With the aptly-named “mini revival” having been abruptly ended by Newcastle United, is there to be any festive joy for Queens Park Rangers as they take on West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool in the final two games of 2012?
Or will it be a case of a Grinch-style punishment for the Rs after a year in which they have rarely impressed, occasionally delighted, but more often than not been very bad indeed?
What’s the story?
It may be Christmas, but all is far from merry in the Rangers camp. Rotund Santa figure Harry Redknapp is not bringing his players presents this week but a sharp dose of well-deserved criticism.
The former Tottenham Hotspur manager laid into certain members of the QPR squad, who shall remain nameless, following the 1-0 defeat to the Magpies at the weekend.
Actually, let’s name them. The individuals to whom the gaffer referred could include any of the following and more.
Esteban Granero, Júlio César, José Bosingwa, Anton Ferdinand, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Ji-sung Park, Djibril Cissé, Junior Hoilett. I could go on.
So to what achievement does this group owe its mention by Redknapp on BBC Radio 5 Live following the match?
Funnily enough, it was not an early release of the shortlist for the 2012/13 season player of the year accolade.
It was almost exactly the opposite, an unspoken collection of the overpaid, sparsely talented, underachieving players that the squad has been largely made up of, particularly since this summer.
Frankly, with some it does not even matter how much they are being paid – if any money is changing hands at all it is a matter of deep concern.
They again conspired to produce precious little at St. James’ Park, although it must be pointed out that only three of the above list actually featured on Saturday.
So woeful was the creativity, so lacking the energy and so dismal the desire to succeed that the 11 players on the pitch mustered just one meaningful effort on goal – and were a beaten team as soon as Shola Ameobi scored with nine minutes to go.
Redknapp was agonisingly honest in his post-match interview, in what was actually a highly endearing moment.
For the first time he dropped the niceties and decided to tell the truth, the painful, horrible truth that we have all known for months.
He must be extremely nervous, particularly as without a win against either the Baggies on Boxing Day or the Reds, who thrashed Fulham 4-0 in the late kick-off, there will be little justification for spending big.
And splashing the cash until it pump runs dry is what the “miracle worker” did while saving Portsmouth from the drop, and can reasonably be called his modus operandi.
With away games as unlikely to yield a win as they have been for the past 13 months, they can reasonably be excluded from the relegation battle plan.
We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them … actually we will only be fighting them at Loftus Road. That is where the season will be won, or lost.
Never mind a tricky tie against one of the most impressive sides of the season so far, the Boxing Day match up is rather like the Battle of Britain. Fail to win, and it could be all over very quickly indeed.
Remind me of the last times
Almost a year ago the West Midlands club visited W12 and came away with a point, snatched late on by striker Shane Long.
Heidar Helguson, now at Cardiff City to begin his glorious, sun-kissed retirement in south Wales, headed in a cross from Joey Barton, who genuinely has been exiled to a European beauty spot, to give the hosts the lead.
They appeared to have done enough to see off Roy Hodgson’s men, but on Neil Warnock’s 63rd birthday Long converted Peter Odemwingie’s pass to incur the wrath of the Yorkshireman, who was predictably enraged.
Enough about that game, however, the visit of Liverpool last season was arguably one the greatest nights in QPR’s long and mixed history.
Yet for around 75 minutes it was a forgettable damp squib the visitors had taken control of thanks to a stunning goal from Sebastian Coates and a tap in by Dirk Kuyt.
That was until midfield warrior Shaun Derry reduced the arrears in the 77th minute, before Cissé nodded the ball home to level the scores with four minutes remaining.
While the supporters were celebrating an incredible comeback, Jamie Mackie seized on an error from left back José Enrique to steer the ball under Pepe Reina and send the stadium into delirium.
Quite simply, you could not have asked for a more inspiring turnaround or unlikely recovery that turned a potential disaster into a vital win in the fight against the drop.
Who are the bosses?
Two young managers who have experienced vastly different starts to the campaign, each belying the expectations of the clubs they are in charge of.
As Steve Clarke has led West Brom into seventh against all odds, Brendan Rodgers is struggling to haul his Liverpool side into the upper echelons of the Premier League.
They may be only a place apart, but while the Reds are widely seen to be underachieving and a shadow of their former selves, this is shaping up to be a vintage year for the Baggies.
Both men have limited managerial experience but worked under the Special One at Chelsea, Clarke as assistant manager and Rodgers in the posts of youth coach and reserve team boss.
Coaching stints at West Ham United and Liverpool ended abruptly for the former, while Northern Irishman Rodgers quickly departed both Watford and Reading before finding his feet at Swansea City.
Although highly regarded as a coach – Clarke was the highest paid assistant manager in the league during his time with the Hammers and oversaw their ninth place finish in 2008/09 – the Scot always had to follow his manager.
This subordinate role was most obvious at Liverpool, where the 49-year-old left the club shortly after Kenny Dalglish despite engineering a turnaround in the latter stages of the 2011/2012 campaign.
While Clarke’s stock has risen exponentially this year with his quiet, unassuming success at the Hawthorns, Rodgers famously took the Swans to the Premier League via the play-offs.
He then continued to develop the squad before leading the Welsh club to a comfortable 11th place finish last season.
Some said he was mad to leave the Liberty Stadium and take the risk of joining a club where expectations rarely match reality, and predictably Rodgers has struggled at Anfield.
Progress is being made but only slowly, and once again it is hard to see the Reds challenging for the top six, let alone the top four, this season.
Although West Brom’s current placing is largely courtesy of a home record that is almost as impressive as that of Manchester City, the side Clarke has inherited and honed do not appear to be in imminent danger of falling away.
How have they both been doing lately?
According to the form table, Liverpool lie in eighth having taken 10 points from their previous six games.
The away form league sees the Reds move up to fourth courtesy of two victories and three draws from the last six matches.
On the other hand, the Baggies are comfortably mid-table on current form, with seven points from six games and three defeats in five matches.
On the road their record is more or less the same: seven points from six games and three losses out of five.
Yet both sides returned to winning ways at the weekend, West Brom recovering from 1-0 down against high-flying Norwich City to snatch a 2-1 victory.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were sensational against lacklustre Fulham, banishing painful memories of an embarrassing 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa the week before.
Before this came an impressive 3-2 slapping down of West Ham at Upton Park for Liverpool, and successive defeats for West Brom against Arsenal and Stoke City, plus a 0-0 stalemate against the Hammers.
Can I have a bit of team news please?
Speaking earlier today Redknapp revealed that injured César, Armand Traoré and Nedum Onouha would be assessed in the next 48 hours ahead of the Boxing Day clash.
This means that if neither of the latter two recovers sufficiently it could be an unchanged defence against West Brom, with Ferdinand keeping his place in an unfamiliar role at right back.
However, barring any further negative developments, both should be fit to face Liverpool on December 30.
Shamed Bosingwa, whose refusal to sit on the bench against Fulham earned him a very public verbal battering from Redknapp, will not feature in either game.
The gaffer coldly remarked: “I will have a look at him in the future. Let’s see how we go.”
Redknapp had previously said: “The owner and the fans see their team losing every week and suddenly you get someone who doesn’t want to sit on the bench.”
By going so far as to include Ferdinand, who cannot get anywhere near the team in his favoured central defensive slot, at full back, Redknapp has made it clear to Bosingwa that he is not wanted.
More long term absentees for the two Christmas fixtures are Park, who remains unavailable for selection, Kieron Dyer, Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson.
Visitors West Brom have Youssouf Mulumbu back from suspension but could be without Steven Reid and midfielder Claudio Yacob: both will undergo fitness tests before the game.
While West Brom have won twice on the road this year compared with seven times at home, the Baggies have lost just once in their previous four visits to Loftus Road.
Boxing Day fixtures have also yielded two victories out in the past three years for Rangers, after a run of only one win in 10 games.
Perhaps portentously, the visitors on Wednesday tend to overdo it on the sherry at Christmas, as they have failed to score in three of the last four Boxing Day matches.
Meanwhile, QPR will need to keep a close eye on winger Chris Brunt, as the 28-year-old has netted in three of his previous four encounters with the west Londoners.
As for Liverpool, they boast a record against the Rs that would be enough to sap the morale of any superstitious fan.
The Superhoops have won seven times against the Reds in 42 games, which Liverpool have come out on top in 29 times.
Furthermore, last season’s heroic display was one of only six times the Rs have beaten Sunday’s opponents in the league at Loftus Road.
How do you think we’ll do?
Having taken six points from five eminently winnable encounters, the fixture list is beginning to turn against QPR and neither of these two games will be easy.
The Baggies are a well organised, difficult to beat side that have established themselves as one of the division’s toughest to beat.
Indeed, before the previous 10 games, West Brom had only lost twice so far this season, but fortunately for the Rs it is away from home where they are most vulnerable.
Liverpool, meanwhile, will be out for revenge after their famous defeat earlier this year and demonstrated a new-found ruthlessness against the Cottagers.
It is telling that, even with star striker Luis Suárez suffering a dip in form and scoring just once, the Reds have still managed to net eight goals in three matches.
Yet if the visit of Fulham did not have any bearing on Rangers’ fortunes on the road, it should do on the performances in Shepherd’s Bush.
Redknapp will have told the players that, if they do not manage to beat either West Brom or Liverpool, 2013 will be a very miserable year indeed.
The “back to basics” tactic that worked so effectively against Fulham could easily be successful again, providing the correct selection is made.
Earlier in the year, Mark Hughes picked a side that was catastrophically overrun in midfield by West Ham. Make the same mistake, and the Baggies will take advantage.
So will Liverpool, who dominated Fulham from start to finish with Steven Gerrard in vintage form knocking the ball around and setting players free on the counter.
There is also an added incentive, which is that for several players, these two fixtures could be the last time they pull on the blue and white hoops.
A report today claimed that four are facing the axe: Cissé, Stéphane Mbia, Samba Diakité and Bosingwa. While neither Mbia nor Diakité seem obvious candidates to be offloaded, one could hardly blame Redknapp for wielding the axe as he sees fit.
After all, the QPR squad is rather like the cabinet of the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev took charge: full of overpaid, ageing individuals doing very little, relying on past glories for their place, all of them very difficult to get rid of.
With this in mind, there is a glimmer of hope that the players will treat the Newcastle result as a reminder that they cannot simply turn up and hope.
Stating the obvious, I know, but should Taarabt perform, there is a good chance the Rs may score first.
This could be invaluable against two sides that will likely sit back and try to soak up any pressure – should it be put on them at all.
Hopefully, Redknapp will have reacted to his first defeat as manager in the sort of blood and thunder manner Sir Alex Ferguson has done for the past 26 years.
Disinterest, complacency and a lack of effort can only be cured by one thing – a good old-fashioned kick up the backside.
And now I offer a glimmer of Christmas cheer for you all. The present we all want, from Redknapp to Ryan Nelsen, and back to the fans in the stands, will come a day late against West Brom.
Expect another 2-1 win on Boxing Day, for Rangers do not do clean sheets, followed by a hard-fought 1-1 draw with the Reds to set us up nicely for the January madness.
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Originally published on QPRnet on Monday December 24 2012.