Feel comfortable at the thought of Robin van Persie running at Anton Ferdinand in a one-on-one contest in front of 75,000 supporters? Me neither.
This game is nothing short of terrifying, pitting winless Queens Park Rangers against the fearsome might of Manchester United in a match where one side will be driven back to London on a stretcher, with frantic medics desperately resuscitating the lifeless QPR corpse down the M1. Who will come out on top? It is not even a question worth asking.
What’s the story?
To be honest, it could not get much worse for the Rs. Winless in 12 games now, which is actually quite an achievement, despite being impressive for all the wrong reasons, supporters were gleeful on Monday night to hear Mark Hughes had been fired by owner Tony Fernandes.
Only it soon emerged that the dour Welshman, who against Southampton was every cliché for inept and helpless you can think of – rabbit caught in the headlights etc. – had in fact not been relieved of his duties and instead lives to fight, and lose, another day.
With everyone that started against the Saints excluding Adel Taarabt, Jamie Mackie and Ryan Nelsen, having shown that they are no longer willing to play for Hughes and only came to the club for the money, the long contract or whatever other cynical reason, it hardly seems worth bothering while the boss remains in charge.
However, with a few changes some passion could be injected into the side so that QPR, in stark contrast to the Southampton match, where the players showed nothing but incompetence and a complete lack of interest, can at least go down fighting against the Red Devils.
With the rumour mill turning overtime this week, it was widely reported in the national media that Harry Redknapp, who is apparently set to swoop in, give everyone a pep talk and “make everything okay” in west London, was set to be offered the Ukraine national team coach position.
This would have had the effect of placing enormous pressure upon Fernandes, Phil Beard and Amit Bhatia to act fast to make sure their man did not sign up for a few years by the Black Sea.
The ex-Tottenham Hotspur manager, being exceptionally media savvy and on a permanent publicity drive, made sure that the link was played up as much as possible – and it may just have worked for him.
For the press then claimed that Hughes was going to be given a short length of rope, by which his team could hang him once again: essentially, he would lead the lads out against United, lose badly, be confirmed as inept and beyond saving, and unceremoniously booted out in favour of Harry the saviour.
So the story is, and will remain, that by around 5pm on Saturday, the Rs will have been thrashed at Old Trafford, and Hughes will remain under intense pressure until his sacking finally comes.
If you trust the papers, it will be on Sunday. If you choose not to, Hughes may just get Sunderland as well – one last chance to prove quite how “meticulously” he prepares the team for every game.
Remind me of last time
If I must. To summarise, Rangers were easily beaten by a far superior side at Old Trafford in another familiar story of woe away from the then-home comforts of Loftus Road. In reality, however, despite the result being cut and dry before kick-off, the visitors were actually extremely hard done by.
Despite being outplayed in terms of possession and chances, it took the extremely harsh sending off of Shaun Derry, who “hauled down” United winger Ashley Young in the box, to set the Red Devils on their way.
Anyone paying close attention to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side last year might have noticed that once or twice the former Watford wide man had a tendency to, shall we say, behave like a shameless cheat by throwing himself to the floor at every opportunity.
Alas, Derry fell victim to his play acting, while the referee was fully convinced by Young’s efforts. To really rub salt into the gaping wounds, not only was the offence in no way sufficient to warrant a straight red card, but in fact Young was offside in the build-up. To say it was a “controversial” opener would be putting it mildly.
Hamstrung and trying to contain one of the best home sides in the country, in fact, the second best, the Rs could do little but keep the score down with ten men. They did so, succumbing only to a 2-0 defeat, confirmed by Paul Scholes on 68 minutes with a shot from 25 yards out.
One positive to take was that QPR had not surrendered to a team out-of-form or on shaky ground: this was the hosts’ eighth straight Premier League win.
Who’s the boss?
More or less a non-entity, you probably wouldn’t have heard of him. A Scottish manager, formerly in charge of Aberdeen back when the Cold War was still raging and Margaret Thatcher was the most talked-about woman in Britain, not that lass off the X Factor.
Sir Alex Ferguson is the longest-serving gaffer in the history of Manchester United Football Club. He is also the Premier League’s current longest-serving boss, and has sat in the hot seat at one of the biggest clubs in the world since 1986.
In that time Fergie has won the top division of English football (for those new to the game, it has not always been called the Premier League) 12 times, and picked up 48 trophies since taking over at Old Trafford.
He has a stand named after him, predictably titled the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever bosses to grace English football.
Notorious for chewing gum endlessly, being able to engineer 10-20 minutes of stoppage time when only two or three minutes are due, and dishing out “hairdryer” abuse to under-performing players, he is quite simply the best.
Despite “only” winning the Champions League twice, Sir Alex has built title-winning sides repeatedly and dealt with every threat to his club’s dominance at the top of the Premier League – except, as yet, that posed by neighbours Manchester City.
However, it wasn’t always certain that Ferguson would go on to throw aside the formerly imperious Liverpool and keep United at the top of the table for so many, many years.
It took a Mark Robins goal, scored for the Red Devils in a third round FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest, to arguably save Fergie’s job – with United 15th in the table, out of the League Cup and fans beginning to lose patience with the man at the helm. And the rest, as they say, is history. He even now has a statue outside the ground.
How have they been doing lately?
Last weekend we discovered that United, despite trailing Premier League leaders Man City by a single point, are acutely vulnerable if their fearsome forward line of van Persie and Wayne Rooney fails to shine.
Plucky Norwich City did not, as Ferguson incorrectly stated, defend “for their lives” at Carrow Road. Moreover they matched United in every department and picked up on the Red Devils’ shaky defence and long standing weakness in midfield.
They realised that the only reason United have won so many games this season, a total of nine, is that the club’s strikers have been there to overturn deficits and quite literally change games that appeared to be slipping away.
Against Aston Villa, it took a brace from Javier Hernandez to spare the side’s blushes after the Villains were allowed to race into a 2-0 lead in the opening 50 minutes. It was a similar story against relegation strugglers Southampton, where van Persie snatched a hat-trick and two goals in the last three minutes to haul United out of trouble.
This was never sustainable, and everyone knew it: most of all Chris Hughton, whose tactics were spot on and with limited resources was able to employ a simple but effective game plan that others across the Premier League with varying budgets and styles would do very well indeed to emulate.
Much like when Rangers came head-to-head with Arsenal last month, they are coming up against a team which have lost two out of two, a defeat by Galatasaray ending the 100% record Man United had thus enjoyed in the Champions League.
Yet that was with a side full of reserves and the occasional teenager. Putting out serious, menacing-looking XIs against the Gunners in domestic football and Braga in Europe, United secured a comprehensive 2-1 win and came from behind to thoroughly beat their Portuguese rivals.
In fact before losing to the Canaries, United won five matches in a row, scoring 15 goals but conceding seven. A superior, less tragically chaotic outfit would probably make them pay for such carelessness – but the Rs are no threat at all to the resumption of the Red Devils’ winning run.
Can I have a bit of team news please?
Instead of predicting the Rangers line-up this time around, I have decided to suggest a team, and a formation, for Hughes to adopt in this “do or die” encounter.
Moving back to team news for a second and the big development is that striker Bobby Zamora looks set to be out for three months, meaning he could miss a total of 14 league games.
The ex-Spurs forward requires hip surgery and, with no other recognised striker available, the woeful and disinterested Djibril Cissé looks set to have free reign up front.
Ji-sung Park remains sidelined and while Fábio da Silva is fit the terms of his loan will stop him playing against his parent club. Stephane Mbia is also available again after serving his three match ban for the red card he received at Arsenal.
With this in mind, here is not the likely QPR XI but the one most supporters would probably want to see, where mercenaries are mostly excluded and loyal players who actually want to pull on the shirt and try their hardest are brought back into the fold:
Júlio César, Onuoha, Nelsen, Mbia, Hill, Derry, Faurlin, Diakité, Taarabt, Hoilett, Mackie.
As for the substitutes, perhaps Hughes can ask those who have been omitted from this fantasy line-up whether they care enough to sit on the bench and watch on at the misery we have all had to put up with since the opening game.
The hosts are without midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who was ruled out for another four weeks on Monday, and will make wholesale changes from the weakened side trotted out to lose to the Turkish giants in midweek. Wayne Rooney, who was absent against Norwich last weekend, could make his return against the Rs.
Probable Manchester United starting line-up: De Gea, Evra, Ferdinand, Smalling, Rafael, Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Young, van Persie, Rooney.
If Rooney does find some fitness again in time for tomorrow’s game he has the chance to score the first goal against Rangers for the third time in as many matches.
At Loftus Road and Old Trafford last season he opened the scoring and, given that the Rs defence is as leaky as a sieve, the only thing likely to stop him netting first will be his strike partner.
In 13 games against the club at which he spent six years as a player, Hughes has lost eight and won only two. As for United, they have won their last 10 matches in a row against QPR, and lost none of the last 13 clashes between these two sides.
A more pertinent omen, besides the Red Devils simply being a lot better than the Rs, is that the visitors have taken three points from the last 57 available away from home.
United have lost only one of their last 14 games at Old Trafford, and score with 19.4% of their efforts on goal. Of which they will have many, if José Bosingwa or Armand Traoré happen to be anywhere near the starting XI.
How do you think we’ll do?
It may be hard to believe reading this rather miserable, sarcastic preview, but I get no enjoyment out of watching my beloved team being torn apart by all and sundry and facing the ignominious prospect of being nailed-on relegation favourites before December has even started.
Supporters are desperate for a win, and rightly so, but more than this they want to see a team that steps onto the field with purpose, togetherness, passion and at least an inkling that they simply cannot amble around and give other teams a 15-game head start in the battle to avoid the drop.
If Hughes is bold in what could well be his final game, he will drop all the underperforming stars and go “back to basics”. Whatever approach he takes will result in defeat. There is absolutely no way Rangers will win at Old Trafford.
With this the basis, the players he picks should be free from constraints and able to play the sort of expansive and daring football away sides rarely do when they visit United.
Yet they will not, because the spine of the team appears to be toxic at the moment and, by freezing out loyal players, Hughes will find that if called upon they will try their hardest but lack match fitness and perhaps be a little out of their depth.
If United stutter, there is just a chance that the Rs could be within a goal of a draw. Scoring would be a major bonus, because at the moment it is hard to believe anyone in blue and white would have the impetus to get forward and be in the right place at the right time to convert (Cissé, I am looking at you).
However, I believe that the most probable story is this: “Despite dropping a few of the club’s big name signings and the public call from captain Ryan Nelsen for the players to ‘take responsibility’, QPR were unable to prevent Manchester United forwards Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney from running riot at Old Trafford, leading to boss Mark Hughes cutting a lonely figure on the touchline and his side trooped off the pitch at full-time, coming away with a 4-0 defeat that will be hard to take for all involved.”
In some ways, the pressure is off here. Nobody expects us to win, the team is fractured, ill-disciplined and staffed with famous has-beens who give not one jot about the club’s plight, and the manager is halfway out of the door but clinging on for dear life.
At certain clubs this would yield a “pressure’s off” mentality and the sort of swashbuckling football Rangers were known for in the 1960s and ‘70s. Not this time though, I am afraid. It won’t be pretty, and it could be a devastating couple of hours in rainy Manchester.
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Originally published on QPRnet on Friday November 23 2012.