The magnitude of the challenge Mark Hughes faces was laid bare this weekend as Queens Park Rangers failed to translate a strong away performance into points, losing 1-0 to Newcastle.
With the transfer window rolling along and the roster in flux, Hughes has his work cut out for him if he hopes to fulfil his ambition to stave off relegation and turn the R's fortunes around this season. But there is reason for hope, as QPR have targeted Sao Paolo striker Henrique to fill the goal-scoring void.
Owner Tony Fernandes and the rest of the management team were keen to underline that the process of strengthening and building at QPR would not be an immediate overhaul, but they are laying the careful brickwork necessary to do more than just escape the drop in 2012. The lofty goals of creating a first class training ground, developing a modern stadium in West London and bringing in young talent to start a new movement are hopeful signs that the club is heading in a brighter direction.
The numbers so far speak for themselves - QPR have managed 19 goals in 21 league games - but Hughes had a front row seat for the comedy of errors that is the Hoops strike force. A fiery start from his new charges put a weakened Newcastle side on the back foot early, but the lack of a quality striker was confirmed in spectacular fashion Sunday.
Jay Bothroyd, who tallied nineteen scores for Cardiff last season in the Championship, squandered several golden opportunities that could have handed his new manager a win in his first game. The most egregious was an eight yard effort - set up by Heidar Helguson's neatly headed pass - that was blasted high over the bar despite the absence of any opposition between Bothroyd and the keeper. It was yet another cringing moment of ineptitude in front of the net - not limited to Bothroyd - that have marred several good outings for the club. For his part, Bothroyd was given the full ninety minutes, but did little to ensure that he deserves that much the next time around. He was quick to dismiss talk of his imminent departure from the club, but with the public pursuit of more goal scorers, his days in the line-up and perhaps the squad may be numbered.
Henrique has talked up a move to QPR in the press, lauding the club's ambition and his desire to play in England. He came to international attention after winning the FIFA under-20 World Cup with Brazil last year, and if signed, represents a coup for QPR. While there are no guarantees about how a player's form will translate from one level to the next, he is regarded as a top prospect from a competitive league, and will bring a pace and finishing quality that the R's lack in the current ranks. Beyond that, the rumoured deal is a loan for eighteen months, with a £5 million pound selling price at the conclusion. This is good business for QPR, who will have time to evaluate the youngster, and if he lives up to the hype, be able to retain him at a below market price. If he doesn't deliver on his potential, the R's have left themselves flexibility to avoid a long term commitment. Should he exceed expectations, he can either develop into a core component of QPR's future, or represent valuable commodity to auction off in the building process. Though he's not the established name supporters are clamouring for, his signing would be boon to QPR's present and future chances. If paired with an experienced striker, Henrique has the potential to be the second part of a vital one-two punch that the Hoops desperately need.
Elsewhere in the transfer market gossip, the efforts to rebuild the back four have been ongoing but fruitless to date, with conflicting reports about the availability of Chelsea's want-away defender Alex, and Blackburn's Chris Samba. Both are coveted by Hughes, but it remains unclear whether Alex is willing to go to a relegation candidate club, or whether Blackburn boss Steve Kean will let his captain ply his wares for another club. With several high-profile suitors, even if Samba is sold, it is hard to expect him to pass on a big club in his native country (PSG) whose prospects are much bigger than QPR's at the moment. The only saving grace for QPR is the personal relationship Samba has with Hughes, who brought him to England originally, but whether that trumps better money and a chance at Champions League football is anyone's guess. Links to other available defenders like Manchester City's unused Wayne Bridge and Nedum Onuoha have died down, but there are two weeks left before the window closes. The slide down the table has probably hurt the efforts to lure big signings to Loftus Road, but the hope is that the new ownership and manager will be able to wield the almighty cheque book to secure some real upgrades in the defence and at least one holding midfielder to replace the injured Alejandro Faurlin.
The defeat at Newcastle was disappointing, particularly given the improved play the squad demonstrated. Jamie Mackie put in a strong shift once again, challenging defenders and creating some key moments. The defence avoided their usual score truly horrific mistakes, and stymied Newcastle's attempts to break free. Leon Best scored a terrific goal, stepping inside Luke Young to fire across Paddy Kenny's goal. The most notable mistake on that play was Shaun Derry pulling away from a tackle just outside the box - a concession to referee Chris Foy's manic foul count that clearly got into the head of QPR's midfielders throughout the match. Derry's earlier challenge on Yohan Cabaye - in which the "injured" player initially got up to shove Derry in the back before collapsing to the pitch to wait for a stretcher - appeared to impact his mentality and created a tentative approach afterward. Regardless of that early breakthrough, it was a game QPR had every chance to steal, and they put in some of their best work this campaign, particularly in the first half. But as is their habit, the fire went out in the second period, and ultimately Newcastle sat back and set up shop, daring the visitors to beat them. The lack of better scoring options and the dominant possession by the home squad sealed the loss. Had the team not recently dropped into the relegation zone, supporters might be looking at the performance against a better club as a positive sign. Unfortunately facts are facts, and the waste of a chance at a point or even three is a bitter outcome for a spirited side that was missing half its regular starters.
QPR take on MK Dons in the FA Cup third round replay Tuesday, with an eye towards earning their first home victory since October. Expect to see Hughes' squad fired up to give the home faithful something to sing about against the League One club that very nearly knocked them out two weeks ago. With Chelsea waiting for the victor in the next round, hopefully the R's are game to set up another West London Derby and deliver their manager some measure of reward for taking on the task of fixing and building the team.
Come on U R'sssss.