Having witnessed a rarity at the Stadium of Light with a clean sheet against Sunderland on Tuesday, Queens Park Rangers face another side struggling at the wrong end of the table.
Aston Villa are the visitors to Loftus Road as Harry Redknapp looks to lead the Rs to their first win of the season.
Fourteen games in, can the wait for a victory possibly go on any longer?
What’s the story?
After watching from the stands during Rangers’ 3-1 defeat to Manchester United, Redknapp took charge of QPR for the first time against the Black Cats.
The former Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth manager was able to shore up a defence that has already shipped 26 goals so far this season, but he could not mastermind a win.
Redknapp said he was encouraged by the display, and rightly so: yet the fact remains that the Rs have scored a grand total of ten goals in the Premier League, and a mere four at home.
Misfiring Djibril Cissé did nothing to allay fears that Rangers are woefully short of firepower, as he was unable to convert a host of chances in the north east.
With Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora ruled out until the end of the season, Redknapp will clearly be looking to invest in a couple of strikers come January.
However, for now he must work with the players at his disposal, and with the Villans lying on the cusp of the relegation zone with 13 points, they are not the sternest test the division has to offer.
Remind me of last time
The corresponding fixture last year was a frustrating game for home fans, as Villa midfielder Barry Bannan put the away side in front from the spot shortly before the hour mark.
Defender Armand Traoré was branded a “disgrace” by enraged boss Neil Warnock for a tug on Gabriel Agbonlahor in the box that earned him a yellow card and set Alex McLeish’s side on their way.
As the minutes ticked by and Rangers struggled to find an equaliser, the Loftus Road crowd made their frustrations heard, provoking a reaction from the players.
It took until the third minute of stoppage time, but in the nick of time Richard Dunne diverted Stephen Warnock’s clearance past Shay Given to hand both sides a point in an honourable 1-1 draw.
Interestingly, that was the sixth game of the season for QPR, and the club had already registered two wins before the start of October. How times have changed.
Who’s the boss?
In one of the most mystifying managerial swaps of the summer, Paul Lambert chose to abandon “plucky” Norwich City and a group of players that he had nurtured from League One to the top flight for what one might call “basket case” Aston Villa.
Having kept the Canaries in the Premier League against all odds, and comfortably at that, Lambert chose to move to a club with a bigger reputation but inferior playing staff and a lower league placing.
Despite his rather odd career move, Lambert’s ascent as a manager has been truly inspiring. After starting out at Livingston, the 43-year-old moved to Wycombe Wanderers, taking the Buckinghamshire side into the League Cup semi-finals.
Lambert then had a spell at Colchester United, where he brought about the dismissal of Norwich favourite Bryan Gunn from his post with a 7-1 humiliation of the Canaries at Carrow Road.
The Scot then sensationally left the Essex club to take over the reins in Norfolk, guiding City to two successive promotions, including the League One title in 2010.
Beloved by legions of Canaries supporters, Lambert and star striker Grant Holt became modern heroes of the highest order, particularly when both spectacularly combined to keep Norwich up and finish twelfth.
Alas, ambitious Lambert was not satisfied with adulation in Nelson’s County and left with some degree of acrimony at the start of June.
He remains a legendary figure for all in yellow and green, however, having been inducted into the Norwich City Hall of Fame in March this year.
While things have not gone entirely to plan for the Aston Villa gaffer, Lambert has yet to stamp his authority on the side and truly make it his own in the way that he was able to at Norwich.
Time will undoubtedly tell, but he remains one of the Premier League’s brightest young bosses, capable of reaching the pinnacle of English football some day in the future.
How have they been doing lately?
Almost as though the club planned it when timing their sacking of Mark Hughes, the Rs are up against a side in fairly poor form with just three league wins to their name.
What was probably not in the script was Villa’s late victory against Reading in Tuesday night’s stultifyingly boring live match on Sky Sports.
Christian Benteke, the man who will forever be known for keeping Darren Bent out of the side, netted his third league goal for the club to see off the Royals in a much-needed triumph at Villa Park.
This fleeting moment of joy aside, however, October and November have been fairly bleak. As well as 1-0 wins against Reading and Sunderland, there has also been a 5-0 thrashing by Manchester City and an inexplicable collapse against Manchester United after going two goals ahead.
Yet that defeat to United was only Villa’s second at home, the other coming against in-form Everton. Fortunately again for Rangers, the Villans are atrocious on the road.
Only dismal Sunderland have allowed Lambert’s charges to come away from their ground with a win, so with a little improvement a first victory of the season is not out of the question against a group of players that very much enjoy their home comforts.
Can I have a bit of team news please?
The good news is that Rangers will have an actual left back available for the match in Fábio da Silva, who is no longer ineligible and may well replace the shaky Traoré.
Regrettably, Cissé looks set to start up front once again in the absence of any other forwards at the club, meaning that the Frenchman will have the opportunity to miss yet more chances before returning to his favourite pastime of abusing Rs fans on Twitter.
Goalkeeper Júlio César picked up an injury against the Black Cats meaning that Robert Green is likely to return to the fold having been frozen out since mid-September
Fit-again Ji-sung Park, who returned in the clash with Sunderland looks set to keep his place, while Redknapp may go with Stéphane Mbia and Ryan Nelsen at the heart of the defence.
Probable QPR starting line-up: Green, da Silva, Mbia, Nelsen, Bosingwa, Diakité, Park, Granero, Taarabt, Mackie, Cissé
Aston Villa are without Ron Vlaar, who suffered an injury against Arsenal last weekend, while Charles N’Zogbia, Richard Dunne and Stiliyan Petrov remain on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, defender Chris Herd has recovered from injury and Eric Lichaj is expected to start at left back for the Villans.
Darren Bent, left out of the squad entirely by Lambert for the last five Premier League games in a row, could miss out again due to an on-going row over payments to former club Sunderland.
With a grand total of four meetings between the two teams since QPR were relegated from the top flight in 1996, Rangers have the upper hand overall, boasting a win ratio of 44% to Villa’s 34%.
Back in September 2008, the Rs won 1-0 at Villa Park in a League Cup tie, while last season honours were shared in both encounters: 1-1 at Loftus Road and 2-2 at Villa Park.
Villa have only ever won three times in west London, and their last success came in 1991, prior to the foundation of the Premier League.
On this weekend last season it was the turn of another West Midlands side to visit the Superhoops, West Bromwich Albion coming away with a 1-1 draw from their trip down the M40.
With Green set to start in goal in place of the injured César, it is worth remembering that QPR shipped nine goals in three league matches with the ex-West Ham United ‘keeper between the posts.
How do you think we’ll do?
Fresh from having been made to look like a fool by my bold prediction that the goalscoring heavens were going to open and pour forth all over Simon Mignolet, I am once again ready to predict a win for Rangers in a fit of unfounded optimism.
They say there is nothing more foolish than not learning from your mistakes. Perhaps this saying, which clearly applies to my often errant score predictions, is also relevant for some of the players.
While it was an improved performance at Sunderland, the same old failures persist. Ten goals in 14 games is a miserly sum and highly embarrassing.
Rangers are not a defensive team: there is no order “not to score” because it would frankly be suicidal given that the defence is less able to do its job correctly than the UK Border Agency.
The crisis has reached such a stage where identifying a particular game as being a “must win” match is incorrect. Every single clash from now until the end of the season has to be won.
Aston Villa are a mediocre bordering on poor Premier League side. A free-flowing, confident, united Rs line-up should be capable of playing Lambert’s boys off the park.
It is up to Harry Houdini to perform the sort of miracles he was brought in to, and fast. Time is running out, and Redknapp will be all too aware that sides bottom of the table at Christmas rarely avoid the drop.
However, I have a strange feeling that a turnaround is imminent. It may take a stunning strike from Adel Taarabt, the ball deflecting off Cissé’s backside or Clint Hill rising like a salmon to head home from a set-piece, but something has to give.
It will be scrappy, ugly, low on quality and unpleasant to watch. And much like an Adam Sandler film, it will all work out alright in the end. I call 1-0 and a triumphant post-match press conference from ‘Arry to warm the hearts of QPR fans everywhere as the festive season gets underway.
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Originally published on QPRnet on Friday November 30 2012.