QPR cling on to top flight status after amazing day of reckoning – report
Tuesday, 15th May 2012 00:05 by Clive Whittingham
An astounding Sunday afternoon of football saw Queens Park Rangers survive in the Premier League despite a last gasp defeat to Man City which confirmed Robert Mancini’s men as champions.
Involving Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers in such an occasion was always likely to produce something extraordinary.
Supporters of these two sides, renowned for their penchant for farce and snatching heartbreaking defeats from the jaws of glorious victory, probably thought they’d seen everything there was to see prior to arriving at the Eastlands Stadium on Sunday afternoon. They were wrong. A season of nine months and 38 matches came down to the final few extraordinary minutes in an unprecedented end to a title race and relegation battle. This was football drama at its absolute extreme at the crescendo of an artery hardening season for both clubs.
Initially the maths was very simple: Manchester City had to match Manchester United’s result at Sunderland to claim a first league title in 44 years, Bolton had to win and hope QPR lost to drop the Super Hoops back down into the Championship after a one year stay in the top flight. But this was no maths lesson - more an in depth, applied study of the human psyche.
Leading at half time having dominated and barely been troubled in defence City appeared to be cruising to glory while QPR’s cause seemed lost as Bolton turned round an early deficit to lead 2-1 at Stoke. But for all the hundreds of millions spent by the absent Sheikh Mansour on this Sky Blue footballing force the team remains heavily reliant on the presence of one man, and when Yaya Toure left the field injured towards the end of the first half Roberto Mancini’s side became rudderless, leaderless, clueless and riddled with self doubt.
QPR, meanwhile, were magnificent. Going into the game as 18/1 underdogs just a fortnight after they’d lost 6-1 to one of the division’s other leading lights Chelsea they showed a style, determination and swagger in keeping with the club’s finest traditions and equalised through Djibril Cisse. A spectacular meltdown from captain Joey Barton and subsequent record equalling ninth red card of the season for the team appeared to have dashed hopes but astonishingly Mark Hughes’ men then marched to the far end of the field and took the lead thanks to a diving header from the wide-eyed Jamie Mackie. Meanwhile, in Stoke, Bolton had conceded an equaliser from the penalty spot.
When a stoppage time board indicating five extra minutes was raised into the Manchester sky City were staring down the barrel of a Devon Loch style embarrassment as Rangers clung valiantly to what was potentially the greatest result in the history of the league. By the time referee Mike Dean put his whistle to his lips for a final time in 2011/12 everything had changed forever.
Mark Hughes, returning to the scene of his harsh sacking as City manager two years ago sporting a record of just one defeat in 11 games against them, sprung a surprise pre-match with his team selection. A positive, attacking line up included former City favourite Shaun Wright-Phillips from the start for the first time in ten games instead of Adel Taarabt who was apparently only well enough to sit on the bench. Hughes picked two strikers – Bobby Zamora and Djibril Cisse – ahead of the diminutive winger with Barton and Shaun Derry anchoring the centre of the midfield and Jamie Mackie spreading chaos and carnage in a wide right role. At the back the usual back four included City fan and former player Nedum Onuoha at right back with Clint Hill, Anton Ferdinand and Taye Taiwo completing the line up ahead of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny.
City selected a wealth of attacking talent from their stockpile of the world’s finest footballers and Gareth Barry. Carlos Tevez started in attack with Sergio Aguero and support was provided to them by a world class trio of Samir Nasri, David Silva and Yaya Toure. Amazing really that QPR are even in the same league as this lot, never mind being able to go toe to toe with them across 180 minutes this season.
It seemed prior to kick off, despite matching City and going close to beating them at Loftus Road before Christmas, that QPR couldn’t have had a worse fixture to finish with needing points. The game immediately settled into the predicted pattern with Rangers standing firm against waves of home attacks. City forced a corner in the opening seconds which was cleared by Bobby Zamora, then in the next attack Barton was caught trying to shepherd a ball out for a goal kick and Aguero seized possession and set up Toure who smacked a shot high and wide. A second City corner followed soon after and although Rangers cleared initially Paddy Kenny had to be on guard and remain balanced to execute a clearance when Anton Ferdinand launched a meaty pass back in his direction at short notice. Samir Nasri blasted wide from range as the onslaught continued.
But, for once, QPR seemed to have actually learnt their lessons from previous mistakes, and there was a very different feel to this rearguard action than there had been at Chelsea a fortnight ago where the R’s seemed to lack sufficient spirit, pride and street smarts to hold out a superior team. Here, unlike at Stamford Bridge, Bobby Zamora dropped back into a five man midfield set up when out of possession, and the midfield and defensive banks on the edge of the penalty area were solid and well organised, marshalled superbly by Clint Hill. Rangers stayed tight and narrow when out of possession, unlike the strung out mess we saw against Robert Di Matteo’s team, and were quite happy to force City into funnelling the ball left to Gael Clichy in every attack by leaving the Frenchman as the only unmarked player on every occasion. It was an intelligent game plan, and very well executed.
That said, it seemed certain that salvation for the Super Hoops probably still lay some 50 miles south down the M6 in Stoke-on-Trent and as the time ticked into double figures at Eastlands news spread around the away end that things were going QPR’s way at the Britannia Stadium. Had linesman Bob Pollock spotted Clint Hill’s header flying three yards over the Bolton Wanderers line on QPR’s visit to the Reebok Stadium two months ago then Rangers would have been safe after beating Stoke last weekend, so it seems rather churlish of Owen Coyle and his players to complain too loudly about Jonathan Walters’ opening goal for the Potters on Sunday despite it coming courtesy of a clear and obvious foul on goalkeeper Adam Bogdan. Referee Chris Foy must surely be in the running for the QPR Player of the Year award, and he wasn’t finished there yet either.
The news flooded the away end like a wall of cool, relieving water washing across the QPR fans who celebrated as if their team had scored a goal themselves. To their credit the City fans to our left, who know all too well what such situations feel like, applauded the news too but then had to come to terms with their own issues from elsewhere as Manchester United took the lead at Sunderland leaving no margin for City error. Meanwhile back at the ranch Paddy Kenny needed two nervous attempts to claim a deep cross but was then much more alert and sure of his handling when David Silva hammered an opportunist strike towards the near post from a tight angle.
The sides exchanged attacking free kicks at the midway point of the first half. First Gareth Barry was penalised for fouling Djibril Cisse and the Frenchman drilled a low shot through the City wall but straight at goalkeeper Joe Hart. Then Shaun Wright-Phillips, putting in a crazy amount of work defensively but offering little in attack, was caught by referee Mike Dean palming a ball away from trouble on the edge of his own box while trying to disguise his actions as a diving header. Spaniard David Silva found only the wall with his direct attempt at the goal. When Silva then cut in from a wide area and hammered a poor shot wide on the half hour there was a sense for the first time that City may lack the courage of their own convictions to break down the stubborn QPR resistance. In seven disastrous minutes before half time, that all changed.
Almost simultaneously the situation altered completely from one where QPR were safe by three points and goal difference to one where they were in the bottom three with just 45 minutes of the season to go. First City found the key to the QPR door by allowing full back Pablo Zabaleta to advance forwards into the penalty box giving them an extra body which nobody in red and white quarters had been detailed to deal with. The Argentinean’s instinctive shot seemed easy enough for Paddy Kenny to deal with but although the Irish keeper got a strong hand to the ball it subsequently looped agonisingly up into the air, onto the inside of the post and a foot over the line despite the embarrassed stopper’s frantic attempts to scoop it away.
It was the sort of goal that makes you think it’s just not meant to be your day, but it was nothing compared to the two flukes Bolton were about to score in five minutes down at Stoke. First Mark Davies saw a ball fly into the net after being cleared against him by Stoke’s Andy Wilkinson, then Kevin Davies overhit a cross into the box only to see it sail in over accident prone goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen and into the net. At half time QPR’s situation looked desperate, despite the key withdrawal of City talisman Yaya Toure and introduction of the more limited Nigel De Jong thanks to an injury.
Rangers suddenly required goals as well as rearguard action, but that was going to be easier said than done. Aguero drew a near post save from Paddy Kenny and Nasri smacked a free kick over the bar as the second half started in much the same vein as the first.
It’s not very often that a club like Queens Park Rangers gets hold of a player so gifted and potentially explosive that you always have a chance of snatching something however badly the team is playing. On the final day of the 1994/95 season Rangers won 3-2 against City in Manchester at Maine Road thanks to the final two goals of Les Ferdinand’s career in Hoops. Two years later, a division lower, they won 3-0 on the same ground with Scottish forward John Spencer scoring twice. Apart from Spencer and Ferdinand only really Adel Taarabt has fulfilled the role of talisman who gives QPR fans hope of something regardless of circumstance. Now, in Djibril Cisse, they have a new one.
Boasting an intimidating set of numbers prior to the game – five goals and two red cards from seven appearances – and fresh from a last minute winner against Stoke the eccentric French forward needed no second invitation when he found himself through on goal three minutes after half time after Joleon Lescott misjudged a long ball forward. Cisse, in typical style, balanced and composed himself calmly before drilling an unstoppable shot past Joe Hart and into the City net. The QPR fans behind the goal erupted as one heaving mass of jubilation. Amazing scenes, literally amazing scenes.
City looked panicked, their attacks became frantic at this point. Clint Hill came within a foot or so of a spectacular own goal as he thrust out a boot at Nasri’s low cross, from the corner Zabaleta mishit a shot from the edge of the box and Aguero failed to turn it onto the target as it flew at him in the six yard box. A hush fell on Eastlands, QPR were doing a number on their hosts and City knew it.
So step forward Joey bloody Barton. Captain Fantastic strikes again. Ten minutes after half time and five minutes after Cisse had positioned Rangers exactly where they wanted to be Barton reached out and gave his big, red, flashing self destruct button – worn through overuse – a big push. It happened in seconds and quickly escalated into an ugly incident that shamed Queens Park Rangers.
Carlos Tevez - refreshed after four months of pro-celebrity golf tournaments in his homeland and apparently forgiven because to do otherwise would be to go against the current situation in the modern game where the football players are Gods and can do whatever they like with no recourse - struck Barton across the back of the head on the corner of the penalty area as play developed further down the field. Barton, as Barton is always likely to do, responded by lashing out and elbowing the Argentinean troublemaker straight in the throat. Tevez hit the ground holding his face – not something Barton can quibble about too loudly after his behaviour in the Newcastle Arsenal fixture back in August – and when linesman Andy Garratt hoisted his flag into the air the outcome was never going to be a positive one for QPR.
Garratt had seen the retaliation, but not the first incident, and reported as much to Mike Dean whose eyes had been on the play in progress. Dean awarded City a free kick on the very edge of the penalty box – it could easily have been a spot kick – and dismissed Barton. All the bridges built with QPR fans over several weeks of improved performances and behaviour were ablaze again, and Barton wasn’t finished yet. Either the red mist descended or, as Barton claims, he made the decision to try and goad a City player into being sent off as well. Before leaving the field he aimed a headbutt at City captain Vincent Kompany and violently hacked at the back of Sergio Aguero’s leg sending the striker tumbling to the ground in pain. City boss Roberto Mancini leapt from the technical area and sprinted across the field to try and prevent Kompany and co from getting drawn into Barton’s tricks, pursued quickly by substitute Mario Balotelli who fancied a nice big thick slice of the farce for himself. The QPR coaching staff also piled onto the pitch to try and rescue Barton from himself and found themselves embroiled in a wrestling match with their captain. The scene quickly descended into anarchy.
Barton, who will more than likely face a ten game suspension for the start of next season for a mixture of automatic red card bans and misconduct charges, will now surely remain a QPR player solely because of his contract and because nobody else would be stupid enough to take him off our hands rather than because he’s actually wanted here anymore. For all the Nietzsche, Newsnight and admirable personal reinvention Barton was, is, and will always be a loose cannon rolling around the deck of whichever club pays his wages, ready to blast giant holes in worthy causes at no notice at all.
Mark Hughes, exasperated at seeing his side equal the Premiership record of nine red cards in a season, sent on Armand Traore for Djibril Cisse. I’d have brought the former Arsenal man on for Zamora personally, and left Cisse and his goal threat out there, but that felt like an academic argument on where exactly the deckchairs should have gone on the Titanic rather than any sort of worthwhile debating topic. With renewed hope City set about hunting for a winner and Rangers had to survive a big handball appeal and another unorthodox moment from Kenny who had to reach behind him and scoop a ball that looked mighty close to crossing the line out amidst a goal mouth scramble.
And then QPR scored again.
Armand Traore is a massively under-used asset at QPR, with genuine pace and a quality delivery from wide areas that few others in Mark Hughes’ squad possess. In the sixty sixth minute he showed his value and set off on a run down the City right flank that seemed initially to be more focused on carrying the ball as far away from the QPR goal for as long as possible, rather than a serious attempt to set up an unlikely second goal. Nevertheless Bobby Zamora attacked the near post and carried two City defenders with him in doing so to set up an incredible moment of football theatre.
Traore reached the byline, wrapped his left foot around the ball and delivered a glorious cross with pace, whip and accuracy. It flew over Zamora and friends at the near post, but then it was never intended for them in the first place. Suddenly there he was: alone, running at full tilt, looking as surprised and scared as the rest of us with eyes wide full of fear and disbelief. Jamie Mackie. Jamie Mackie was arriving late in the box, unmarked. Jamie Mackie was going to get there. The world seemed to stand still.
Mackie launched himself full length, flying through the air with his arms flapping like some ungainly, tattooed goose. He closed his eyes and hoped for the best. The ball in was inch perfect and landed plum in the middle of Mackie’s head. It bounced down into the ground, up over Joe Hart and into the roof of the Manchester City net. Nobody deserved it more than QPR’s Player of the Year elect. Billion pound team 1, funny little lad from Dorking via Plymouth Argyle 2.
Mancini immediately replaced midfielder Barry with striker Edin Dzeko. Shaun Derry blocked a shot from Nasri, Paddy Kenny tipped a header from Carlos Tevez over the bar, Zabaleta saw another shot from a short corner routine blocked away, Tevez cut in from a wide area and smacked a shot high and wide, and then the gentleman in front of my with the radio pressed to his ear said: “Oh my God, Stoke have got a penalty.”
Peter Crouch only played for the senior team at QPR for one year back in the 2000/01 season that ended with the R’s relegated to Division Two. Nevertheless his efforts as a gangly, naïve teenager in a team of mercenaries who didn’t care one bit about the team’s plight made him a firm favourite in W12 and he was given a standing ovation when he returned to Loftus Road for the first time in competitive action for Stoke last week. He missed a sitter in injury time to preserve QPR’s Premiership status for another week at least for good measure too.
To further enhance his standing among the Hoops faithful he theatrically fell to ground under minimal contact from goalkeeper Adam Bogdan giving referee Foy a chance to award Stoke City a penalty kick. It took an age to take with Bolton protesting vehemently about the decision (please re-turn to the Clint Hill case study in your text books one more time) but when the dust settled Jonathan Walters, two goals in 22 appearances prior to this game, placed the ball on the spot. Walters was released from the Reebok Stadium as a youngster to Hull City and has since crawled his way back up through the leagues via Wrexham, Chester and Ipswich. He almost signed for QPR two years ago but even had he done so it’s unlikely he’d have made any more of a crucial impact in our favour than he did on Sunday. The penalty, firmly planted beyond Bogdan and into the net for his second goal of the day, broke Bolton’s hearts and sent the away end at Eastlands into raptures once more.
In amongst the carnage City had sent on bad boy Balotelli for other bad boy Carlos Tevez and thought they might have scored during another scramble 13 minutes from time but Kenny managed to save with his feet at the near post. They looked like a side running out of ideas. QPR camped inside their penalty area, adding Jay Bothroyd’s fresh legs to the fray instead of Zamora, and showed no shame in their approach. Time was starting to tick by. When Kenny produced a world class save from a close range Balotelli header some City fans to our left actually appeared to be leaving.
Fourth official Neil Swarbrick informed the capacity crowd, by now mostly in tears, that there were to be five extra minutes. News came through from Sunderland that Manchester United had won and would be champions if City didn’t somehow score twice. Edin Dzeko promptly rose high in the six yard box to plant a firm header into the back of the QPR net for an equaliser, but two of the five minutes had already gone and the celebrations around the ground betrayed diminishing hope.
I have, on occasions, referred to 2011/12 rather ineloquently as the year of the clusterfuck. Nine sendings off, goals wrongly disallowed, penalties incorrectly awarded against us, solid appeals against refereeing decisions rejected out of hand by clandestine disciplinary hearings – it’s been hard not to get the impression that somebody somewhere doesn’t very much appreciate our grotty little corner of West London and 18,000 capacity shack being part of his global Premier League.
Ultimately I was right, it just wasn’t QPR wearing the gimp suit after all. This one is for Bob Pollock, Ashley Young and, thinking back to 1996, Eric Cantona and his bloody equalising goal at Loftus Road scored during the second reading of the classified football results. Never before has a defeat tasted so sweet.
In the dying embers of the game news came through from Stoke that the Bolton game was over, it had finished as a draw and QPR were safe regardless of what happened. The QPR bench and coaching staff spilled out onto the side of the pitch in celebration and half the QPR team on the field stopped what they were doing. Five seconds later Sergio Aguero rode Clint Hill’s challenge and smashed a league title winning goal past Paddy Kenny and into the net with the final kick of the game. He was booked for over celebrating, which you can only laugh at. Mike Dean, deary me.
Not since Michael Thomas at Anfield in 1989 has there been a finish like it, and with Bolton already confirmed as down the QPR fans were free to celebrate Manchester United’s, and Ashley Young’s, downfall almost as loudly as their City counterparts.
A love in of epic proportions swung into action. The QPR and City fans applauded each other and the majority of the travelling Rangers fans stayed for the trophy presentation once a pitch invasion on a biblical scale had been dispersed. Below decks the QPR players joined with the City ones in celebration of respective achievements. I like to think Alex Ferguson saw this and was fuming.
For City the sky would appear to be the limit, but these are exciting times for QPR as well. The clutch of no-hopers signed on four and a half year contracts by Gianni Paladini can finally, mercifully be cut loose from the club this summer. QPR’s horribly bloated and wholly inadequate squad can be halved overnight at the end of June, a move almost as overdue as the move to a purpose built training ground which the club wasted no time in announcing they are moving ahead with once the game was over. With Tony Fernandes at the helm and Mark Hughes promising the R’s will never again be forced to sweat so much through a final day of Premiership action while he is with the club there’s a real feeling of optimism around the place again.
For now though, an emotionally exhausted fan base has been left to reflect on an afternoon where, for once, the absolute best case scenario played out to the last detail.
Man City: Hart 6, Zabaleta 7, Kompany 8, Lescott 6, Clichy 6, Nasri 7, Yaya Toure 8 (De Jong 44, 6), Barry 6 (Dzeko 69, 7), Silva 8, Tevez 6 (Balotelli 75, 7), Aguero 7
Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Richards, Milner, Kolarov
Booked: Aguero (over celebrating)
Goals: Zabaleta 39 (assisted Toure), Dzeko 90 (assisted Silva), Aguero 90 (assisted Balotelli)
QPR: Kenny 7, Onuoha 7, Ferdinand 8, Hill 9, Taiwo 8, Wright-Phillips 6, Barton 3, Derry 7, Mackie 7, Cisse 7 (Traore 59, 7), Zamora 6 (Bothroyd 76, 6)
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Gabbidon, Taarabt, Campbell, Buzsaky
Sent Off: Barton 55 (being a knob)
Booked: Bothroyd (kicking ball away)
Goals: Cisse 48 (unassisted), Mackie 66 (assisted Traore)
QPR Star Man – Clint Hill 9 An absolute rock at the heart of a monumental defensive effort. A free transfer signing from Crystal Palace at the tail end of his career standing firm against a menagerie of the world’s finest attacking talent to cap off a fantastic season. QPR have half a squad of players out of contract this summer, including Hill, and he’s the only one I’d be offering an extension to. Has to be worth another year.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral) 7 The big decision on the day was the Joey Barton sending off which he got right, although Tevez should have been at least booked for his part in things initially. I’ve taken a couple of points off for the Aguero booking. A first league title in 44 years sealed with the final kick of the match after trailing 2-1 going into injury time and you book the guy for over celebrating. You have to be a special kind of pedantic arsehole to do that.
Attendance 48,000 (2,800 QPR) A roller coaster of emotions for those present. There seemed to be a real divide actually, between the City fans to the right of the away end who seemed to be rejoicing in our plight and were actually singing the name of Bolton’s former City winger Martin Petrov at one point, and those on the left who seemed to genuinely want QPR to succeed in their mission as well as City. I really don’t understand the mentality of the former, who presumably have jumped on a bandwagon rolling by and weren’t actually around for the times when City were in our position on the final day of seasons. The final minute of the game and subsequent mutual celebrations was special.
Pictures – Action Images
Photo: Action Images
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