2011 couldn't end soon enough for Queens Park Rangers as they dropped a tight contest at Arsenal, falling 1-0 as Robin Van Persie scored his league-leading 17th goal of the season.
Stronger play from the midfield and some creative moments gave QPR real chances against the Gunners, but it was not enough to overcome Arsenal's relentless attack, and the R's suspect defence once again threatened to turn a close match into a cringe worthy hiding. Misfires by RVP and two Theo Walcott blunders saved the Hoops greater damage to their horrific goal differential, but they now sit just two points above the drop as they enter the make-or-break period of their schedule.
The next two months will decide their fate in the Premier League, and with the transfer window open, the club's New Year's resolutions are clear: find someone who can score, and stop the other side from doing it so easily.
After squandering their late surge in the home tilt against Sunderland, the R's hard-earned draw at Swansea revived a bit of spirit and optimism in the side. QPR rolled into the Arsenal match hovering above the relegation zone and eager to continue the slight momentum gained in Wales. With all of the players eager to show their stuff on the world stage against high-profile Arsenal, the hope was that they might be able to push for a point. After a disappointing draw at home against Wolves the week before, the Gunners had other ideas.
Despite the steady bombardment leveled against them in the first half, the porous QPR defence held on, helped by some lucky breaks. In the 24th minute, Van Persie was played into great position on the left side of the box by Johan Djourou, where he turned inside Luke Young and tried to beat a closing Radek Cerny, only to sky it over the bar. Despite RVP's quality and endless motor, Arsenal's supporting cast struggled to support him, notably with some miscues by Theo Walcott. He was contained for the most part by former Gunner Armand Traore, who marked him closely and was involved in a number of skirmishes to deny Walcott space and frustrate his attempts to get into the match. Walcott's first opportunity to shine came mid-way through the first half when the Van Persie's service off a free kick was re-directed to him, only to be blasted wide of the open goal. Soon after Van Persie was in position to strike again, this time working past Matthew Connolly to take a bouncing pass that skipped over the defender and put him one on one with the keeper, only to miss his shot wide. He remains one of the most dangerous strikers in the game and the misses only fed his energy to press the attack on QPR.
Walcott received a golden opportunity early in the second half, fed beautifully by Aaron Ramsay to split two QPR defenders and head one on one with the keeper. He roused the home crowd from their slumber as he dragged his shot wide and was eventually replaced by Gervinho, who proved more of a threat in the late stages. Van Persie broke the deadlock when Shaun Wright-Philips's errant pass in the 59th minute was picked off by Andrei Arshavin, who hit the flying Dutchman inside the penalty box to put Arsenal up 1-0. It was a momentary lapse in judgment for SWP, who played with great heart and hustle otherwise. Outside of that poor moment, he was lively in the game, battling on the right wing to push play up field and was involved in the few threatening moments QPR put together. After holding up against everything Arsenal could throw at them in the first period, QPR came out fighting in the second and ran strong possessions in the opposite end but were unable to break through the stubborn Arsenal defence. Adel Taarabt, making his second consecutive start, showed off some dribbling skills and worked a few good shots and passes to make himself relevant again. He couldn't help losing the ball while trying to take on the whole defence by himself a couple of times, but overall his presence was a reminder that talent and creativity are there if only it could be drawn out of him consistently. As is their custom, the R's were vulnerable on the break and had to contend with some fast moving Arsenal counter-attacks, but Gabbidon and Traore managed to limit the damage, aided by a handful of quality saves from Cerny who was thrust into the lineup after a last minute injury to Paddy Kenny.
Jay Bothroyd was given the start over Heidar Helguson or DJ Campbell, and once again ineffective. He worked into position for a shot early, but was mostly quiet and more involved in creating fouls than scoring opportunities. With the constant drumbeat about the search for a new striker in January, one has to wonder how much we'll see of Bothroyd in 2012. DJ Campbell made a late appearance, but didn't have much impact in his limited minutes. It is unclear whether Campbell's been restricted because of concern over reinjury, or if he's in Warnock's doghouse. He should be featuring more than this if he's ready to be back, and with the choice to reserve Helguson for the Norwich game Monday, it was odd to leave him out when he could have boosted the attack with more time. He was the only prize of the pre-Fernandes summer transfer window but has seen very little of the pitch of late and needs to be given a chance to show that he can repeat the success he had with Blackpool last season.
QPR improved in the last two games and worked better while in possession, against stiff competition, but they still have a serious lack of firepower and are prone to defensive blunders. Platitudes about fighting the good fight and how swell it is to be back in the Premier League have gone stale. If the R's want to avoid a quick return to the second tier, they've got to seize the next ten weeks and make every chance count. In that stretch they get a crack at the other clubs facing relegation, including Wigan, Wolverhampton, Blackburn and Bolton. Some other matches in that run are winnable, or at least capable of an even showing - Aston Villa and Everton stand out as places where a point or more might be available. The R's have a brutal end to the schedule, facing one top club after another just when they'll be battling for the title and Champions league places as the season finishes. Expecting those fixtures to produce much for QPR is folly, so the points they need for survival have to be banked soon. With the recent slip in form, they desperately need to get some reinforcements in the transfer market to help achieve that goal.
The good news for Hoops supporters is that they have an owner who understands the situation and is backing the manager to do just that. While Warnock spent most of the summer being told to sit down, shut up and pick over the dregs of free transfers available, Tony Fernandes gave him relief in the fortnight before the last window closed to get some new blood in at the start the season. The return on investment in Ferdinand and Wright-Philips are the subject of vigorous debate amongst Rangers fans, but they have to remember the alternative was watching Tommy Smith and Fitz Hall fill those roles through twenty league games thus far. It's day one and relatively quiet, but the club is linked to a dozen quality players and the mood seems to be positive about drawing in some talent to help strengthen the side and give Warnock more options going forward. The Hoops have opened the transfer window by taking Manchester United striker Federico Macheda on loan for the rest of the season. I've only seen him play once or twice, and what I saw wasn't all that much to write home about. But United's faith in the youngster and his rumoured potential are a reasonable gamble for Warnock, especially since his wages will be fairly low if this doesn't work out. The best case scenario is that he steps up and uses the opportunity to show Sir Alex Ferguson that he deserves a spot with the big club, as Danny Welbeck did last year. That level of impact is probably asking too much but for now if he can turn himself into a useful attacking option off the bench that will suit QPR's needs. Things will move quickly in the next week and more names will be spoken about in the next column.
For now the R's take on Norwich City at Loftus Road to open the new year, and badly need to secure what would be only their second home win all season. If they can accomplish that, it will help them get a bit of breathing room from the bottom and boost them in their next round of important clashes. Whatever else happens, this next bit of the season is going to be one of the most pivotal in the club's recent history.
COME ON U R'sss!