|Royce stars as Rangers pinch point|
Monday, 12th Sep 2005 18:40
Rangers claimed their second point away from home this season with a creditable 1-1 draw at Southampton's St Mary's Stadium.
Thank goodness for an international break! At Wolves eleven days ago a disjointed, unbalanced, demoralised QPR side were taken apart, at Southampton there was more balance, a better rhythm and flow to the play, and enough spirit to carry Rangers home when Southampton went desperately searching for a winning goal late on.
With Rangers apparently now back on track, the next problem Ian Holloway must address is the lack of form being displayed by any of his strikers. Two goals from Kevin Gallen and one from Stefan Moore is all Rangers have to show from the first eight games and in four of those the team as a whole has failed to score.
Gallen was injured for Saturday's match, the injury prone Dean Sturridge made a surprise comeback from another complaint in his place to partner the out of form Paul Furlong but neither came close to scoring all afternoon. It's no surprise that the first goal scored by a visiting team at St Mary's this season came from the head of one of Rangers' towering centre backs; Danny Shittu.
Behind Sturridge and Furlong was a better looking midfield than Rangers have fielded for several games. Lee Cook mercifully returned to the left wing and though he didn't have his best ever game he was very effective and the sight of a pacy left footed left winger playing in the right position was one for sore eyes after several weeks of mediocrity from Moore and Brown out there.
Doherty partnered the stand in captain Bircham in the middle of midfield, Stefan Moore played wide right. Sure this isn't Moore's best position but at least he was on the right side of the pitch after being marooned out on the left at Wolves.
Georges Santos recovered from his training ground knock to line up at centre half with Big Danny, Mauro Milanese was left back, Marcus Bignot right and Simon Royce the keeper.
It was clear right from the off that Bircham and Doherty were going to have their hands full in the middle of the park. Nigel Quashie had recovered from a knock picked up playing for Scotland last week and glided effortlessly around the field all afternoon, spraying passes, barking orders, setting things up and taking some lethal set pieces. Having seen Quashie's QPR debut all those years ago it was somewhat gratifying to see first hand what a quality player that boy has become, although I only reflected on this afterwards, during the match I was concerned with how easily he was carving QPR apart!
Just five minutes into the match Quashie had Kenwyne Jones in the area with time to shoot but Simon Royce produced a smart save. Royce was also on hand to punch a wicked Quashie free kick to safety after seven minutes.
Southampton were flying early on. Clearly they were keen to take the game to Rangers and with Quashie pulling the strings Ian Holloway's men were finding them tough to handle. However, like QPR, Southampton are no longer blessed with a twenty goal hitman in the attack. Ricardo Fuller showed at Preston that while he can be the best player in this league by a country mile, he can also be a total waste of space. He's not the reliable goalscorer a team chasing promotion desperately needs, and he made few friends among the QPR fans with a dramatic, laughable dive in the penalty area nine minutes into the match.
The referee saw straight through it, but then there are people registered partially blind that could have told you it wasn't a spot kick. Fuller should have been booked, but wasn't. He also got away with giving the linesman a right ear full after a throw in decision went against him - so much for a clamp down on foul and abusive language.
Referee Richard Beeby and the linesman at the QPR end seemed to be on pretty poor terms all day actually. After Fuller's little outburst had been ignored Mauro Milanese did well to get in between Prutton and a ball knocked down the line. Prutton lost his footing and fell over while Milanese, fully six yards away at the time, allowed the ball to run dead for a goal kick. The linesman signalled a Rangers ball but from forty yards away Beeby awarded a free kick. Even Prutton, not known for his tolerance towards officials, had made no appeal for a free kick and was as bemused as the rest of us.
There was little doubt about the next free kick given on that touchline though. Twenty eight minutes had passed when Fuller, showing a brief flash of his quality side, spun past Santos magnificently. Big Georges had been made to look rather foolish and responded with a disgusting two footed lunge that left Fuller in a heap on the touchline. Santos was rightly booked - a stupid, needless challenge. Haijto came up from the back to head the resulting free kick by Quashie well off target.
However by this time Rangers had come into the game. Lee Cook was starting to receive more of the ball down the left side and was giving the giant Saints full back Haijto all he wanted. A first corner of the game for Rangers came to nothing but this was merely a loosener for Cook who soon had Shittu steaming in for the opening goal.
A beautifully flighted out swinging corner from Cook found Shittu racing in at the back post unmarked for a trademark bullet header past the keeper. 25/1 for the first goal thanks very much for asking and here's hoping it's the first of many this season for Danny for the sake of our profligate strikers as much as my bank balance.
Rangers were still conceding daft free kicks though. Some daft because our players should know better, some daft because the referee was a pain in the backside. Tommy Doherty steered a waist high ball from Milanese back to the Italian but was incredibly pulled up for a high boot in one of many questionable incidents for both sides. The second card of the match had farce written all over it too.
In the promotion season Ian Holloway liked to have Tony Thorpe or Kevin Gallen stand behind the free kick taker and line the wall up. The advantage of this was that it removed the opportunity for a quick free kick to be knocked past a goalkeeper lining a wall up by his post. The disadvantage is opponents don't tend to take too kindly to players standing in front of the ball for thirty seconds lining a wall up before they can take a free kick.
Today the tactic was back and it was Dean Sturridge's job to align things. Problems with this cost Rangers a booking and an equalising goal ten minutes before half time. A Marc Bircham foul on Ricardo Fuller thirty yards from goal had Sturridge setting up a wall for a good sixty seconds, preventing the Saints taking a free kick while he was at it. Rightly he was booked for this unsporting behaviour. That set piece came to nothing but two minutes later the other problem with this idea came to light.
A long ball forward to Jones on the edge of the box was headed clear by Santos, but the referee judged the Frenchman had climbed over the back of the Southampton man to get there. The Rangers fans protested but there's no doubt Santos did have both hands on Jones' shoulders. At times the thirty five year old centre half shows all the common sense and naivety of a seventeen year old rookie. He had earlier taken a nasty bang to his head which required lengthy treatment and assessment by the fourth official before he returned but much as I'd like to blame this for his rashness, I've come to know Georges all too well!
Sturridge came across and constructed possibly the worst wall in the history of football which blocked Royce's view, jumped over the top of a low shot, and watched helplessly as Danny Higginbotham's drive flew into the net.
Rangers had led for just five minutes.
The goal was no more than the home side deserved and it brought their previously silent crowd to life. The team responded with efforts off target by Haijto and Jones, and shots on the goal by Belmardi and Fuller before half time. Fuller forcing another magnificent point blank save from Royce.
After a promising ten minutes of possession and play around the time of the goal it was disappointing to see Rangers suddenly so desperate for the half time whistle.
The second half began in much the same way as the first half had ended. A long throw from Haijto caused panic in the QPR penalty area and Quashie saw a low shot kicked off the line by Marcus Bignot. Quashie also hit a shot wide from the first corner of the half.
Southampton started to really turn the screw as the game moved towards the hour mark. Djamel Belmardi had looked dangerous without ever producing anything in the first half but he was unlucky not to score when he came in from his left wing and dispatched an effort goalwards only to see it hit the considerable frame of Danny Shittu and rebound away for a corner.
The defence was creaking and from the resulting set piece Kenwyne Jones got himself free in the box but Royce to produced a third stunning save from close range. Royce had been picked out as a scapegoat by some after the defeat at Wolves but he was on fire today, claiming everything cleanly and keeping his side in the game with some great saves.
With an hour gone Ian Holloway started to change tactics and personnel. Rangers were getting increasingly defensive. Marc Nygaard was introduced to the attack to hold the ball up in place of Dean Sturridge. Sturridge had been given few opportunities to shine during his time on the pitch and he will be hoping for a start at Loftus Road against Luton on Tuesday to really show the Rangers fans what he's made of after a difficult start to life in W12.
His replacement showed even less though. Nygaard, unsurprisingly, won every header but all too often they drifted back to Niemi in the Saints goal. His first touch looked absolutely terrible and he ran so slowly it was as if he was wading in treacle. Lets put this one down to lack of match practice and hope he will improve - there's a spot open to become a Devon White type cult hero of course, maybe he can fill that.
He did head a Stefan Moore cross wide twelve minutes from time, and came steaming in on a glorious last minute centre from Lee Cook only to be beaten to the ball by Lundekvaam at the back post so there's hope he could be of some use! Lets reserve judgement for now!
After his introduction Rangers resigned themselves to a backs to the wall effort interspersed with some cynical time wasting tactics. Steve Lomas came on for the final twenty minutes in place of Tommy Doherty. Everybody expected Bircham to be the one replaced, even Birch himself it seemed, and the confusion that reigned for thirty seconds had the home fans seething. Doherty had played better than Birch, and the captain had by this time been booked for upending Fuller so the change made little sense.
Still it was good to have Lomas on. He's never been my favourite player but god he looked good on Saturday. Nothing went past him in the holding midfield role and his passing was top notch - spraying balls in behind both full backs for Cook and Moore to run onto. Before his introduction only a magnificent fifty yard ball from Santos to Cook had given the wingers any chance at all to reach the byline but now Lomas had them racing in every couple of minutes. Lomas also suppressed the growing threat of Quashie.
Harry Redknapp brought on another of his trademark foreign buys when Kamil Kosowski came on for Prutton and gave Bignot a stiff examination but with the not so talented Brett Ormerod also introduced to the attack alongside Fuller little goal threat was carried and the game petered out to a draw. In stoppage time the Pole cut inside and unleashed a shot of his own but Shittu capped a return to form with a good block.
There was just time for Richard Langley to come on as a time wasting substitute. He received a mixed reception from the visiting supporters and clearly has much to do as he attempts to win the more fickle members of the Rangers support over.
Overall a decent point well won by QPR. Wolves only got a draw here on the opening day so not many teams will come here and win. It's always a bit demoralising to see your team shut up shop with half an hour to go and abandon all hope of getting a winner unless there's some special counter attack, and I don't understand the idea of pulling everybody back for corners, it just allows opponents to bring two extra men into the penalty area, but the negativity paid off.
In the pre-Holloway days Rangers would have crumbled under this kind of pressure. I remember Stuart Houston trying something like this at Oxford United when we led 3-2 at half time, although we hung on that second half was the scariest of my life!
Rangers were undoubtedly indebted to their defence. Shittu and to a lesser but still important degree Santos were excellent in the middle of the defence and Royce produced a goal keeping master class. Bignot was steady and Milanese continues to impress. The Italian website that said he wasn't as "quick as an arrow" were dead right but his experience, economy in possession and excellent positional sense make him a real asset. Bircham and Doherty battled hard in the middle and Steve Lomas was superb when he came on.
Moore saw little of the ball and was quiet but Cook did a good job on the other flank. Again the team were let down by the forwards. Sturridge, Furlong and Nygaard toiled away for ninety minutes between them without ever once looking like scoring. Last season Furlong's goals kept us up, this time round Rangers must find a new source. Whether that be Sturridge, or somebody from outside the club on loan remains to be seen but it is a real concern.
We now travel back to Loftus Road for two very tough home games against Luton and Leeds.
Southampton Niemi 6, Hajto 6, Lundekvam 6, Powell 7, Higginbotham 7, Prutton 7 (Kosowski 75, 8), Oakley 7 (Wise 85), Quashie 9, Belmadi 8, Jones 7 (Ormerod 75, 6), Fuller 6.
Subs Not Used: Smith, Cranie.
Goals: Higginbotham 37.
QPR Royce 9, Bignot 6, Shittu 8, Santos 7, Milanese 8, Moore 6, Bircham 6, Doherty 6 (Lomas 68, 8), Cook 7, Furlong 5 (Langley 90, -), Sturridge 5 (Nygaard 60, 5).
Subs Not Used: Evatt, Ainsworth.
Booked: Santos, Sturridge, Bircham.
Goals: Shittu 32.
Man of the Match - Simon Royce - 9 In a backs to the wall effort it's inevitable that the opposition are going to break through a few times and on the three occasions Southampton did they were thwarted by terrific saves from Royce. After a poor display against Wolves he returned to form with a near faultless display.
Ref: R Beeby (Northamptonshire) - 5 Infuriated both sides with some really bizarre decisions. Very much a technical referee, doing everything by the book. If the tackle is from behind it's a free kick - it matters not that the player took all of the ball, never touched the man, and the opponent didn't even fall over. If a boot is above waist height it's a free kick, it matters not that the nearest opponent is five yards away and there's all the danger in that piece of play as you'd find in a child's birthday cake. He also clearly told his linesmen that he'd give all the free kicks and they should just do throws and offsides, even when the linesman is five yards away and he's thirty five. The FA absolutely love these technical, everything by the book robots so expect to see this guy awarding penalties at Old Trafford in the very near future.
Photo: Action Images
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