Despite promising to take the fight to Liverpool, Queens Park Rangers’ spiritless performance at Anfield on Saturday doomed them to a defeat marred by sloppy defending and non-existent attacking play.
Substitute keeper Radek Cerny turned in a top drawer effort, but couldn't overcome the Red's non-stop pressure and poor play of his teammates. Without top scorer Heidar Helguson, Rangers provided little in the way of scoring opportunities and were dominated in an uncharacteristically poor showing that had all the makings of a embarrassing blowout if not for some outstanding work between the sticks by their keeper.
With inconsistent outings like this threatening to become the norm, the Hoops need to improve and start earning better results quickly, before they slip back into the relegation battle they've avoided up to now.
Going into the match, it was clear this was going to be a difficult fixture - a trip to Anfield, against one of the league's top clubs is no easy task. After playing strong football last week only to give away the win late to West Brom, QPR appeared to be in good form and eager to make a contest of it. Players talked about getting up for the fixture, looking to show their quality against some of the Premier League's best. Manager Neil Warnock boasted that he would take an aggressive posture and refused to sit back and defend. Fans held hope alive for a point, envisioning another strong day from a side that has excelled against the toughest opponents. But from the kickoff, QPR looked out of their depth and woefully unprepared. Liverpool are a good football team; but Queens Park Rangers are not nearly as bad as they were against them. In the end results are the only thing matter, and with the way they played, they deserved to lose.
The first warning sign came in the opening minutes, when Stuart Downing's pass found an unmarked Luis Suarez in the box alone against the keeper. His header luckily went right to Cerny, but it was a telling moment, as Luke Young and Anton Ferdinand struggled to figure out who'd blown their assignment. Suarez has only a handful of goals to his name this season, and carries more baggage to the pitch than Taarabt if that's possible - but he's lethal with the ball and more importantly, the focus for Liverpool's attack. To leave him alone on the keeper's doorstep was an ugly gaffe, and unfortunately not the last one in the match. Maxi Rodriguez added his own excitement, inspired by the gaping holes he was given to operate in and could have put the Reds ahead by a much wider margin. Mid-way through the first half he blew past everyone to meet Dirk Kuyt's deft pass that put him one on one. Cerny countered with a low dive to get a hand on the shot and push it wide. The Czech would deny Suarez again before the half after he was played in and tried to chip it over the keeper.
Suarez finally broke through just after the restart, heading a goal off a Charlie Adam cross that found him square in front of net without a defender guarding him. After surviving fourteen shots in the first half, Liverpool finally capitalized on the numerous gifts they'd been given, and the yards of freedom around their danger man to go ahead. The score wasn't unexpected following the relentless attack, and ultimately the failure to get control of the ball and retain possession came back to haunt the R's. The nightmare start to the second half was compounded moments later when Anton Ferdinand collapsed while bringing the ball up the pitch, suffering an apparent hamstring injury. The only benefit to conceding the goal was that it sparked a bit of life from the battered Hoops, who finally started working some better runs at the Liverpool defence. But even with some renewed vigour, they were stymied time and again and never threatened Pepe Reina with anything but the occasional long range attempt.
Helguson's absence hurt, but it’s hard to imagine he would have had much impact considering how seldom the ball actually came toward the Red's area. Tommy Smith did his best, but he was ineffective on the left wing, as was the usually steady Shaun Wright-Philips out of position on the right side. Jay Bothroyd's misadventures in the centre didn't win him any praise, and overall there was a surplus of mediocrity that sealed their fate. One high point was the return of striker DJ Campbell from injury, who will hopefully have more impact in the coming weeks. The R's did try to battle back late in the game, but were off their form and only held in it by Cerny who came up huge under constant harassment from Liverpool's various attacking options.
Following the match there was a great deal of qualification going around - commentary about how well the boys did; how good Liverpool are; to remember that we're still thirteenth and playing in the Premier League, etc. The same platitudes were bandied about last week and ring hollow after such a poor showing. The job isn't hopeless and the season's not lost - but without a sense of urgency and some better players coming into the squad, the R's will soon have some serious questions to answer. They have the ability to play strong football at times, but have a knack for sabotaging themselves and letting points slip through their fingers. Things don't get any easier next week as Manchester United come to town. The best that can be said about that match-up is that United have their own injury problems, and have dropped some recent decisions to lesser teams, but that is little aid against a team of their calibre.
After that come two winnable fixtures and it’s not too soon to call those must-win games. Look ahead at the run of top end opponents QPR will face in the final two months of the season and it becomes clear that they've got to get the points they need for survival where ever they can be found sooner rather than later. Sunderland have struggled, but are re-energized with Martin O'Neill's arrival, and Swansea have been very tough at home this year. By no means can these be counted on for simple points, but they are there for the taking if QPR can refocus and get after it. The Sunderland game is crucial - managing only one home win in seven tries isn't good enough and a boost at Loftus Road is just what's needed to stop this slide. After the new year turns there are some meaty fixtures that have to be taken advantage of, but if this bipolar form continues, there are no guarantees that can be accomplished. QPR currently stand at sixteen points, just four ahead of relegation risk Wigan. There's a lot of work to do to keep out of that range; the question now is which QPR team will show up in the weeks ahead to decide their destiny.