Queens Park Rangers have their backs against the wall and it's only February. Can they turn things around in time to stave off relegation?
The mood in W12 was buoyed by the flurry of new arrivals in the January transfer window, breathing life into a club that was slipping down the table as the year drew to a close. With a new manager appointed and headline grabbing players acquired, Hoops supporters were flying high with dreams of an instant turn around. But inconsistent play and an inability to hold leads have left the club foundering in recent weeks. From conceding a two goal advantage to Aston Villa, to the last abominable performance at Blackburn, Rangers have looked out of sorts and unprepared. The expected change in preparation and focus that was supposed to flow from the managerial change hasn't materialised, and the squad still struggles to keep its shape or properly mark opponents, let alone put ninety minutes of cohesive football together.
There is talent enough in the team sheet to keep them up, but games aren't won on paper. There is a missing element in the squad - one they had in the Championship run last season - an intangible that doesn't register in statistics or match facts. A less talented QPR team played as one unit a year ago, but now all the new faces can't seem to get together to force a victory. They need to regain that spirit of unity if they hope to avoid making the return to the Premier League a one-and-done affair.
The Blackburn match had all the trappings of a six-pointer; as the rebuilt QPR team hit the road against another struggling club with the hope of putting some space between them on the table. Seventy minutes of uninspired football and lax defending had them down three goals as they limped toward another ugly defeat. Jamie Mackie's inspirational substitution put some fight into the squad late in the game, as he made energetic runs, created chances and capitalised on his efforts to score twice in twenty minutes. The late flourish was exciting, and covered over some of the dreadful work put in by most of the team early, but it was yet another match that QPR needed to win and simply didn't show up for. Should they fail to survive the run-in, the defeats to Wolves and Blackburn will stick out as sore reminders of opportunities gone by.
With the team off training for the past week, hopefully some of the problems in communication and motivation have been sorted, as they look to rebound and avenge the six to nil thrashing they suffered at Craven Cottage in October. Flat-footed defending and a complete lack of offence put the home side in easy form that day as they romped to victory over the R's. This weekend's West London Derby will see the sides changed and familiar faces in new kits. Here are some key players to watch on Saturday:
Dempsey has raised his play this season and is the key man for Fulham. He's scored ten goals with four assists in twenty five competitions this year, and shutting him down in midfield will be job number one if QPR hope to take points from this match. New signing Samba Diakite may debut in central defence, and the battle to watch will be Dempsey's pace and creativity against Barton and Diakite's containment. Whether as a distributor or creator, Dempsey will be the threat that QPR have to tackle first.
The Fulham striker was an early transfer target for QPR, but the asking price stymied a move to Loftus Road. He hit QPR for three goals in the first clash, and with the departure of Bobby Zamora to our side, will feature prominently once again. However, he has only scored twice since the last meeting, and with the absence of Zamora supporting him up front, the Cottagers have relied on midfielder Clint Dempsey to generate much of their attack. Johnson can't be ignored because of his pace and ability in tight spaces, but with less support his threat has may be slightly diminished.
No player on the squad has had more off-pitch concerns than Ferdinand this season, and he has admitted previously that it has been a distraction from his play. Regardless, the fact remains that he has to improve as a core part of the squad. The goal scored by Yakubu right in front of him was an embarrassment. Credit to the Yak for the quick footwork, but Ferdinand did nothing to close on him or stop the movement. Paddy Kenny was slow to the ball as well but the other side's danger man can't be handled that gently in front of net. Part of Warnock's limited summer signings, Ferdinand needs to protect his area better and be more physical or he will continue to be out manoeuvred to the team's detriment.
Zamora's unceremonious departure from Fulham was QPR's gain, as the striker boosted the flagging R's strike force immediately. With Djibril Cisse serving his suspension, and the added motivation of reminding Martin Jol what he let get away, expect a vigorous game from him. The question remains who will line up beside him in Hughes' 4-4-2. He's a great link-up player but needs an outlet to create goals. Mackie's spirited effort last time out should earn him a start, and it looks like Heidar Helguson will miss another game due to injury. DJ Campbell is also out for an extended period with a new injury, so getting Zamora going is crucial over the next few weeks.
Taarbat has regained his status as the vital player he once was, but questions remain as to whether he can match the need with his performance. His intense close to the Wolves match showed the ability he possesses, but there needs to be more patience in his buildup or all those long dribbling runs will continue to come to naught. He gets another chance to show his quality this weekend, and getting the strikers going will take a strong outing from the midfielder.
Taye Taiwo and Joey Barton:
How it is that Barton still takes set pieces for QPR? His service is atrocious and has degraded as the season's worn on. Whether its the armband or some Faustian arrangement we're not privy to, Barton has to be replaced as the man taking dead ball situations. With two players known for their prowess in this area - Taarabt and Taiwo - available, a change has to be made. For his part, Taiwo has shown little in his brief stint at the club. He's riding high on reputation and was considered widely (including in this column) to be a coup in the transfer window, but he needs to be more aggressive on defence and take some more chances in transition. Hopefully he will take a step forward this week and deliver some of the much-hyped talent shown in the clips from his Marseille and AC Milan days.
It is impossible to be overly positive on QPR's chances given the way the last two matches have turned out. That being said, Fulham have only one away win to their name this season and with the rest between Blackburn and this fixture, perhaps Hughes has set the boys straight on what's at stake. Every point at this stage of the season is vital, and they have the benefit of playing in front of the very loud and eager R's supporters. They have the team to take three points Saturday; the open question is whether they can put a convincing game together and make it happen.
Come on U R'ssss!