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Friday, 22nd Dec 2017 19:20 by Clive Whittingham
QPR may catch Bristol City with a cup hangover on Saturday after their midweek exploits against Man Utd, but medium and long term they're a realistic success story to aspire to.
QPR (6-7-9, LLDLLW, 18th) v Bristol City (12-7-3, LWWWWW, 3rd)
Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday December 23, 2017 >>> Kick off 15.00 >>> Weather – Cloudy, mild >>> Loftus Road, London, W12
Well if the apocalyptic horrors of Finchley Sainsbury’s (just stand in middle of the aisle and have a chat about it love don’t worry about it), locals fighting over the last microwave in Argos and London’s privatised rail companies clocking off early because not enough drivers volunteered to do overtime in December (great system that lads) wasn’t enough for you, here come Bristol City breathing fire over the wheatfields of Championship Christmases everywhere.
Their richly deserved, thoroughly entertaining, utterly compelling, always pulsating and completely thrilling midweek cup win against Manchester United continued a fabulous season so far which has seen them lose just three times, eliminate four Premier League teams from the League Cup, and rise to third in the Championship. They have won their last five on the bounce, and nine of their last 11, and done so playing attractive football at a high tempo. They are the division’s big success story along with Sheffield United – given the money they’ve both spent relative to Wolves – and it’s all been achieved despite them losing their 23-goal top scorer from last season, Tammy Abraham, whose goals were required just to keep them in the division.
This is a club with no parachute payments, which has never received a single season of Premier League television money, which has used just 24 players in the league this season, sweeping all before it. It is also a team that, miraculously, is managing to maintain a promotion push in the league while also playing its strongest team in the cup competitions. What sort of sorcery is this? I mean, who ever would have thought that taking a cup competition seriously, giving it a good go, knocking out four Premier League sides, advancing to the semi-finals in front of full houses at the expense of Man Utd, would actually help the players and the team with confidence and momentum rather than hinder them? If they go up it will be the fifth season in a row that a team has reached the quarter finals of the League Cup and won promotion from the Championship in the same season.
They are, in short, an easy stick to beat QPR with. Rangers, of course, who haven’t won an FA Cup game outright since 1997 and performed their ritual humiliating early exit from the League Cup at home to Brentford back in August, resting players for the apparently crucial weekend league match at Cardiff which they subsequently lost 2-1 regardless. I mean, who needs last minute winners against Man Utd, two legged semi-finals with Man City, pitch invasions, managers swinging ball boys round in moments of unbridled and unmatch joy when you’ve got the important business of finishing sixteenth in the Championship to concentrate on eh?
But this could be us in 12 months time, very easily indeed.
Let’s not forget where City were a year ago. After a reasonably bright start (six league wins by the first weekend of October) they went on a bit of a bender. They lost six and drew one of eight through October and early November before a relieving win against Ipswich. They then lost six in a row, drew at League One Fleetwood in the FA Cup, then got beaten by Cardiff. Take the Fleetwood draw, and win in a replay, out of it and they lost eight in a row in the league through December and January. By the time March dawned they had won just twice (against terrible Ipswich and Rotherham teams) in 17 league games, losing 14 of them. Never mind sacking the manager, we’d have been burning the place down if that happened to us.
They won six of the last ten to stay up, including a 2-1 home win against us last Easter. At the time our Bristol City man The Exiled Robin told us this…
But stick with him he did, and look what he has on his hands now.
Obviously it’s no good sticking if you’ve got the wrong man. City will no doubt have been aware that Barnsley were similarly rewarded for not sacking Johnson when many others would have done – the Tykes were in the relegation zone in League One after eight straight defeats, again through October and November, in 2015/16 but went on to lose just four of their last 34 games, winning promotion and the Football League Trophy when it was worth winning in two quickfire Wembley visits.
It’s another example of how football’s rush to blame, and sack, the manager whenever things go badly can be counter productive. Johnson has used the things he learnt about his team and players in tough times to great effect this season – most notably replacing the 23 goals of Tammy Abraham by moving midfielder Bobby Reid into a striker role and being rewarded with ten goals from the talented little winger so far. Changing managers midseason too often creates what you see at QPR – an overstocked squad, stuffed full of different signings from different managers all fearing the sack, made for different reasons and different styles. Bristol City’s recruitment, which even allowing for chairman Steve Lansdown’s wealth has not been done on an extravagant budget, has been sensible, shrewd and excellent. What price Aden Flint now, a £300,000 buy from Swindon who took time to establish himself at this level but is now the best centre back in the league?
QPR have a dozen players out of contract next summer, including all the club’s top earners. There are also several others, Ariel Borysiuk and Yeni Ngbakoto chief among them, who will surely be moved on either this January or in the summer. It will create wiggle room on the wage bill for the first time in two or three years and it only needs a handful of Freeman and Scowen-type finds (QPR’s version of Flint, Baker and Wright) and some space created for the likes of Manning and Furlong to actually play some meaningful minutes to propel a team with a clear plan up the table in City-style next season.
In Ian Holloway Rangers may well be backing the wrong horse, but they are going to have to stick with a horse through some bad times and see if they come out the other side in better shape at some point. It’s the one thing they haven’t tried, and in many ways it’s the most obvious.
Idrissa Sylla thumped home the only goal of the game from a great Massimo Luongo cross when these sides last met on this ground just over a year ago.
Team News: Jamie Mackie serves his final match of three on the naughty step for his controversial sending off at Preston earlier this month. Nedum Onioha and Grant Hall are feeling their way back to fitness to ease the defensive injury crisis but the chances of seeing Steven Caulker at the height of office Christmas party season are slim indeed. Likewise Joel Lynch who has an ongoing, unspecified foot injury with no set return date which continues his run of missing Christmas fixtures (December 20-30) either injured or suspended in 2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14, 2014/15, 2016/17 and now 2017/18. James Perch has relocated his knee but is not yet fit to return to first team action.
Bristol City beat Man Utd during the week despite missing ten players for one reason or another. Two of those, Jonathan Leko and Cauley Woodrow, on loan from West Brom and Fulham respectively, had played in earlier rounds and were cup tied so they’re back available. Milan Djuric had a groin rub this week and is out until January.
Elsewhere: The pre-Christmas thrill ride starts tonight with Borussia Norwich throwing their doors open to award winning car dealership Brent Ford, leaving 11 games for tomorrow headlined by the televised clash between Big Racist John and the Boys and fellow play-off chasers Sheffield Red Stripes in the early evening.
There’s a relegation six pointer brimming with quality at 15.00 as Sunderland host Birmingham but the chances of anybody around them in the table taking advantage of dropped points seems slim with Relegated Bolton hosting the Eighth Annual Neil Warnock Farewell Tour, Barnsley visiting Tarquin and Rupert, Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion heading to Reading and Allam Tigers away to the Champions of Europe.
At the top, Derby Sheep are in great form and will be confident of continuing that at home to Millwall Scholars, while the Ipswich Blue Sox can move into the play-off places believe it or not if they win at Mick McCarthy’s old club Sporting Wolverhampton – Wolves just the eight points clear of third as it stands at the moment.
Two of the hot pre-season favourites, Sheffield Owls and Middlesbrough, lick their wounds together in midtable at Hillsborough. Preston Knob End v Nottingham Trees is also taking place.
Referee: Andy Madley is back at Loftus Road for the second time this season and if it’s anything like as exciting as his first visit I’d bring a good book. Details here.
QPR: Rangers’ win at Birmingham last week was their first away from home this season, their first away from home since February 17 trips ago in fact, and brought to an end another run of six matches without a win (L5 D1). Rangers started the season quite well at home, winning the first three in the league and drawing the next two to remain unbeaten after five, but they’ve slipped since with the back to back wins against Sheff Utd and Wolves the only to successes in eight at Loftus Road. They’ve lost two of the last three here and but for that miraculous late show against Brentford would now be staring down the barrel of a fourth straight home loss. Rangers have conceded the fewest goals in the league from set pieces this season (three) while Luke Freeman leads the league in assists (eight). The R’s haven’t been beaten on this ground by Bristol City in 15 attempts.
Bristol City: Lee Johnson’s side sit third in the table with just three defeats all season – only one of those came away from home and that was their first road trip back in August at Birmingham. Since then they’ve played 11 away from Ashton Gate in all competitions, winning seven and drawing the rest. That includes a 3-3 draw at league leaders Wolves, a win at Sheffield United, and a victory at Premier League Watford in the League Cup. The 2-1 win against Man Utd during the week was a fifth win in a row, the last four all by the same scoreline, and City have won nine and drawn one of their last 11 coming into this one. Corey Smith’s winner against United was the seventh goal they’ve scored in injury time this season, including four in the last five games, and the tenth they’ve scored in the final eight minutes of games. Their 14 goals from set pieces this season is a league high – centre back Aden Flint has six goals in 17 starts.
Prediction: The winner of this year’s Prediction League will be furnished with goodies from The Art of Football, but if you don’t fancy your chances then you can browse their QPR Collection here and purchase something instead. Reigning champion Southend Rsss tells us…
“Tough time of year to be a postman, I’ve hardly had time to think. Last week’s win at Birmingham, correctly forecast here, was much needed but the Festive fixtures look difficult to me and QPR rarely do particularly well at this time of year. Perhaps a cup hangover is our best hope on Saturday…”
Craig’s Prediction: QPR 1-2 Bristol City. Scorer – Luke Freeman
LFW’s Prediction: QPR 1-1 Bristol City. Scorer – Idrissa Sylla
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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