Helguson inspired QPR heap misery on dire Stoke – full match report
Sunday, 20th Nov 2011 21:24 by Clive Whittingham
QPR secured a third away win of the Premiership campaign with a fine 3-2 victory at out of form Stoke City on Saturday.
QPR don’t win promotion often, but recently they’ve developed a troublesome knack of doing so with a team led by an ageing centre forward.
In 2004 they climbed from the Second Division into the Championship aided by 16 goals from veteran striker Paul Furlong. The 36-year-old Furlong was a wily, classy centre forward with a tremendous awareness of space in the penalty box and years of experience and knowledge that enabled him to use his physicality to great advantage against younger more naïve defenders. Still, the general consensus was he would need replacing at the higher level – relying on a player who would turn 37 during the season to spearhead a Championship attack was folly.
A year and 18, often spectacular, league goals later and humble pie was being scoffed by the doubters – but of course the problem remained, and had if anything grown larger. Where could cash strapped QPR find a centre forward as good as Paul Furlong before age finally caught up with this Rolls Royce of a player?
It could reasonably be argued that it took them until 2009 to do so, and even then given the fitness and form difficulties experienced by Heidar Helguson during his initial time at Loftus Road it wasn’t immediately obvious that they’d finally succeeded. Helguson, like Furlong, is now enjoying an Indian summer at Loftus Road and playing arguably the best football of his entire career. On Saturday against a Stoke City side renowned for its physical approach to the game the barrel chested forward gave a model lesson in centre forward play, exhibiting movement worthy of some of the league’s finest players. He scored twice, and had a third disallowed, and all after taking a boot to the face in the opening minute of the game.
Neil Warnock says the priority for QPR in the transfer market is to find a younger equivalent of the 34-year-old Icelandic international. Two things Paul Furlong taught us is that might be a lot easier said than done, but the need might not be as pressing as it first appears because if Helguson is fit enough and in form like this, then his age becomes less of a factor. There’s life in this old dog yet.
On Saturday QPR needed a performance like that from their centre forward. Stoke were in poor form approaching the game – three straight league defeats in which they’d conceded 11 goals including five at lowly Bolton last time out – but the Britannia Stadium is one of the division’s most feared grounds these days and 27,618 people had packed in to see this one. Worth noting the attendance for our last visit to this ground in 2007 the gate was just over 11,300. Loyal bunch.
The visiting team’s preparation was less than ideal. Jay Bothroyd, a man of the match contender in an unfortunate 3-2 defeat against league leaders Man City before the international break, pulled out with a training ground injury on Wednesday and Neil Warnock then lost Jason Puncheon through illness and reserve keeper Brian Murphy with a calf injury during the warm up to leave him with a substitutes bench of just five players including former Harrow Borough youngster Troy Hewitt.
Bothroyd’s absence meant a more advanced role in the team for both Jamie Mackie, who supported Helguson in attack, and Armand Traore who moved to left wing with Clint Hill restored at left back against his former club. Hill’s excellent heading ability made him a likely selection for this match in any case. Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon played at centre back with Luke Young on the right and Paddy Kenny in goal. In midfield Alejandro Faurlin and Joey Barton played in the centre with Shaun Wright Phillips given a free role to complete the line up against the club that tried to sign him in the summer. Rangers emerged in a blue and white home strip, with changed blue shorts.
Stoke’s poor run of form has brought criticism of manager Tony Pulis who is accused by sections of the home support of nursing favourites in the team. Calls for goalkeeper Thomas Sorenson and centre back Robert Huth to be recalled at the expense of Asmir Begovic, who’d conceded 11 goals in his last two matches for club and country, and Jonathan Woodgate, who has earned the unfortunate nickname Floodgate since a summer move from Spurs, were heeded. This was only Sorenson’s second league start in more than a year. There was still no place in midfield for another former Spurs man Wilson Palacios though and the combination of Rory Delap and Dean Whitehead in the middle of the park was as ineffective and unimaginative as you would expect given the obvious limitations of both players. Peter Crouch partnered Jon Walters in attack against one of his many former clubs.
The appointment of Cheshire official Mike Jones to referee this game was the source of some conjecture prior to the kick off. Jones is not kind to away teams, producing 12 of his last 14 red cards for players on visiting teams and upsetting QPR by allowing a winning goal for Chelsea in 2009 League Cup tie between the teams despite a clear foul on Wayne Routledge in the build up. He’s not terribly popular in Stoke either – this was his first visit to this ground since his officiating allowed an FA Cup quarter final here against West Ham last season to descend into a farce of ignored handballs and soft penalty awards.
He didn’t have to wait long for his first incident of note. In the opening two minutes the first Stoke corner of the afternoon dropped to Jermaine Pennant on the edge of the penalty area and he crashed to earth claiming a trip from Joey Barton. The replays showed that Barton, despite doing his best to avoid the collision, had indeed caught Pennant’s trailing leg but on this occasion I can see, given the theatrical way the player went to ground, why Jones ignored the extensive appeals from home players and fans. Stoke would have another much more blatant penalty appeal waved away in the second half.
Stoke, who Rangers haven’t met in the top flight since 1984, took the lead in the eighth minute, crowding Joey Barton out of possession in the middle of the QPR half and then clinically slicing the visiting defence apart with Crouch feeding Walters who finished crisply across Kenny and into the far corner of the net. QPR were close to signing Walters before he joined Stoke instead 18 months ago and he has settled into Premiership life admirably since making the switch.
QPR were doing everything wrong. All the talk pre-match of special preparation aimed at combating the home side’s well renowned strengths and weaknesses was starting to sound rather hollow as Rangers persistently conceded possession in their own half, presented Stoke with a host of free kicks and throw ins around the penalty area, and afforded too much respect to the home team’s front two.
The lethargy was summed up shortly after the Walters goal when Anton Ferdinand inexplicably allowed a routine high through ball to bounce, and then tried to shepherd it back to Paddy Kenny who was always a distant second favourite for the ball behind Peter Crouch who’d smelt blood the moment the ball hit the ground. Crouch did indeed beat Kenny to it, and hooked the ball towards goal but was denied a first ever career goal against his former employers by a combination of a desperate save from Kenny and Clint Hill’s timely goal line clearance.
You would think after Fitz Hall’s disaster at Craven Cottage, and Per Metersacker’s decision making in advance of Norwich’s first goal in the early match on Saturday, that the QPR defenders would be ready to accept a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to such situations but apparently not. Ferdinand was very fortunate not to be held culpable for a second Stoke goal on that occasion. Lads, they cannot score from row Z.
Kenny then needed a heartstopping two attempts to gather a free kick under his cross bar after Peter Crouch had bought a free kick from the match officials with a theatrical fall down the Stoke left.
A tame shot at Sorenson from Alejandro Faurlin and a corner which resulted in a Stoke free kick with Clint Hill accused of climbing over Ryan Shawcross was as good as it got for the visitors in the opening stages.
So 20 minutes in and just about everything that could have gone wrong for QPR had done: they’d lost two players in the warm up and the in form Jay Bothroyd in training prior to the match; they’d conceded one, survived a big penalty appeal and should have conceded another; they’d created nothing for tehmselves while playing right into Stoke’s hands at the other end. A long old afternoon seemed to be in store as the mist started to roll onto the field through the open corners of Stoke’s hilltop home.
And then suddenly Rangers equalised. The value of actually having some controlled, considered possession in the Stoke half shone through with a splendid goal from Heidar Helguson. A patient move between Armand Traore, Shaun Wright Phillips and Alejandro Faurlin climaxed when the Argentinean played a ball in behind Andy Wilkinson for Traore to run onto. The Stoke fans, clearly unaware of Faurlin’s ability and unaccustomed to such quality build up, ironically cheered the Argentinean’s ball believing it was skidding straight out for a goal kick. Not only did the pass stay in play, it also gave Traore a chance to wrap his left foot around the ball and produce an absolute peach of a cross into the heart of the penalty area. Helguson meanwhile had pulled beyond Higginbotham the last defender at the back post and then committed to an intelligent run across the face of goal that left him unmarked and nicely placed to thump a bullet header into the top corner of the net. A fantastic goal all round, and one Helguson was rewarded for with a further poke in his already injured eye during the celebrations.
Stoke were rattled, and picked up the game’s first yellow card when Andy Wilkinson crudely lunged in on Armand Traore – ridiculously named in a Talksport Top Ten of the worst players of the season so far but increasingly growing into his regular first team spot at QPR. Shawrcross was also carded before half time for tripping Joey Barton, but the QPR man was lucky to survive another loose piece of play in the centre of the field on the half hour – his possession concession allowed Matthew Etherington to break and shoot wide. Otherwise Etherington and Jermaine Pennant were largely anonymous, QPR finding joy in taking the only two genuinely creative players in the Stoke team out of the game in the same way Newcastle did on this ground three weeks ago.
Rangers were also coping reasonably well the set pieces – Huth headed a corner over ten minutes before half time as he continues to look for his first goal of the season after scoring nine last term.
QPR took the lead for the first time in the game a minute before half time and again it was the visiting side’s ability to actually pass the ball effectively and imaginatively that set them apart from their rudimentary and cumbersome opposition. A slick move started when Joey Barton passed a ball into Jamie Mackie on the corner of the penalty box. Shaun Wright Phillips had allowed that ball to run while Luke Young had steamed past him to add another body to the penalty box mix. This created a numerical advantage for QPR in the right channel that they subsequently executed to absolute perfection. Mackie tucked the ball back to Wright Phillips and then spun off into the area to receive a return pass that he then cut back to the unmarked Young and he fired the ball into the roof of the net for his first QPR goal, and first goal for anybody in 18 months.
It’s easy to forget Luke Young has been a semi-regular member of the England squad for many years but now we are getting the privilege of seeing him play regularly you can see how he caught the eye of various national coaches. He’s threatened a goal for QPR several times since arriving from Aston Villa, regularly committing to lung-bursting runs into the penalty area without ever receiving a reward until now. His signing looks like one of the most astute made by Neil Warnock at Loftus Road and Rangers must hope that an injury which ended his afternoon early in the second half here isn’t too serious with a busy December fast approaching.
Two minutes were added on to the end of the first half during which Joey Barton picked up a suspension activating fifth yellow card of the season in harsh circumstances – penalised for a deliberate handball near his own corner flag. Stoke wasted the free kick and QPR deservedly led at the break.
Ten minutes after half time QPR gave themselves a two goal cushion and if the first two had been a result of footballing lessons for the home team the third was all about playing Pulis’ team at its own game. Joey Barton, who’d crossed well for Helguson to win a corner in the first place, received his own cleared set piece back from Shaun Wright Phillips and then delivered a delicious cross through the corridor of uncertainty between keeper and defenders to the back post where Helguson had once again intelligently peeled off beyond the last defender before making a perfectly timed run and this time he scored from close range with his left foot.
Rangers thought they had a fourth moments later when a low cross from Mackie on the right was touched onto the post by Shaun Wright Phillips and Helguson buried the rebound only to be flagged offside. A hat trick goal for the Icelandic international would have been richly deserved after a fine afternoon of centre forward play, and few could argue QPR were good value for a 4-1 lead either, but it wasn’t to be and when Stoke then went down the other end and made it 3-2 this seemed like a moment that the game swung back in favour of the Potters.
Predictably, given that three quarters of Stoke’s goals have been scored this way this season, it came from a set piece. Neil Warnock said his team had done little else than work on corners and throw ins in the week leading up to the game but when the first header is won by 6ft 7in Peter Crouch and the crucial touch on the goalline is provided by 6ft 4in Ryan Shawcross it’s hard to know exactly what Rangers could have done to prevent it without the use of stepladders. Fortunately this was one of very few well executed dead ball situations from the home team.
Pulis tried to push forward his side’s advantage by sending on Kenwyne Jones for Peter Crouch (heaven forbid he actually change his system) and then later Ricardo Fuller for Jermaine Pennant. Neil Warnock is deprived of such option from the bench at the best of times but with only five subs named here the problem was worse than usual. QPR were starting to look jaded at the worst possible moment in the game, but except for Bradley Orr’s introduction necessitated by a worrying looking injury to Luke Young, they had to go with what they had.
Fuller’s first action was to execute a horror tackle on Armand Traore over by the dug outs. Fuller’s disciplinary record is chequered to say the least and this looked like a red card from the moment both his feet left the floor – however a split second before he did so referee Jones had actually blown in his favour which resulted in the ridiculous situation where a QPR player was writhing in agony on the ground after a dreadful tackle on him, but Rangers were left to defend a free kick with ten men. Thankfully Traore was fit to continue.
Stoke should have been handed a chance to equalise from the penalty spot in the eighty second minute. Another long throw was allowed to drop in the heart of the QPR penalty box and, rashly, Joey Barton went to ground and hacked through the back of Robert Huth as he attempted to control the ball. It looked a stone wall penalty from the moment it happened but Mike Jones, for the second time in the game, waved the appeals away and QPR had survived. Huth responded by wrestling Barton to the floor as the ball was worked clear – an incident that was seen by World Cup final linesman Darren cann and signalled for but there was an agonising moment as the referee came across to speak to him where QPR wondered whether in fact he was going to draw Jones’ attention to the original offence.
A poor decision from the referee who was perfectly placed to see what was a clear and obvious foul but then given that Pulis, his players and the Stoke fans appeal long, loud and bitterly over every single decision in every single game maybe there’s an element of boy crying wolf about all of this. A member of the Stoke coaching staff was sent from the touchline in the immediate aftermath.
The incident only served to increase Stoke’s persecution complex. Manager Tony Pulis criticised referee Mike Jones afterwards, saying referees arrive at the Britannia Stadium with a pre-conceived idea of what to expect from the home side. Pulis, and Stoke’s players and fans, also rail against criticism of their style of play but the facts were pretty stark on Saturday – Stoke completed just 118 successful passes in 97 minutes of football. That’s a Premiership team managing little more than one successful pass per minute. The criticism of them is wholly valid – they were awful to watch here and well beaten.
The sense of injustice manifested itself in the central midfield area where Barton won the ball with a firm but fair tackle and was then immediately hacked down by Rory Delap who was rightly carded. Heidar Helguson also blotted his copy book slightly with a yellow card for a foul on Wiilkinson. The bad feeling escalated when Barton went across to take a late QPR corner and was pelted with coins from the home end – it wouldn’t be a QPR game in Stoke without a lashing of bad feeling and poor behaviour in the stands.
With five minutes remaining Pulis sent on Glenn Whelen for Dean Whitehead, but that was merely replacing one mediocre central midfield player with another. Whelen even managed to be dreadful in a 5-0 away win for the Republic of Ireland in Estonia last week and although he came closer than anybody to equalising here, sending a dipping volley a foot over the bar in five added minutes at the end of the game, his introduction was more of a boost for QPR than it was for Stoke. Another Whelen volley went well wide after QPR had dallied over clearing their lines.
The five minutes of injury time also included, right at the death, another Rory Delap long throw – headed over the bar by Kenwyne Jones on this occasion. Delap’s throw ins are a menace to opposing sides, but against first Newcastle and now QPR in recent games at the Britannia they’ve actually played into the visiting team’s hands. First of all it’s clear that without the throw ins Delap would barely be able to command a place in a Championship team – him being out there to take them means Stoke are automatically at a disadvantage in open play and against Newcastle with Cabaye and Tiote in midfield and then on Saturday with Faurlin and Barton there for QPR that lack of quality has really shone through.
Secondly although they’re a useful weapon they take an absolute age to set up – even when trailing by a single goal as the final few grains of sand drained through the egg timer Delap was going through the meticulous preparations that involve marking a run up out and towelling the ball off. It not only kills all the momentum of a Stoke attack, it wastes a lot of time and gives the away side free reign to go through the same towel routine with their throw ins as a further time wasting exercise. How Wilson Palacios cannot get into this team is beyond me.
But to focus on Stoke’s many shortcomings for too long would detract from a fine QPR performance and result. They started the game so poorly, running down a checklist of everything you should not do against Tony Pulis’ side and executing each item perfectly. The first QPR goal was a thing of pure beauty and it turned the game completely on its head – from then on Rangers dealt with the obvious threats of the home team efficiently, but didn’t get so absorbed in that as to not play their own game as well. The second goal was expertly crafted and had Shaun Wright Phillips made it four instead of hitting the post few could have argued that it was deserved.
Rangers were well set up, well drilled and lead magnificently by Heidar Helguson up front. They’ve taken six points and plenty of plaudits from a run of four games against Man City, Tottenham, Chelsea and this away game at Stoke and currently sit ninth in the table.
These are fine times to be a Queens Park Rangers supporter.
Stoke: Sorensen 6, Wilkinson 5, Shawcross 6, Huth 6, Higginbotham 6, Pennant 5 (Fuller 68, 6), Whitehead 5 (Whelan 85, -), Delap 5, Etherington 6, Walters 7, Crouch 6 (Jones 65, 6)
Subs Not Used: Begovic, Wilson, Upson, Palacios
Booked: Wilkinson (foul), Shawcross (foul), Delap (foul), Fuller (foul)
Goals: Walters 8 (assisted Crouch), Shawcross 64 (assisted Crouch)
QPR: Kenny 6, Young 7 (Orr 77, 6), Ferdinand 6, Gabbidon 7, Hill 7, Wright-Phillips 7, Barton 7, Faurlin 8, Traore 8, Mackie 7, Helguson 9
Subs Not Used: Derry, Buzsaky, Smith, Hewitt
Booked: Barton (handball), Helguson (foul)
Goals: Helguson 22 (assisted Traore), 54 (assisted Barton), Young 44 (assisted Mackie)
QPR Star Man – Heidar Helguson 9 A complete Premiership centre forward display with two fine goals, a third unluckily disallowed, expert hold and link play and plenty more besides. Helguson was also a key figure in the QPR penalty area, defending really well against all of the Stoke set pieces.
Referee: Mike Jones (Cheshire) 6 Stoke will point to two penalty decisions – both of which could easily have been given, the second on Robert Huth should definitely have been awarded. It’s mpossible to mark a referee highly with two such big decisions made incorrectly, although I sympathise with him on the first one because Pennant looked like he’d dived at normal speed. Should have taken action against Fuller for a dire tackle on Traore on the second half even though he’d already awarded a free kick to Stoke. Seemed to struggle to keep a handle on the game throughout.
Attendance: 27, 618 (1,500 QPR approx) Stoke’s attendances have almost tripled since they were promoted to the top division and a ground that I previously considered one of the worst examples of a new build, mainly due to its wide open corners and distance of the main stand from the pitch, is now one of the most feared and atmospheric. Apart from one deafening chorus of club anthem Delilah after the first goal the noise from the home ranks was almost entirely restricted to appealing for various free kicks and penalties – and given that they appeal for absolutely everything at the same ridiculous volume the effect of that is open to debate. QPR travelled in good numbers, selling out their allocation, and were in understandably good voice throughout.
@loftforwords Tweeted updates live from the Britannia Stadium throughout this game. Get following now for more to come in future matches.
Photo: Action Images
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