Queen’s Park Rangers reached their final fixture of September top of the league with twenty points – a fantastic return given the patchy nature of some of their performances. So far the Superhoops haven’t taken flight in footballing terms, grinding out results in tough, tight games. This was typified by the previous game in Yeovil where Rangers had to fight hard and can count themselves lucky to take all three points. The talk on many lips before this game was whether there were more gears for the Rs to move into.
In spite of the midweek signing of Uruguayan free agent striker Javier Chevanton, Harry Redknapp kept faith with the 4-5-1 formation deployed the previous weekend in the South West. The midfield had a real air of quality about it; Niko Kranjcar made his first start whilst Alejandro Faurlin and Joey Barton returned to the starting lineup alongside Tom Carroll and Gary O’Neil.
Rangers got off to a blistering start in the fourth minute when Danny Simpson put in a wicked cross from the right which Middlesbrough keeper Luke Steele could only parry away. It fell to Barton who fired home a right-footed shot which took a slight deflection off Frazer Richardson into the back of the net. The early goal set off scenes of rapture around Loftus Road.
Joey Barton lets fly for the first goal
Tony Mowbray’s side on paper at least looked as if they would provide a stern challenge. In the early stages Albert Adomah impressed on the right with some positive runs. Grant Leadbitter, Jozsef Varga and Dean Whitehead all tried to put their stamp on midfield. Kei Kamara also looked a real early threat for the Teesiders early doors. Meanwhile referee Darren Deadman attempted to put his own unwanted stamp on the game with early yellow cards for Gary O’Neil and Danny Simpson on six and twelve minutes respectively. It’s not that the cards were undeserved, it was just a case of once a referee fails to show leniency early on it sets the tone for the rest of the game.
The fifteen minutes after the opener was best for the visitors, but were probably helped by some casual handling, most notably from Carroll and Faurlin. Carroll was obviously working hard to grow accustomed to this level whilst Faurlin still looks ring-rusty being in and out of the team. Barton got stuck in again; whilst he is much-maligned in some quarters, and perhaps with fair justification, in this sort of form he becomes the metronome of the side. Boro’ full back George Friend had a torrid time coping with Barton’s urgency. Niko Kranjcar didn’t look entirely match fit, but began to spray balls around with a great deal of confidence. Gary O’Neil fitted into his supporting midfield role with comfort – hard to believe he has played only a handful of games for us.
Some spice was added to the encounter with a bit of off-the-ball antics between Barton and Leadbitter. Ex-Newcastle went up against ex-Sunderland, and the referee ignored more than one instance of strong-arm tactics from either side. Barton wisely kept his head under some extreme provocation.
As the first half wore on Rangers settled increasingly to their task and Middlesborough seemed content to sit back and absorb pressure, with only the occasional foray forward bringing Kamara into the action. For a team that was clearly set up to fight, Middlesbrough seemed distinctly lacking in energy and fighting spirit. They really did not get about the Rangers midfield, and that left plenty of space for us to work with.
On the half hour mark the referee waved away Rangers claims for what appeared to be a stonewall penalty. Faurlin was bundled over in the box after superb approach work by Kranjcar. Only three minutes later Ben Gibson handled a Charlie Austin shot in the box. The referee pointed to the spot and Austin finished low past Luke Steele in front of the School End.
Charlie Austin adds to his goal tally from the spot
Rangers were good for their 2-0 lead at half time, although Faurlin went close from a free kick three minutes before the break. As if to acknowledge QPR’s control of the first half, Mowbray made a double substitution for the second half. The flagging Jonathan Woodgate made way for Boro veteran Stuart Parnaby and Varga was replaced by striker Lukas Jutkiewicz.
Danny Simpson and George Friend compete on the edge of the box
Playing with two strikers however didn’t pay dividends for Middesborough as Rangers moved up a level. It was an odd second half in that Rangers didn’t create that many chances, but then neither did the visitors. Instead though the Loftus Road faithful were treated to a feast of midfield play as good as anything seen in W12 for many a year. Redknapp later described some of the fare on display as “exhibition football”. Even the most level-headed hoop fan would struggle to disagree as Kranjcar inspired a wonderful show of passing, moving and teamwork. Faurlin’s rustiness seemed to fall away and Carroll upped his workrate to certainly have his best 45 in a hooped shirt.
At one point halfway through the second half Rangers strung together some 36 passes. The home fans were too busy purring to begin chants of ‘Ole’, but it underlined our dominance of the half. Credit to Middlesbrough, Mowbray clearly told his side not to concede in the second half and they duly obliged. Gibson in particular was key in shoring up matters and denying QPR many sniffs on goal. But bar a few speculative efforts towards the end of the half it was largely a sterile period for the Reds.
Niko Kranjcar dominates the centre of the park in the second half
This was a day to savour and celebrate for QPR fans. There were so many positives all over the park. Rob Green equalled a club record seventh consecutive clean sheet, while in truth he wasn’t heavily troubled. Dunne and Hill were once again magnificent. Danny Simpson came of age in a Rangers shirt with fine wing play, great crosses but also good defensive work. Max Ehmer made his debut replacing Hill fifteen minutes from time, and immediately impressed with some firm perfectly-timed challenges. Junior Holiett came on late in the game returning from his hamstring injury, and nearly scored himself with a jinking run through the centre.
Rangers were terrific overall – if this form continues we will be hard to touch at home. It was an afternoon to put wide smiles on everyone’s faces. In my view though we weren’t firing on all cylinders and potentially could play even better. Kranjcar will get fitter. Carroll will develop the confidence to match his evident talent and energy. Assou-Ekotto was a little below par for me – rather casual at times, but it is early days for him as it is for many of this clutch of players.
There can be no criticism of the fantastic entertainment on offer – only optimism and dreams of just how good we could be when everything clicks and everyone is in the groove. In terms of quality of football there is no reason why this game should represent the summit of our ambition.
Personally I feel the consecutive three games on the road following Barnsley at home will do a lot to determine whether this will prove a good season or a truly great season.
Team: Green 7, Simpson 8, Dunne 8, Hill 7 (Ehmer 7), Assou-Ekotto 6, Carroll 6, Barton 8, Kranjcar 8 (Hoilett), Faurlin 7 (Henry 7), O’Neil 7, Austin 8
Subs not used: Murphy, Traore, Jenas, Chevanton
QPR MOM: Kranjcar – A number of candidates today, but the Croatian provided the extra bit of quality which got Rangers fans purring
Middlesbrough MOM: Gibson – Few stood out in an anonymous showing from the Teesiders. The centre-half fought really hard to snuff out Rangers goal ambitions in the second half
Attendance: 17,081 (including 1,296 away fans)
Photos provided by Sandra Sayce and are used with permission