Niko, Niko Niko inspires R’s to Impressive Victory

QPR put behind their disappointing cup defeat at Everton from the week before with an impressive win here at Portman Road. Second-half strikes from Niko Kranjcar, Gary O’Neil and a collectors item of a goal from Armand Traore saw the R’s win comfortably over a below par on the day Ipswich side.

With the first full week in January gone and no sign or inkling of any strikers heading in-bound to Loftus Road, Harry Redknapp decided to keep faith with his preferred 4-5-1 formation. Rob Green returned to the side following his rest from the cup game, as did Richard Dunne. Simpson, Assou-Ekotto and Hill resumed there usual roles in defence. The main talking points pre-match revolved around the midfield selection. With no out-and-out wingers in the side, Yossi Benayoun and Niko Kranjcar played either side of a midfield containing Gary O’ Neil, Joey Barton and Tom Carroll. Once again, Charlie Austin was the lone Ranger up front.

QPR looked the more comfortable of the sides in the opening 15 minutes, enjoying some good possession in the middle third of the pitch. Ipswich though dealt with this passing game very comfortably and looking well organised, as you would expect from a team managed by Mick McCarthy. With only 2 defeats from their last 17 games albeit 9 of those games ending in draws, most QPR fans in attendance at Portman Road were already thinking that maybe Redknapp’s side would be happy to take a point.

Ipswich’s best chance of breaking the deadlock looked to be attacking on the break against Rangers’ ageing centre back pairing of Hill and Dunne. David McGoldrick had looked impressive up front earlier in the season at Loftus Road but here he was kept quiet by Dunne and Hill.

The pattern of the first-half was played out fairly evenly. Both teams had good chances to open the scoring with both goalkeepers making a good save apiece. Arguably, the best chance of the first-half fell to QPR and Charlie Austin. Gary O’Neil, looking much better in this game than than he has of late, hung in a great ball to Austin whose first time flicked header was somehow instinctively palmed away one handed by Dean Gerkin. It was a cracking save; another day it would probably have put the away side ahead. Austin also had another sniff at goal, a long ball from Hill bounced into his path but as he ran through on goal and shaped up to shoot, a great last ditch tackle by Berra denied him an attempt on goal.

Ipswich’s best chance of the half saw home skipper Luke Chambers romp down the the right hand side, his cross-come-shot was well saved by Green, the ball was scrambled away and fell to Paul Taylor. His shot was goal bound but was blocked well by Joey Barton and the danger was cleared away. This was the only real clear cut opportunity for the home side in the opening period, the only other chance they had of any note was a firm but rather tame shot straight at Green which he managed to fumble before collecting at the second attempt.

With the first time whistle approaching, Rangers were forced into an unplanned change as Joey Barton suddenly pulled up in the centre circle with an injury. His self diagnosis seemed to be that he was coming straight off which meant the much maligned Karl Henry coming on to replace him. Grumbles started to emerge within the travelling contingent and many took the opportunity to exit early to seek half time refreshment.

We’d had some good passages of play but had failed again to make it count, along with some poor deliveries from set-pieces. Although disappointing to many of the R’s fans watching, as at Blackpool when Clint Hill went off, the forced introduction would actually inadvertently change the outcome and dynamics of the game for the R’s.

With the sun now setting on a clear and crisp sunny day in Suffolk, the teams emerged for the second-half. Straight away from the kick-off, a different QPR team seemed to have emerged. Tom Carroll, often battling at times to get any time on the ball, was the star man in the midfield. Karl Henry, limited in passing but very industrious when employed to retain possession, mopped up in front of the centre backs and looked to work in the Spurs loanee when possible. The hardworking O’Neil seemed to be pushing further forward when he could and Niko Kranjcar started to look classy when drifting over to the left.

All of a sudden, the midfield and team in general clicked into place. Kranjcar had a similar effect on proceedings in the game up at Blackpool and it wasn’t long before the Croatian made an even more impressive contribution to this game. Showing some great control out by the left hand corner flag area, he glided into the penalty box through two or three Ipswich players before coolly slotting the ball across Gerkin and into the far right hand side of the net. It was a classy finish and was celebrated loudly by the 1600 R’s who had made the trip.

It wasn’t long before the R’s faithful were celebrating goal number two. As Rangers poured forward, Charlie Austin received the ball on the left and he tried to plant the ball to Gerkins right like Niko had done previously. This time though, the keeper got a hand to it but only managed to palm to the feet of the on-rushing Gary O’Neil who had the simplest of tap-ins, but he slotted the ball confidently into the back of the net. It wasn’t the most memorable of goals but what impressed me most was the support from the midfield for Austin, that O’Neil had got forward to support Austin and be there to convert the chance.

With the R’s now 2-0 up, McCarthy decided to make a couple of changes, with Frank Nouble and former Martin Rowlands calf-raker Stephen Hunt entering the fray. Redknapp made a change of his own, the ineffective and disappointing Benayoun being replaced on the left by Armand Traore. Within five minutes of his arrival, the former Arsenal defender wrapped up the game following a classic route one goal. A Clint Hill hoof straight up field was prodded at helplessly by Town’s centre back Tommy Smith. In doing so he killed the bounce of the ball where Traore nipped past him, chested down the bouncing ball and stabbed it past Gerkin for the third goal.

That was game, set and match for Rangers. Three goals and an away win was a super return for an excellent afternoon’s work so not even a late consolation goal could take the gloss off the score line. A corner from Stephen Hunt was met first time acrobatically by Tommy Smith as his scissor kick flew past Green giving him no chance. It was the goal of the game but was barely celebrated by the home fans, many of whom had either left or been ejected from the stadium.

This was a very good away victory for QPR against a team who had come into the game on the back of some good form. It also gave us 49 points from 25 games, which is one point better off than from the same amount of games in the 2010/11 promotion season. Will this result be the catalyst for this talented team to finally perform consistently well week in week out? We all hope it will be, it’s now time for these players to prove to us that they can do this on a regular basis and secure an immediate return back to the summit of English football.

Ratings: Green 7, Simpson 7, Assou-Ekotto 7, Hill 7, Dunne 8, Benayoun 5 (Traore 6), O’Neil 7, Barton 6 (Henry 7) , CARROLL 8*, Kranjcar 7 (Phillips), Austin 7.

Subs Not Used: Murphy, Onuoha, Wright-Phillips, Johnson

Attendance: 18,369 (including 1,534 R’s fans)

Gary Decaires