Queens Park Rangers came within a whisker of three points for the first time in months against Everton, executing a solid game on the strength of a resolute and creative midfield that put the visitors on the back foot for much of the match.
A few unlucky breaks and a groaning whiff in front of net by Akos Buzsaky limited the result to a draw, but the improvements were a welcome relief to the beleaguered supporters who have been waiting for January's big money investments to pay off.
The R's need to build on this performance as they travel to Bolton for a crucial match against the fellow relegation candidates. With the return of Djibril Cisse and Heidar Helguson and the raised level of the midfield, things may finally be looking their way.
It can be difficult to put your finger on exactly how a manager has changed a club beyond a new formation or a team selection. There was a lot of buzz when Hughes arrived about his training regimen, and that the team would be better prepared than they had been in the past. In the early days of his tenure the squad looked as discombobulated and punch-less as they did under Warnock, and the murmurs about whether his appointment was worth it began. The lack of discipline manifested itself in spectacular and subtle ways, ranging from defensive lapses and unforced errors to the uncoordinated efforts to score in recent weeks despite the emphasis on bringing in new strikers.
The culture Hughes means to instill in the squad may finally be taking hold, as this performance demonstrated the kind of controlled, pass and hold style that Fulham sported last year under Hughes. The approach paid off, giving QPR possession and frustrating Everton's attempts to break long runs off against the back four. An early exception to the strategy came when Adel Taarabt, playing deep in his own half, was stripped of the ball that led to Drenthe's long range blast to beat Paddy Kenny. Taarabt is a player who wants to be on the ball at all times, and the cost of that ambition can be these moments where he tries to do too much. Nonetheless he didn't pout or disappear as in games past, and continued to press the defenders and later drew a foul to set up the free kick that led to Zamora's goal. His improved showing is a hopeful sign that he has bought into the manager's plan, sticking to his role as an attacking midfielder while understanding there have to be limits. Taarabt's feisty footwork featured heavily in the attack, acting as the force that is sorely needed at this late stage. With the strike force healthy and returning, he should have more outlets in the coming weeks to deliver to and work off.
Akos Buszaky had a strong game, and the gaffe in front of net was unlucky. He found himself in alone and the ball coming to him, but somehow struck the post among all that wide-open net. Nevertheless, the effort he put forth was excellent and worked with the revised formation that saw Shaun Derry buffering between the defence and midfield. Derry's minutes have been limited under the new regime but he did everything asked of him and more, giving an energetic outing and creating trouble for everyone in his area. Whether he can repeat that level for the duration is an open question, but Diakite's learning curve and his gritty work ethic may earn him a more prominent role down the final stretch. Clint Hill also had another strong game at centre-back, and his new role is a good fit. Whether he's taken the cue that his play will dictate his time or he's found a new level he can tap into, his past two games have been a vast improvement from his early season performances and he's earned a right to keep a place in the starting eleven for now.
QPR turn their sights on Bolton, who have greater problems and also face the drop. The renewed sense of purpose that the R's showed last match may be the difference that decides their fate in the next few months. The relegation battle will be fierce, but as West Brom showed against Chelsea last week, anything can happen. The competition the Hoops face in the run-in is stiff, but nothing is guaranteed for any match. If the R's can continue to develop this solid form and deliver their strikers quality opportunities, the breaks may go their way often enough to survive. Consistency has been the key weakness in this club all year, and against what some would consider a lesser opponent this weekend, they have to avoid complacency. Hughes' system appears to be taking root in their minds and if they can avoid costly errors and keep themselves focused on their assignments, anything is possible.
Come on U R'ssss!