The time for excuses is ov… Oh, wait, that was the introduction two weeks ago. Now this really is it, the game that Queens Park Rangers have to win if they are to avoid relegation from the Premier League. The thread by which manager Mark Hughes is hanging has worn so thin it is in tremendous danger of snapping.
The November ice on which he stands is ready to crack. The piranhas are circling below him, and so on. Basically, QPR need to take three points from this match and to do so, they must take on and overcome the team directly above them – Southampton, who similarly have a boss that may well be out of a job by 5pm on Saturday.
What’s the story?
The season so far for the Rs has been rather like an Adele album. Misery, misery and yet more misery. Yet unlike the songwriter’s releases, there has been very little talent involved in said unhappiness, but Rangers’ run of 11 games without a win has left many a broken heart among those who bleed blue and white.
Last weekend was so grimly predictable it left many wondering why the match had even been played in the first place. Having not picked up a victory on the road in a year, since a 3-2 triumph at the Britannia Stadium, QPR once again travelled to Stoke City and fell to a 1-0 defeat.
Sure, the visitors’ play was acceptable and they weren’t wholly outclassed or thrashed, but the result surprised nobody and showed just how limp-wristed the Rs have long been away from home.
What Hughes is now learning, and may well be ruing when his P45 lands on his desk, is that unlike last season, his players can no longer get it up at home. The giant-killing days of March and April are dead and buried.
The gaffer even called for his side to “play poorly and get the win” after Rangers lost to the Potters, but such a plea implies that the Rs have been playing the beautiful game at its most stunning and expansive. They most certainly have not.
In recent games it has largely fallen to Adel Taarabt to provide the sole spark of attacking impetus, and even effort, as others have fallen by the wayside. Against Reading it was hard to tell whether or not this group of players had given up on playing for their boss. Once this happens, like it or not, Hughes must go.
A total of four points from a possible 33 would have had most managers sacked a long time ago. At the minute it is hard to imagine Rangers amassing 33 points throughout the entire season – a figure that would be insufficient to keep the club in the division.
This really is a crisis, and while Tony Fernandes’ show of patience and leniency is admirable and shows his level-headed commitment to the “project” he is attempting at Loftus Road, he must take action if the Rs are still bottom of the league after facing the Saints.
Remind me of last time
You have to go back three years to find the last time these two sides came up against each other. It was at the South Coast club’s St. Mary’s Stadium, and ended in a dull 0-0 draw which did Paulo Sousa’s side no real good in their quest for a play-off place.
As for the Saints, this was their doomed season in which the team that had been relegated from the Premier League in 2005, following a 27-year stint in England’s top division, fell into the third tier. Worse was to come, with relegation to League One following four years later.
Rangers, meanwhile, fielded the following side that day: Radek Cerny, Peter Ramage, Damion Stewart, Kaspars Gorkss, Matthew Connolly, Hogan Ephraim, Liam Miller, Jordi Lopez, Mikele Leigertwood, Wayne Routledge and Dexter Blackstock. The Rs went on to finish 11th in the Championship. How times have changed.
Who’s the boss?
Despite the pressure mounting on him to turn Southampton’s dismal form around, Nigel Adkins is a highly-respected boss and has achieved two successive promotions at St. Mary’s, transforming the fortunes of a club that had fallen on dark times.
While at Scunthorpe United, former club physiotherapist Adkins, 47, took The Iron to the Championship for the first time in 40 years, winning the League One title.
With one of the smallest budgets in the league, a charming but compact stadium and facing far more illustrious names, the club was relegated but bounced back immediately and survived their return to the second tier in 2009-2010.
After receiving a relatively generous amount of financial backing, but not overwhelming riches, Adkins was able to transform the Saints – who had themselves been plying their trade alongside and even below Scunthorpe, in the third tier – into League One and Championship runners-up in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 respectively.
Acquiring players such as Morgan Schneiderlin, Adam Lallana and Ricky Lambert, Adkins’ steady hand and astute knowledge of the lower leagues paid off, but now he faces the same uphill struggle all those who grasp what is required to escape the Championship are met by in the Premier League.
Two or three decades ago, a gaffer such as Adkins would have been like gold dust: irreplaceable, and kept on in spite of relegation from the top flight. Alas, football is no longer like this and the promising young boss will probably soon be booted out, to no avail, and all the excellent work he has done could fall by the wayside.
It must be said that spending a combined total of £19million on Gaston Ramirez and the disappointing Jay Rodriguez, while not strengthening the defensive positions, was perhaps a mistake with hindsight. However it matters little, for whatever Adkins does, the Saints simply appear a little bit out of their depth in the self-styled “greatest league in the world”.
How have they been doing lately?
Although a rousing performance against Swansea City last weekend hauled Southampton off the bottom of the table, they have stuttered and struggled in their first year back in the Premier League.
It is a rather different beast to the one they thrived in until 2005, and at the moment they just don’t seem to have enough to survive. A devastating 2-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion confirmed this, with two goals on the counter cancelling out 90 minutes of good work by Adkins’ side.
Defensively the Saints have been catastrophic, and were torn apart twice in October by Leeds United, who won 3-0 to send them crashing out of the Capital One Cup, and West Ham United, 4-1 winners at Upton Park.
Southampton do possess a fair attacking threat, however, as evidenced against Fulham, where Jose Fonte grabbed a last minute equaliser, and shown in the 4-1 demolition of Stevenage in the first round of the Capital One Cup.
They even came within a whisker of toppling Manchester United, but for Robin van Persie’s hat-trick at the death. Yet this was back in the heady days of September when the Saints were potential giant-killers, not nailed-on certainties for the drop.
Having said all this, Southampton have that one magical quality that Rangers do not – a victory in the Premier League. This came against the almost equally poor Aston Villa side that Paul Lambert faithfully sent out at St. Mary’s in late September, which suffered a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Adkins’ ruthless Saints.
This shows that they clearly can do it, at least on occasions. The trouble is, these occasions are few and far between, and while character and determination can get you a long way in the Championship, quality is what the top flight requires. That and a defence that is less like a sieve and more like a brick wall.
Away from home comforts and on the road, Southampton have won none and scored five in five games in the league, shipping 18 goals in the process. Put it this way, they are not an “away side”, and theoretically should be there for the taking.
Can I have a bit of team news please?
Not much different to last time really. Stéphane Mbia remains suspended for the third game of his ban for lashing out at Thomas Vermaelen at the Emirates. Ji-sung Park also looks set to miss out again having struggled with a knee injury, meaning it could be an unchanged XI with long-term absentees Fabio and Andrew Johnson still on the treatment table.
Probable QPR starting line-up: César, Traoré, Ferdinand, Nelsen, Bosingwa, Diakité, Taarabt, Granero, Faurlin, Cissé, Hoilett.
According to Southampton’s official Twitter account, only defender Frazer Richardson and midfielder Richard Chaplow are unavailable for the 77-mile journey to west London. Star turn Ramirez, who made his return against the Baggies, will be a major threat in only his fourth game for the Saints – and must be keenly watched by the Rs defence.
Probable Southampton starting line-up: Gazzaniga, Clyne, Yoshida, Fonte, Shaw, Schneiderlin, Ramirez, Cork, Lallana, Puncheon, Lambert.
The first and most positive is that the last time Southampton ventured to W12 they limped away licking substantial wounds after the Rs inflicted a 4-1 defeat upon the relegation-bound Saints. So, without reading too much into this, surely the only way is up (or straight on) from such an impressive win?
The omens actually continue to improve when you consider that game number 12 of last season was QPR winning 3-2 against Stoke City. Maybe, just maybe, statistical (im)probability will work again in our favour?
Saturday’s visitors have been far from saintly in their recent clashes with Rangers, having had a player sent off in two of the last three encounters. This is also a game known for its late goals – a total of five have been scored in injury time in either the first or second half of the previous five games.
Moving on to the head-to-head record, of the last 10 matches between these two teams, Rangers have won five, drawn two and lost three. Southampton have beaten the Rs just twice in 10 games at Loftus Road, all of which bodes well for Saturday’s relegation nine-pointer.
How do you think we’ll do?
Having written “to put it simply, we have to win” so many times already in a season that is only 11 games old, the temptation to merely copy and paste previous predictions is overwhelming. Even Hughes is beginning to realise that he cannot survive much longer, and his call for ugly football seems like the last rallying cry of a desperate man.
At the moment, Rangers are five points adrift of safety. Fail to win on Saturday – which could still keep the Welshman in a job, believe it or not – and the gap could widen. A victory would give some credence to the school of thought that the QPR “project” is one that requires time and patience.
Losing or playing out a dour 1-1 draw like the recent stalemate with fellow strugglers Reading and it really is over. While I do not doubt that Fernandes’ show of support is genuine, behind the scenes machinations, fears and concerns are rarely manifested publicly.
A man who has poured millions into the club will not see his investment go to waste if he can help it, no matter his wish to create stability and remain loyal to the gaffer. Businessmen are not known for unscrupulously sticking by people through thick and thin.
Onto the match itself and once again, on paper, the Rs should walk this one. Southampton cannot defend for love nor money, and while they possess a potent enough attacking threat, plenty of infinitely more dangerous sides have come to Loftus Road and inflicted little to no damage.
What is worrying is that against Stoke, Hughes had his ideal selection (barring crocks Fabio and Johnson), and Rangers were still impotent and ineffective. Even if the players have given up on their boss, they must realise that anything less than three points here and they too will be facing career oblivion, albeit at the end of the season, not immediately.
It would be hard to envisage the Saints not finding the net at Loftus Road, particularly with their forward line-up of Jason Puncheon, Lambert, Ramirez and Rodriguez.
However, on paper at least, the hosts have enough firepower to score more than one goal at home in the league for the first time since April.
My final prediction therefore must be 3-1 Rangers, simply because if it does not happen now, it never will. If the players are even remotely bothered about or aware of their predicament, they will react. Games (theoretically) do not come any easier than this.
Have your say | Tweet the author | @chriskking
Originally published on QPRnet on Thursday November 15 2012.