Queens Park Rangers travelled to Norwich this weekend, keen to snatch another away victory in their promising Premier League campaign. They left with the bitter taste of a wasted opportunity, laid low by the absence of three key players missing through suspension, injury and general discontent.
Despite the altered line-up, the Hoops gave Norwich City a good fight, but the stubborn Canaries squad played well and forced the issue, taking a 2-1 victory on the strength of Grant Holt's 73rd minute goal. Even with the adjusted team, QPR had several chances to take a lead, but struggled to bring consistent pressure and conceded two poorly defended goals. There was something – someone – missing from their attack who could have made all the difference.
Excuses mean little and less when the points are tallied at the end of the season, and this was a game where QPR needed their stars to shine. That rumbling sound coming from Shepherd’s Bush after the game was the persistent question: Where was Adel Taarabt?
The team were tested with late news that first team keeper Paddy Kenny picked up an injury this week which may sideline him for up to two months. With reserve keeper Brian Murphy also out after suffering a strain while warming up at Stoke last week, the honour fell to 37 year old Radek Cerny. The third string man saw his last action in the final two games of the Championship season in May, but hasn't played regular football since the 09/10 season. Manager Neil Warnock revealed that his appeals to the Premier League for an emergency loan to find an alternative were rebuffed, and the loan backup was reserve keeper Elvijs Putnins.
The nervous jitters this gave R's supporters before kickoff were quickly eased, as the veteran delivered some solid saves in the early going. He handled a strong attempt from Simeon Jackson and was on hand to shut down a charging Steve Morrison who worked his way past Anton Ferdinand close to goal. The final scoreline was disappointing, but Cerny performed his duties adequately. Sloppy defending in front of him led to both goals, but he fared well on the standard work one expects of a keeper. He does lack the powerful boot that Kenny has, and there were a few times where it forced the Hoops to start deeper in their own end than normal. This needn't be a crippling change while Kenny is out, with the likes of Young and Traore available to bring the ball upfield. Nonetheless for a player who was thrown into the game at the last minute, Cerny fared well enough and made some fine saves to keep his side in the game.
The real blow was the loss of midfielders Joey Barton and Adel Taarabt. Barton's absence was expected after he picked up his fifth yellow card of the season last week and received the league's automatic one game ban. As a Captain should, Barton made the trip and cheered his mates on from the stands. His suspension was the fruit of his playing style, a tax on the physical midfielder who battles time and again for his club. No one would advocate for it, but a one game break for Barton at the expense of some well earned cards is just the cost of doing business. Unfortunately the depth of QPR’s squad leaves much to be desired. Shaun Derry struggled in place of Barton, getting beaten off the ball and sending errant passes that led to too many turnovers. Ale Faurlin was relegated picking up the pieces of his misadventures or trying to dribble past two midfielders to get clear and the missing man was felt large in the central defence.
Taarabt on the other hand was nowhere to be found, despite being rested last week as well. Warnock later claimed that his fitness was not up to snuff to include him in the first team at Norwich City. Whether that's the case - he has been criticized by his manager and teammates before for his lack of preparation - or merely a cover for another one of his temper tantrums, the reality is that this situation is deteriorating rapidly. Taarabt should be the key man for QPR, but has elected to play the temperamental superstar – without delivering the footballing benefit to justify the behaviour - and is sure to be gone in January. It is a shame for the team and fans alike, but the reality is that he seems resigned to forcing a transfer and Warnock is likewise ready to jettison the baggage. It would be nice to squeeze a few performances out of him before he goes, but R's fans have to wonder what, if anything, he'll give should be find himself in the team again.
The speculation in the press is heating up about what the final sales figure will be for him, but it seems obvious that the club want shot of him and vice versa. Best to get this business sorted quickly, so they can flip that money around to go after another attacker who is ready for life in the Premier League and to contribute as a team mate. Despite the outsized personalities of Warnock and Barton, there is a strong unity in the squad that leaves no room for a prima dona who won't pull his own weight. Since the Chelsea game and the fallout from the Terry-Ferdinand incident, the team has largely gelled on field and off, yet the "most talented player" we keep hearing about has disappeared in games or from the pitch altogether. Ironically Barton, once his own brand of fiery clubhouse distraction, has been the leader trying to motivate the superstar-in-waiting to give his best effort. Barton’s been seen taking him by the reins on the field and speaking out in the press to chastise the youngster’s attitude and poor preparation. He might have thought the strong hand would whip Taarabt into shape, but it seems to have only further alienated him. Whatever the inner workings, it seems inevitable at this point that Taarabt's future lies elsewhere - now the only question is how much QPR can get for him and what they do with it to replace him.
Without the mercurial center forward, the QPR attack fared well at times, led by Shaun Wright-Philips who delivered a number of quality scoring opportunities but never quite converted. Jamie Mackie had a few moments of inspiration, including a shifty move in the second half to gain a good position in the penalty box. His dangerous shot beat the keeper but clanged off the post, rebounding to a waiting Luke Young who notched his second goal in as many games. Mackie and Wright-Philips have excelled for QPR this season, but are better suited as wing players to draw the attack up and feed the ball in. While they have worked well in concert with Heidar Helguson and Jay Bothroyd of late, there is still a need for a strong central midfielder to be another target on attack. This should be Taarabt’s place in the team, but that window appears to be closing quickly. His departure from guaranteed time has forced the forward players to adapt, and they have done well with the challenge. Helguson's had some of the best form of his QPR career in the last six games, and it’s worth noting that this has come when he's been called on to do more with Taarabt appearing less or being less of a focal point when he's in the team.
For his part, Young had a decent game, albeit a late gaff where he launched into an early challenge and missed, allowing Morrison a wide avenue to race on net before it was defended at the last minute. He provides a good push on the flank, but is still getting burned at times and the other defenders need to cover his area more carefully. Across the back line there were some glaring mistakes, including Ferdinand's bobbled clearance that led to Martin's first half goal, or the general malaise that covered the defenders as Norwich kept hammering at net until Holt put them ahead late in the second half. One of the areas Warnock and owner Tony Fernandes keep mentioning that needs to be improved in the transfer window is defence - and it seems likely they will secure one or two more players to give them some options. Young nearly missed the match with an injury and Gabbidon has missed time as well. The reserves are very shallow for QPR and they need to bring in some more skill and durability at the position to keep the first squad fresh.
In the end this loss is only one game, and there are plenty left to play. What is frustrating for the supporters is the fact that the R's often play their best football against the best competition, saving the lacklustre efforts for these "lesser" matches that they could be winning. The QPR side that battled Newcastle to a draw or nearly knocked off Manchester City would have made short work of Norwich this weekend; unfortunately the side that gave away a lead to Blackburn and couldn't overcome the likes of Aston Villa showed up; playing loose football and leaving too many passes out for the other side to pick off and run with. QPR have moments when they play a controlled and aggressive style; but often depart from this in favour of hopeful passing or careless defending. They remain capable of delivering solid performances, but are still cobbling together a consistent approach. Hopefully the coming transfer window will see the Taarabt situation resolved, and some more quality brought into the team. In the meantime, they have to cope with Kenny's absence and Taarabt’s invisible man routine for what may be a very chilly December.
Until next time, Come on U R'ssss!