah 87, -), Hämäläinen 5; Bonne 5 (Kelman 87, -), Austin 6 (Dykes 56, 5)
Subs not used: Lumley, Chair, Bettache, Thomas, Kakay
Goals: Austin 44 (assisted Kane)
Bookings Willock 13 (foul), Bonne 73 (time wasting)
QPR Star Man – Charlie Austin 6 Bar Dieng’s fine save from Gardner in the first half, his switch of play and finish on the return ball from Kane was the one and only piece of quality QPR produced in the whole game.
Referee – David Webb (Durham) 6 Not a referee we do particularly well with, now no wins in seven, nor seem to get very much from. Working with seriously limited material here he nevertheless came up with some inconsistent calls for me – the harsh booking of Willock for a shirt pull in a neutral part of the pitch very early in the game, and then leniency with Kane and others for exactly the same thing later in the match one among several. Yellow cards aplenty for technical offences, but quite happy to give benefit of the doubt on fouls that can actually hurt players – Hämäläinen’s deliberate chop on Sanchez at the start of the second half after being comprehensively done on the touchline was as obvious a yellow card as you’ll ever see in your life, he gets off and yet Willock got booked for a shirt pull.
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