With the dust barely having settled on the departure of Mark Hughes and arrival of Harry Redknapp as Queens Park Rangers manager, the Rs travel to Sunderland to take on Martin O’Neill’s struggling side.
Having failed to win their opening 13 games, surprisingly Rangers have not yet been cut adrift. A victory here would not only haul The Black Cats into the relegation battle, but bring QPR to within four points of safety.
Can Harry Houdini make an early start on his latest great escape with a win in the north east?
What’s the story?
Having been under inexorable pressure since Rangers’ limp-wristed, dire 3-1 loss against Southampton the weekend before last, Hughes was finally relieved of his duties by a reluctant Tony Fernandes on Friday.
Almost instantly, Redknapp was being interviewed by nearly every media outlet going on his chances of becoming the next QPR manager, and The Independent ran a story confirming that he had agreed a deal little over an hour after the Welshman had departed.
The former Tottenham Hotspur boss took his seat in the stands at Old Trafford to watch the Rs take on Manchester United on Saturday, and would have been buoyed by what he saw.
Following a goalless first half, Jamie Mackie gave Rangers a shock lead five minutes after the break, poking the ball home after Kieron Dyer’s cross had been deflected into his path by United ‘keeper Anders Lindegaard.
It was a gusty display which all but confirmed rumours that the players genuinely had given up on Hughes, but would be willing to battle, exert themselves and work as a unit for his successor.
However, QPR were still undermined by the same old defensive failings. The replacement of injury-prone Armand Traoré by Anton Ferdinand on the hour mark was followed by three goals in the space of eight minutes.
Coincidence or not, the 27-year-old’s arrival on the pitch seemed to cause a temporary bout of amnesia, with Rangers forgetting to pick up Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher, who both headed home unmarked, before Javier Hernández slotted in a third.
In reality, however, the result mattered little. The performance was drastically better than that put in by the players against the Saints: it was haphazard and the defence was shambolic, but the effort that has been lacking returned, in spades.
Eddie Niedzwiecki and Mark Bowen sent out a clear message to Redknapp by dropping the mercenary layabouts and restoring figures such as Shaun Derry, Clint Hill, Jamie Mackie and Alejandro Faurlin – all of whom battled valiantly to save the Rs from the drop last season.
Redknapp, who departed early, had clearly seen enough. He has a monumental task on his hands to restore some team spirit, motivate and inspire the disinterested big name signings, end the Keystone Cops defending and get that all-important first win.
Remind me of last time
The previous encounter between the two sides was won comfortably by Sunderland, who tore the ten-man Rs to bits at the Stadium of Light.
Striker Nicklas Bendtner gave The Black Cats the lead four minutes before half time, heading past Paddy Kenny, before Djibril Cissé saw red for a horrendous challenge on Fraizer Campbell.
Rangers were severely weakened in their attempts to find an equaliser, so Sunderland took control of proceedings and quickly went 3-0 ahead thanks to goals from man-of-the-match James McClean and Stéphane Sessègnon.
AC Milan loanee Taye Taiwo did pull a goal back for the visitors with just over 10 minutes of normal time remaining – slamming a 22-yard piledriver of a free kick past Simon Mignolet – but it was a case of too little, too late.
With eight games remaining, this defeat left QPR in seventeenth place, a point behind Bolton Wanderers and facing tough games at home to Arsenal and away to title-chasing United.
Who’s the boss?
Despite their struggles this season, if one were to conduct a straw poll of Premier League supporters to find out which of the division’s managers they most admired, Sunderland gaffer O’Neill would be fairly high up on the list.
Although his glory days at Celtic, where the Glasgow club won three league titles and four trophies across the two Scottish cup competitions are a distant memory, the 60-year-old Northern Irishman has also made his mark at Leicester City, Wycombe Wanderers and Aston Villa.
In five years with The Foxes he won the Football League Cup twice and took the club into the top flight, where they remained throughout his tenure, consistently finishing in the top ten.
Yet it is north of the border where O’Neill, who left Celtic Park with a win ratio of 75% (almost unheard of in modern management over such a long period) is most revered, and unsurprisingly so.
The Bhoys’ treble in 2001 and magical journey to the 2003 UEFA Cup final, where Celtic narrowly lost 3-2 in extra time to Jose Mourinho’s Porto, are undoubtedly O’Neill’s greatest achievements.
Yet he will also be remembered for never becoming the England national team manager, and mixed spells at Aston Villa and now Sunderland.
Despite reaching the Carling Cup final in 2010, the Villains’ first final for 10 years, O’Neill is yet to transfer his success in Scotland to the Premier League.
How have they been doing lately?
Given that O’Neill has had to respond personally to rumours on Twitter and in the press that he offered to resign on account of Sunderland’s poor form, it is fair to say things are far from rosy at the Stadium of Light.
The Black Cats have lost their last three of their last four league games, and have won only twice in the Premier League so far.
It is hardly an impressive record, and raises serious questions about Sunderland’s ability to avoid being sucked in to the battle at the bottom.
Indeed, were it not for the six goals scored by Steven Fletcher, a big-money summer signing from Wolverhampton Wanderers, it could all be so much worse.
Languishing two points clear of the relegation zone in November was certainly not what O’Neill or the supporters expected, but they might slipped further into trouble had Fulham defender Brede Hangeland not been harshly dismissed against the north east side.
Sunderland went on to beat the west Londoners 3-1 at Craven Cottage, but it was clear to everyone watching that the controversial decision half an hour in was a turning point in the match.
Either side of this rare three points were a 4-2 by West Bromwich Albion, who were largely out of sight leading 2-0 at half time, and a 2-1 defeat to Everton.
With Championship outfit Middlesbrough even dumping The Black Cats out of the Capital One Cup last month, with a 1-0 win in the Tyne-Tees derby, the pressure is on O’Neill to recapture some sort of form, and fast.
Can I have a bit of team news please?
Against the Red Devils, Bowen and Niedzwiecki rooted out the “troublemakers” and put out a side that was able to show heart, spirit and determination.
With Redknapp having been present to watch this much-changed QPR team put on a vastly more positive and meaningful display, he will likely keep the faith with the choices made by Hughes’ backroom staff as he takes charge of Rangers for the first time.
One possible change could be the reintroduction of Ji-sung Park to the starting XI, the South Korean midfielder having been out with a knee injury since the 1-1 draw with Everton in October.
Meanwhile, Jose Bosingwa has been ruled fit to play after recovering from a virus, but given the part he played in Mackie’s goal at Old Trafford, Redknapp may decide to stick with Dyer at right back.
Possible QPR line-up: César, Traoré, Mbia, Nelsen, Dyer, Derry, Faurlin, Park, Taarabt, Mackie, Cissé
Sunderland are without midfielder Lee Cattermole (knee) and defender John O’Shea (calf) for the must-win clash, and will be looking to Sessègnon for inspiration – the Benin international having scored twice in two games.
The Rs lost twice to Sunderland last season, conceding a late winner after battling back from 2-0 down at Loftus Road in December, before succumbing to the aforementioned 3-1 thrashing in March this year.
These two matches were, in fact, the only time the Black Cats and QPR had met in the Premier League, but in their previous five visits to the north east, the Superhoops have not won once.
Rangers are without a clean sheet away from home in 23 games, and it should also be underlined that it is now over a year since the Rs last won on the road – a total of 20 matches.
On this weekend last season, QPR were once again playing away from home – and losing 2-1 to Norwich City at Carrow Road.
How do you think we’ll do?
There is a famous saying often applied to footballing scenarios: “it is the hope that kills you.” The trouble is that with Redknapp’s infectious enthusiasm beginning to permeate the souls of disheartened QPR fans, this is exactly what many of us now have.
Under Hughes there was never any positivity, and this was a major failing of his tenure. Immediately, and before a ball has even been kicked, Redknapp appears to have changed the atmosphere at Loftus Road.
He has also taken over at a very opportune moment, because in their next four matches Rangers face Sunderland, Aston Villa, Wigan and Fulham. All of these are winnable games, and it would be a surprise if Redknapp were unable to stop the rot very soon.
Serious problems remain, such as the team’s inability to keep a clean sheet and dismal camaraderie, and it has been a while since the 65-year-old has been forced to work under the constraints that he will need to overcome at QPR.
Wrong though it may be, I am starting to believe that this could be the moment our season turns around. It is certainly too soon for Redknapp to have coached the players in “his style”, but for sheer motivational ability, there are few managers around I would rather have at the helm.
With positivity briefly flowing through me, I am going to do the unthinkable and say that two major records, two of the biggest millstones in the club’s recent history, will be shattered tomorrow night.
Yes, you heard me. The Rs will, rather like a Rolling Stones gig, get it together for 90 minutes and bring back the good old days. 2-1 Rangers, away record binned, and no more “x games without a win”. Call me a fool, but I believe we can do it.
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Originally published on QPRnet on Monday November 26 2012.