It was with a mixture of pride, anger and frustration that the 3,000 R’s trudged away from the Emirates on Saturday afternoon; Pride at the Tiger Cubs walk which encapsulates so much that is special about QPR; Pride at the battling display that this team had put up against the predictions of the pundits for 80 minutes; Anger and frustration at the way a point was carelessly tossed away in a moment’s indiscipline.
This wasn’t the match report I was planning to write. I envisaged revelling in the glory of a point keenly won against the odds. I was going to proclaim this as the day the Rangers defence pairing came of age. We knew Ryan Nelsen was quickly establishing himself as an automatic pick on Mark Hughes’s team sheet. But Stephane Mbia ? Moved between centre-half and central midfield and back again since joining, he looked certain to have booked himself a regular starting berth alongside his Kiwi team mate with a domineering performance.
Mrs S and I were running a bit late in a ‚Äútoo-late-for-a-drink-but-quite-early-for-the-game‚Äù¬† sort of way. So we arrived at the Emirates an hour before kick-off. Arsenal’s new cathedral of the modern game has always seemed to me to be football’s equivalent of a Lexus. It’s sleek, spacious, comfortable and suitably expensive. But when you remember that a Lexus is all but a Toyota under the hood, would you really want an experience like that week in, week out ? The Emirates has everything…everything except a history, an atmosphere and a status which makes it iconic.
The big team news prior to kick-off was, as advertised, Ji-sung Park would miss out through injury. The hooped Twittersphere lurched into vociferous life at the prospect of Shaun Wright-Philips coming in to replace him, and the unlucky Ale Faurlin being left on the bench. The diminutive son-of-you-know-who misfired badly against West Brom and sat out the home draw against Everton. An SWP now seemingly short of his youthful pace was bound to come up short against a talented, if unproven and stuttering Arsenal side ?
The first-half was a case of ‘gently does it’¬† for Rangers. It was clear that Hughes had set up the team to contain and frustrate with two banks of four and Junior Hoilett dropping back to help with defensive duties. The Arsenal midfield was built around a central pairing of the returning Jack Wilshere and the impressive Santi Cazorla, anchored by Mikel Arteta. This threesome set about feeding Lukas Podolski and Aaron Ramsey on the flanks and a surprisingly awkward Olivier Giroud up top.
The game started with Rangers predictably nervous in possession and absorbing numerous attacks as the home side fluently moved the ball around. In the first half-hour, the R’s were limited to largely speculative forays forward. Space opened up on the right more than once as Arsenal left-back Andre Santos tracked Wright-Phillips, allowing Jose Bosingwa to surge forward. Unfortunately the Portuguese right-back squandered potential half-chances with poor distribution.
Arsenal looked like making their early dominance count when Julio Cesar commenced an afternoon of world-class saves with stops from Santos and Wilshere. But as the half wore on, Rangers looked a little more comfortable with their task and in particular started to get a little more of the ball in the opponents half. Chances were at a premium however as Rangers were forced to defend in numbers. The fighting spirit was typified by Mbia whom at one point snuffed out a promising Arsenal break with a crunching tackle high up the field, and then got up to crucially regain possession moments later in the back-line. Samba Diakite also made his presence felt with a number of interceptions, and was key in denying the Arsenal midfield time on the ball.
Even Shaun Wright-Phillips was justifying his selection with several important defensive interventions, although he frustrated by equal measure with an inability/unwillingness to take on his man. Granero was unusually quiet in midfield. The main threat was carried by Hoilett with a number of marauding and skilful runs.
Confidence was growing as the half-time whistle approached. Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker had effectively nullified Rangers’ attacking threat and kept quiet Bobby Zamora, who was having another of those slow, lumbering ‘off’ afternoons. The away support was generally satisfied with the first 45.
Arsenal pressed on at the beginning of the second-half, seemingly with an admonishing flea in the ear from Professor Wenger. The home fans were their usual soporific selves until a crunching tackle on the advancing Armand Traore brought them out of their slumber. Chances were few for the R’s while Cesar continued to pull off one classy save after another at the other end.
The home side continued to create in front of the Rangers goal, the most notable chance falling to Cazorla, and with only Cesar to beat, ballooned the ball over the bar. Rangers had a goal disallowed after Hoilett slotted home from an offside position. With the R’s faithful shouting for Cisse to make an appearance and Traore apparently hobbling for a quarter-of-an-hour, Hughes brought on Frodsham’s finest and Nedum Onuoha, the latter reprising the unfamiliar left-back role he deputised so well at Spurs.
And when it was beginning to look like the R’s would hold on for point, defeat was snatched from the jaws of competence on 80 minutes. Near the touchline deep in Rangers territory, Vermaelen clumsily challenged and felled Mbia. The linesman was merely yards away and flagged for the foul. But in a Bartonesque fit of pique, the prostrate Frenchman swung his legs in retaliation at his assailant. Referee Taylor had no hesitation in brandishing a red card at the foolish R’s defender. This episode bore all the hallmarks of the ridiculous run of red cards last season which so nearly saw us demoted to the second tier.
Arsenal proceeded to do against the ten men of QPR what QPR had failed to do against the ten men of Everton six days earlier – attack and press home the advantage. The inevitable was not long coming. Substitute Andrey Arshavin chipped in from the left, to be met by a powerful header by Giroud. Cesar pulled off yet another stunning reflex save, only for the ball to be played in again to the offside Arteta standing on the goal-line. After heading against the bar the Spaniard made no mistake with his second bite of the cherry.
It wasn’t quite all over at that point, with Rangers going close with a couple of late chances. Substitute Jamie Mackie went close after doing his ‚Äúrunning into a brick wall‚Äù act, only to fire straight at Vito Mannone. A late free kick from Granero was also tipped wide.
Hughes came in for some stick after the game from the Twitterati after yet another loss on the road. In truth however, it’s hard to blame Hughes for the gross stupidity of Mbia. But for that act of madness the hoops would have come away with a relieving and creditable point. The Frenchman now misses three key games where Rangers need to capitalise on points, starting next Sunday against the fake hoops.
This wasn’t the best Arsenal side we have seen at the Emirates for quite a while. To fail to take a point against them after all our great efforts is criminal. Mbia will have a lot of thinking to do while he sits out his ban.
Team: Cesar 9, Traore 7 (Onuaha 7), Nelsen 8, Mbia 6, Bosingwa 6, Diakite 7, Wright-Phillips 7 (Mackie 7), Taarabt 7, Granero 6, Hoilett 8, Zamora 6 (Cisse 6)
Subs Not Used: Green, Ferdinand, Faurlin, Ephraim
QPR MOM – Julio Cesar. The quality of his goalkeeping was a key part of the QPR effort. World class.
Arsenal MOM – Santi Cazorla. Quick, creative, visionary. Silky skills and great passing.
(The above pics were taken by Martin Percival. All rights are reserved and his photos are used by the Independent R’s with his permission)