Queens Park Rangers have once again pushed their footballing fortunes to the brink, dropping another crucial clash at Loftus Road on Saturday to local rivals Fulham. For the fifth time this season the Hoops had a player red-carded and staggered through to a defeat without a whiff of the urgency or composure that their situation demands.
I can stomach a team that's not any good, and I've seen plenty that were deserved losers. But the character of the current lot is much different than some of the old teams that have dampened supporter's spirits before. You can buy a good striker, or a "talented" left back, but you cannot buy a team. A team is a group of individuals committed to a common cause, working together as one, supporting and defending each other to the last. If QPR are relegated, I won't look to the innumerable matches they were in a position to win and then wasted away; I won't moan over losing to Wolves at home or Bradley Johnson's phantom headbutt. The blame, sadly, will be solely on the players who put forth these limp and lifeless efforts while pocketing fat pay-cheques each week.
There is no fight in this squad, no do-or-die mentality to take on an opponent and thrash him, to gut out a run and make the extra effort to get on target or battle back for a ball. In the place where a heart should be, there's just a greasy pound sign and the lingering stench of defeat.
Just when you thought it was safe to believe in your football club again, Andy Johnson - the serial offender who eviscerated QPR at Craven Cottage earlier this year - burst through the mannequin defence to meet John Arne Riise's cross, heading a goal that was just offside. The nearly moment came three minutes into the match and while it should have sparked some questions in the back line about who was marking whom, the follow up from Pavel Pogrebnyak four minutes later showed that it hadn't. He was set up by a fantastic back-heel from Mousa Dembele, and cut up the left side of the penalty box and drove the ball behind Paddy Kenny. The goal was an example of control and movement, but it was also a reminder of Anton Ferdinand's limited mobility in the centre.
The Whites kept the pressure on, led by Clint Dempsey who forced a shot wide and was set up nicely by Pogbrebnyak before Kenny interrupted a dangerous looking cross. QPR did find an opportunity mid-way through the first half, as Fulham's defenders gave Bobby Zamora room to close on a rebound from Schwarzer. His point-blank shot was deflected out to a waiting Adel Taarabt, but his wide return would have been offside regardless of the miss.
New signing Samba Diakite was given some leeway by referee Phil Dowd, who warned him several times about his late tackling before finally seeing enough. He was yellow carded in the twentieth minute, but continued to struggle to contain his opponents and after a late challenge on Bryan Ruiz, was sent off just thirty-three minutes into the match. It was difficult to rate him with such a short display, but he does have some pace and is aggressive on the ball. He'll need to adjust his game if he wants to make any impact this season however, and future refs are unlikely to be as forgiving as Dowd was. The send-off was earned and the confidence of the squad seemed to walk off with the expelled player.
QPR did add some moments of offense, mostly reduced to blasting off target and long-range shots in fits and starts throughout the match, but as usual the momentum and traffic were all one-way against them. Jamie Mackie had a solid opportunity, breaking into the right side of the box with a low shot that beat the keeper but swerved out of play. Shaun Wright-Philips was set up beautifully in front of goal but scuttled his finish, sending a chip inches wide of the post in a groan-inducing miss. In the end the scoreline belied the one-sided affair and a repeat of the six goal hammering earlier this year would not have been a shock. There was no consistency to the R's forward work, or their defending. Being down to 10 hurt as it does any team, but there is a lack of fortitude that continues to be displayed.
When it was done, the sense of defeat hung over the ground and left many wondering aloud whether all this excitement and spending will have been for naught. The possibility of Championship football next season is very real, and the looming fixtures against the Premier League's best during the run-in have cemented a grim finality regarding QPR's chances at survival.
For the record, the R's remain (precariously) above the drop zone, clinging to a 17th place spot on goal differential. The team still has games left in the schedule that could bear fruit, but the larger worry is that even the winnable matches - much like the recent abominations against Wolves and Blackburn - will slip through the club's fingers. There are only twelve matches left - eight against teams sitting pretty in the top half of the table. All of the games since January 1st have been of the "must-win" variety, so its hard to imagine there exists an intangible well of heroics which can suddenly going be tapped into. But football is a funny game, and anything truly can happen.
What is needed most of all is a spirit within to overcome, to battle and make better decisions and take some chances. If QPR can get together and rise as one, there is time left to save the season and see another year in the top flight. For better or worse this is the club we've chosen or been born into, and the long-suffering faithful will be there singing and shouting to the bitter end. All we can hope for is that the men in Hoops will reward that devotion and turn things around before it is too late.
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