After a grim festive double that saw Queens Park Rangers, like the United Kingdom at Eurovision, pick up “nil points”, reality is beginning to set in as tough clashes loom large in the New Year.
First up are Chelsea, beginning to come into form under Rafael Benítez, at Stamford Bridge before Rangers make their annual FA Cup exit – this time at the hands of West Bromwich Albion. Can a glimmer of hope be found amid the misery?
What’s the story?
In essence, the story is that QPR are staring relegation in the face following successive defeats to West Brom and Liverpool, despite the assurances of manager Harry Redknapp.
Speaking after he had watched his side comprehensively beaten by the Reds on Sunday, the boss had the following message for the fans: “I’ll keep us safe.”
While one has to admire his indefatigable positivity in the face of a sea of negatives, these comments do rather echo the frequent sentiments of Dad’s Army lance corporal Jack Jones.
Even if the home crowd had managed to avoid a night of sleepless panic imagining Luis Suárez running at the ageing Rs defence, the players seemed gripped by fear almost from the off.
The Uruguayan eased past Clint Hill as if the veteran simply was not there before slotting past Júlio César after 10 minutes, then saw his cross cleared back to him by Nedum Onuoha and promptly tucked in a second.
Steven Gerrard continued his renaissance by setting up Daniel Agger to head home a third and put the game to bed after just 28 minutes.
Deservedly booed off at half-time, Rangers were woeful and the defence so haphazard it contrived to portray visiting Liverpool, thrashed by Aston Villa at Anfield a little over two weeks ago, as world-beaters.
Truthfully, however, it would not be beyond any top flight outfit to humble QPR at home or away, so wretched are the side propping up the Premier League table.
With Redknapp hinting that he will look to spend this month, the scene is set for last year’s mistakes to be repeated par excellence, but the difference is that this time a year ago Rangers had 17 points, rather than a pitiful 10.
Certainly the revival that the former Tottenham Hotspur manager is expecting will not be starting tomorrow, given that the Blues have won three games in a row and scored 11 goals – eight of which were put past Aston Villa, who remain eight points clear of the Rs in 17th.
Remind me of the last times
For those that have gainfully attempted to erase all memory one of the worst days in the club’s recent history from their minds, this segment will be kept as short as possible.
Sandwiched neatly between morale-boosting victories over Spurs and Stoke City came a 6-1 hammering in SW6 and the only ever hat-trick scored in blue by £50million flop Fernando Torres.
There really is surprisingly little to say about such a damaging defeat other than that the hosts went ahead through Daniel Sturridge after 45 seconds and the game was won on 13 minutes when hate figure John Terry netted the second.
Despite this comfortable lead Roberto Di Matteo’s charges did not let up in their quest to humiliate QPR, and were 4-0 up at the break thanks to a brace from Torres.
The Spaniard completed his treble shortly after the hour mark before Florent Malouda made it six and Djibril Cissé pulled a goal back – the epitome of a consolation strike – in the day’s only positive.
West Brom, on the other hand, assuming they suffer no further traffic woe will be relishing another trip to a ground on which Chris Brunt scored so easily on Boxing Day.
Further seasonal goodwill from Robert Green, who was dropped after his own goal against the Baggies, seems unlikely.
Yet after coming away with a comfortable 2-1 win, Steve Clarke’s players may feel that they already have one foot in the fourth round of the oldest cup competition in the world.
Who are the bosses?
Benítez and Clarke manage, between the two of them, to represent the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and possibly Yet To Come at Chelsea.
While Clarke has taken to the managerial role like a duck to water, for years he cemented his reputation as a fine assistant during arguably the greatest era in the Blues’ history, under José Mourinho.
Having taken the Baggies to seventh in the table, level on points with Spurs and Arsenal at the halfway stage, the 49-year-old could well find himself in the hot seat at Stamford Bridge one day.
Spaniard Benítez, on the other hand, was for so long a thorn in the side of the west Londoners that many supporters were outraged when owner Roman Abramovich mercilessly fired Di Matteo and brought him in.
Scepticism is yet to give way to respect or acceptance, indeed the only way Benítez will ever be anything but loathed by fans is if he manages to challenge the top two this season.
Their animosity towards the 52-year-old is understandable, as he was so frequently the mastermind of UEFA Champions League victories for Liverpool against Chelsea, most notably in 2005 through Luis García and the “ghost goal”.
After being hired primarily, it appears, to help Torres recapture his Liverpool form, Benítez already appears to be having an effect.
Yet whether inspiring the striker alone will be enough to extend his “interim” period remains to be seen.
How have they both been doing lately?
Following a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Corinthians in the final of the Club World Cup, the Blues are beginning to take out their frustration on the Premier League – to marvellous effect.
Dismal Villa were destroyed 8-0 by a rampant Chelsea in a game of seven different scorers. It could have been even more devastating had it not been for Brad Guzan, before a Juan Mata goal saw off Norwich City at Carrow Road.
Managing to sneak an away win over Everton at Goodison Park further emphasised their credentials to, at the very least, finish comfortably in third as Frank Lampard underlined his value to the club with a superb brace.
On form the Blues lie joint-second in the division with Arsenal, having picked up four victories in five games, and lost only once at home all season.
West Brom enjoyed mixed results in December, losing twice to Stoke (1-0) and Arsenal (2-0), while seeing off the Canaries as well as Rangers on Boxing Day in successive 2-1 victories.
The form team places the West Midlands club in 14th, but with games against Fulham, Reading and Villa to come, the Baggies are likely to maintain the pressure on the more illustrious sides above them.
Can I have a bit of team news please?
Mysteriously, Redknapp refused to name the “three or four players” that picked up knocks against Liverpool, but it certainly appears likely that he will be forced to shuffle the pack ahead of the opening match of 2013.
Ji-sung Park, Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora remain sidelined, but Armand Traoré, Ryan Nelsen and Nedum Onuoha, all of whom played on Sunday, appear to have fully recovered.
As for Chelsea, goalkeeper Petr Čech misses out after suffering a groin injury against the Toffees at the weekend, while the clash may come too soon for John Terry, who has been unavailable since November with a knee ailment.
Concerns over Jonas Olsson, Goran Popov, Steven Reid and Claudio Yacob could leave Baggies boss Clarke facing a selection headache, but he may choose to rest players regardless following the loss to Fulham yesterday.
Besides shipping six goals last time and generally collapsing against the Blues, the Rs have only won five of their 25 away games against Chelsea.
Rangers last won at Stamford Bridge in the League Cup back in 1986, and prior to this it was nearly 30 years ago – the 1982/83 season – that the Superhoops tasted away victory in the league over their bitter rivals.
So the omens are hardly positive, but QPR do have a record of over a goal per game at Stamford Bridge, so foolhardy supporters making the journey could well see the visitors find the net at some point.
Having continued their strong recent run in W12 the other day, West Brom are now unbeaten in five games at Loftus Road, three of which they have won.
Winger Brunt scored his fourth goal in the past five matches against QPR, meanwhile, in that game and if deployed in the cup will be eager to extend this streak.
There is a little bit of cup history between these two sides, as in the 1967 League Cup Final Division Three Rangers came from 2-0 down at half-time to win 3-2 and lift the trophy for the first and only time in the club’s history.
Recent efforts in the FA Cup have been far less illustrious, however: over the years the Rs have been knocked out by the Blues, Sheffield United, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Luton Town, Nottingham Forest and Grimsby Town.
With the league situation more precarious this year than it has been for quite some time, another humbling looks almost inevitable.
How do you think we’ll do?
If the Liverpool game confirmed anything it is that QPR are destined to go down this season.
Not even a manager with the reputation, motivational ability and gravitas of Redknapp can remedy the problems afflicting this football club that have been allowed to build up over the past couple of years.
Chronic shortages up front and in defence have created an imbalanced squad that, no matter how it is deployed on the pitch, is inadequate and easily beaten by almost any opponent.
Transfer activity in January should be about removing the cancerous cells such as José Bosingwa and signing an up-and-coming forward plus a proven Championship defender – for that is the division the Rs must prepare to be in next season.
Admirable, yes, foolhardy, most definitely: Redknapp’s claim that he will sort everything out and it will all be okay is not supported by any evidence at all.
Trying to steer a ship floundering in the middle of the ocean into the safety of a port is near-impossible when it is rapidly taking on water.
Simply going faster will not help, indeed it may harm the situation: the leaks must be plugged and control regained.
Signing players left, right and centre over the next few weeks will only result in an inflated wage bill Rangers cannot afford and more footballers whose best days are behind them picking up a handsome, underserved wage.
Talk of Joe Cole being the first Redknapp signing seemed to confirm the worst, that the Rs really have learned nothing at all.
At the same time as this charade carries on in the background, the next two matches can almost be written off entirely.
Depending on their mood, Chelsea will either comfortably dominate the game or obliterate QPR as they did Villa, while West Brom have nothing to fear from a trip to Loftus Road.
Given that Redknapp will almost certainly put out a weakened side, if that is even possible, the Baggies should also ease to victory.
After this will come the visit of Tottenham – but if any of the clubs in and around the relegation zone have picked up a point or three by then the already Herculean task will simply get harder and harder.
In the context of the humiliating result against Liverpool, a 4-0 defeat to a buoyant Chelsea team would be a fairly conservative estimate. Indeed, keeping the score below eight should be seen as a “positive”.
Assuming West Brom take the game seriously, they could be looking at a comfortable 2-0 win and an easy passage to the fourth round, for Rangers do not really “do” cups anymore.
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Originally published on QPRnet on Tuesday January 1 2013.