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Friday, 22nd Apr 2022 18:49 by Clive Whittingham

Three games left, three wins required for QPR who remain in some sort of play-off contention despite their dire run of form thanks to last week's win against Derby.

Stoke (16-10-17 WWLWLW 14th) v QPR (18-9-16 LLLLDW 10th)

Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday April 23, 2022 >>> Kick Off 15.00 >>> Weather – Overcast, windy >>> Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Playing Stoke City so close to the point in the calendar we met last season only adds to the wistful ‘what might have been’ sense around this occasion.

Then, two games out from the end of the campaign, with QPR absolutely flying, a 2-0 win was punched out as a matter of relative routine, as had victories against Bristol City and Coventry been just before it, and Luton a week later. Oh for a run of form like that just now.

Charlie Austin’s 20-yard opening goal smacked of outright brash confidence, and is a world away from almost anything he’s produced for us since. Forgotten man Osman Kakay got the second. I was quite impressed with his input against Derby on Easter Monday considering he’d been plunged into a key game on his first outing since Boxing Day. If we’re to stick with the back four over the remaining games you’d think him a more likely option to fill in that deeper right side role than Albert Adomah who looked absolutely out on his feet at Sheff Utd a couple of weeks back. Hopefully Kakay’s confidence has been restored somewhat after a really testing autumn when he didn’t play well and subsequently, such is the way of things, started copping a mixture of ridicule and abuse on social media.

Fill in somebody will have to do though, as today’s bad news saw Moses Odubajo sidelined for three months which obviously counts him out of the remainder of this campaign, while also wiping out much of his pre-season and with it chances of a one-year extension to his expiring deal at Loftus Road. At just 28 it's a terrible blow to his career.

That was a point already being debated on our message board. The regulars came down very much in favour of a renewal but so many decisions like that are going to be a bit more complicated than we’d usually like this summer if, indeed, we’re not to fluke a miracle promotion from here. The accounts show a wage bill for 2021/22 again creeping over the £20m mark, and that’s sure to have increased again this season with the likes of Austin and Stefan Johansen tempted by handsome offers last summer. The sale of Ebere Eze reduced the loss to £4m, the lowest it’s been for literally decades, but without that (and we haven’t sold anybody of note this season) it’s a chunky £22m+ loss which quite apart from being a world away from the ‘sustainable’ ‘development’ model we’re being pitched, starts running us close to another P&S breach if it continues over a rolling three years. Having kept hold of the sellable assets last summer and, seemingly, ‘gone for it’ a bit this season I don’t see how we continue much further into the future without another significant sale or two. Similarly, for people coming out of contract, the question firstly is whether we can renew at the money they’re on now (Mass Luongo, Jake Bidwell and others left when we wanted to retain them because we couldn’t make their money fit within a straightened budget) and secondly whether there is a cheaper alternative out there (Todd Kane was brought in and Darnell Furlong sold when ideally he’d have been retained in Warburton’s first summer).

That’s before you get to how good the player is or how important they are to the team. Moses has, unfortunately, struggled to maintain match fitness through a trying 46-game season. He was absolutely unreal in the pre-season, and over the past few weeks while the team has collapsed around him his performances have actually been a highlight (bar Barnsley away when he played like he had his boots fastened together). If you want to be really cynical (moi?) you could sniff a touch of the Matthew Rose syndrome that his peaks in form have come when playing for a new deal. The other factor in all these renewals is who’s the manager going to be? Odubajo is very much a Warbs man, and ideally suited to wing-back in a back three system – not a lot of point keeping him around if neither of those things are going to be present next season.

His injury underlines another big difference between now and then. Last season they crammed a whole Championship campaign and two cup competitions into seven months instead of nine, and played through the entire thing at the height of the pandemic. QPR fared better than anybody else in the league for the health of their players and we marvelled at the doctors, medical staff and training methods that allowed it to happen. There were precious few long term injuries (really only Luke Amos), one Covid issue all season when Lyndon Dykes was pinged as a close contact, and remarkably few muscle injuries and strains. Since 2021 became 2022, the complete opposite. Yoann Barbet is struggling with a knee problem after previously coming up just shy of 100-consecutive starts. Rob Dickie wasn’t far behind him and his also done for the season, along with Moses, and player of the season Chris Willock. The problems with the goalkeepers is well documented. With Sam Field missing the first couple of months with an injury picked up in pre-season training Rangers have been able to name their first choice, full strength team very seldom.

That’s something Stoke know all about. They started the year better than most, third at one stage, and leapt back into the play-off places with a very accomplished 2-0 win at Loftus Road in December. But they can’t keep star strikers Nick Powell and Tyrese Campbell fit, and a long list of other absentees is led by giant centre back Harry Souttar. Once again they have drained away into a midtable nothingness. We are, at least, still technically in contention.

It's not the ending we all wanted. Annoyingly it looks like us knocking over the Blades next week would now merely open the door for somebody else, probably Millwall who’ve been gifted a very favourable last three fixtures and timed their run of form absolutely exquisitely. Sheff Utd, like Boro, one of those teams everybody talked so much about six weeks ago it was just taken as read they’d be in the six, now wobbling at the wrong time. A victory tomorrow does at least take it into another week and with Sheff Utd to come at home on Friday night we could yet get a big night under the lights of sorts, particularly with us getting to go first before all the other fixtures are played next weekend – two wins this week could have us above the dotted line in sixth by next Saturday morning.

It ain’t over till it’s over.

Links >>> Definition of midtable – Interview >>> Influencing Stokies – History >>> Chuckles Woolmer – Referee >>> Stoke City official website >>> Stoke Sentinel – Local press >>> The Oatcake – Message Board >>> The Wizards of Drivel – Podcast >>> Every Step Along The Way – Podcast

Below the fold

Team News: Moses Odubajo is the latest medium term casualty on QPR’s lengthening injury list, with the calf tear he suffered in the win against Derby ruling him out for three months. Given the early start to next season because of the World Cup (opening day is the last Saturday in July for the first time) that likely eats up much of his pre-season and makes it difficult for him to get an extension to his one-year deal at Loftus Road, or a move anywhere else for that matter. Lee Wallace remains out so switching Sam McCallum across isn’t an option which means it’s likely to be Albert Adomah or Osman Kakay from the start. The latter appeared for the first time since starting against Bournemouth on Boxing Day as Odubajo’s replacement on Monday and may do so again on the ground he scored his last QPR goal in the penultimate game last season. We know all about the goalkeepers –Jordan Archer, Joe Walsh and David Marshall all done for the season – but Seny Dieng is being tipped to return for Sheff Utd next Friday. Chris Willock and Rob Dickie are also finished for 2021/22. Yoann Barbet is being nursed through weeks, one game on and one game off, with a swollen knee – if that pattern continues then he’ll play here but not against Sheff Utd on Friday. He will be tested late along with people’s champion Jeff Hendrick. Sam Field has been booked in each of the last seven matches and 14 of his 23 appearances this season leaving him one shy of a three-match ban which would bleed into next season.

Harry Souttar and Nick Powell’s long term injuries went a long way towards derailing Stoke’s promising start to the season. They’re joined on the sidelines by Liam Moore and Jordan Thompson. Powell is back in training and may play some part in the remaining three games. Michael O’Neill has rotated three goalkeepers this season with Josef Bursik, Adam Davies (sold to Sheff Utd in January) and current incumbent Jack Bonham all on roughly the same number of appearances. Bursik, and reserve Frankie Fielding, are both being eyed for an emergency loan deal at Luton in advance of this weekend’s fixtures.

Elsewhere: Jeffers and AJ (1st, P42, 86pts) sealed promotion straight back to the Premier League with a comfortable midweek home win against Preston Knob End. Congratulations, see you in 12 months. Nine points clear with four to play, they will almost certainly be crowned champions as well although nearest challengers Bournemouth (2nd, P41, 77pts) do have a game in hand and the pair meet at Dean Court this weekend. Sporting Huddersfield (3rd, p43, 73pts) are the nearest challengers for the automatic spots, and could move to within a point of the Cherries tonight if they win their home gimme against lowly Barnsley in the live Sky game – injuries to key men Danny Ward, Sorba Thomas and obligatory Chelsea loanee Levi Colwill couldn’t really be worse timed for the Terriers.

Lutown (4th, P43, 71pts) are scrabbling round for another emergency goalkeeper ahead of the lunchtime televised clash with Blackpool. For a long time it’s felt like Nottingham Florist (5th, P41, 70pts) would be the most likely to usurp Bournemouth in second – they have five matches left to play and one of those is a game in hand away to Bournemouth which will be played in the final week of the season. Seven points behind with 15 to play for, they simply have to avoid the Peterborough banana skin in that away trip tomorrow.

There’s then an almighty chase for sixth, which technically stretches all the way down to Preston in fifteenth. Sheffield Red Stripe (6th, P43, 66pts) hold the parcel at the moment but haven’t impressed winning two of eight, have burned off a lot of the winnable home games the stats brigade felt made them a play-off certainty, and took just one point from absolute shoo-ins against dreadful Reading and Bristol City teams over Easter. They’ve got Cardiff at home this weekend before heading to QPR next Friday and then finishing at home to Fulham. First in line to replace them in the six, and I think they’re even a bit surprised about this themselves, are Millwall (7th, P43, 65pts) and their very kind run in starts at Birmingham tomorrow – fresh from a 6-1 loss at Blackpool, fans in open revolt, Lee Bowyer’s interviews more and more of a treat with each passing week.

Blackburn (8th, P43, 63pts) are only three points back but haven’t won in five and have only two wins in 15 games (bloody David Marshall) so they’re seemingly only heading one way and you wouldn’t have much money on them in the local derby against Preston Knob End on Monday night. Much fancied Middlesbrough (9th, p42, 63pts) have also stumbled with three defeats and a draw from their last four, no goals scored in that time, and three defeats to nil at home in a row. They head to Swanselona before a key game in hand at home to Cardiff during the week. Then it’s us of course (10th, P43, 63pts) followed by Coventry (11th, P43, 62pts) and West Brom (12th, P43, 60pts) who meet at The Hawthorns. This now almost certain to be the first time the Baggies have finished lower than sixth in the Championship since the year 2000.

Down at the bottom we’re all but done, and we’ll be absolutely done with any sort of Reading result at Hull City. Mourning over the greatest tragedy ever to befall a team in this country, and celebrations over perhaps the most magnificent managerial performance there has ever been in a single season, will continue in front of the country’s media and all their friends and family as brave, brilliant, battling Wayne Rooney’s Derby County host Bristol City. Expect speeches.

Referee: Probably not the referee we’d choose for a key game given his overall history with us, but Chuckles Woolmer is one of the few Championship referees doing his job reasonably well at the moment and was excellent in trying circumstances when last we met at Coventry. Details.

Form

Stoke: The Potters were early big hitters in the Championship this season. They set early pace in the league with six wins and three draws from their first 11 league games, with the only defeats coming away at eventual champions Fulham (3-0) and Derby (2-1). They also dispatched Fleetwood, Doncaster and Premier League Watford (away) from the League Cup. However, much like 2020/21, a litany of injuries to key players, most notably Harry Souttar and Nick Powell, has drained them away into midtable. Third at the start of November, sixth when they won at Loftus Road in December, they’re now fourteenth with three games to go nursing an overall record of 16-10-17. Three key stats that are always going to hold a team back… Firstly, the home record of 9-4-8. Only six sides have lost more than eight at home, and they’re 24th, 22nd, 21st, 20th, 19th and 17th. Peterborough and Barnsley have only lost nine apiece on their own patches. Michael O’Neill’s team have only won three of their last 12 home league games, and were beaten here 1-0 last time out by a woeful Bristol City side. Secondly, they cannot hold onto a lead. Nobody in the league has surrendered as many points as Stoke from a winning position this season – 32. I know it’s a bit ‘if my aunty had bollocks she’d be a bike’ but add them all back on and Stoke are four points ahead of Fulham at the top of the table. Thirdly, an inability to copy with adversity. Their 3-1 win at West Brom on April 9 was the first time in 41 games going back to September 11 and a 2-1 at home to Huddersfield that they have won a game in which they’ve conceded a goal – all 12 wins in the meantime came with a clean sheet. They do, however, arrive into this fixture in decent touch. The Potters have won four of the last six games, all against play off chasers – Sheff Utd, Millwall, Blackburn and West Brom. Lewis Baker has proven an inspired signing, joining on a two-and-a-half year contract from Chelsea in January and since scoring eight goals in 17 games from central midfield. Jacob Brown is top scorer here with 13 goals, 12 in the league.

QPR: Rangers’ 1-0 win against Derby on Easter Monday was their first victory in seven attempts. The four points gained over the Easter Weekend against the Rams and Huddersfield as many points as the R’s had managed from their previous eight matches. It was their first clean sheet in 16 outings, during which Mark Warburton’s side have won only three times. For Keiren Westwood, a first victory in QPR colours in his fifth appearance. For Sam McCallum, a first win in nine appearances going back to October 19 at home to Blackburn. Jimmy Dunne was QPR’s fourth captain in as many games on Monday. Away from home they have won one and drawn one of the last nine having previously been on an unbeaten run of six on the road with five wins. Luke Amos has scored two in two, three in five, four in nine and five in 14 and has done it all from seven shots on target all season. The Hoops are unbeaten in three trips to Stoke, and have won both games here under Mark Warburton’s stewardship. They have won six and drawn one of 12 visits here since the home side left the Victoria Ground.

Prediction: We’re indebted to The Art of Football for once again agreeing to sponsor our Prediction League and provide prizes. You can get involved by lodging your prediction here or sample the merch from our sponsor’s QPR collection here. A good half dozen players still in contention at the top of this year’s competition, currently led by Cheesy. Last year’s champion Mick_S says…

“I fancy us at Stoke - 1-2, with Chair to get our first. They’ve had it for the season, we’ve picked up a bit and have got it back together, to a certain extent and I feel we have more to aim for, even if it’s probably not going to happen. So, a win and a decent performance will more than do for me. Keep on.”

Mick’s Prediction: Stoke 1-2 QPR. Scorer – Ilias Chair

LFW’s Prediction: Stoke 1-2 QPR. Scorer – Ilias Chair

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TacticalR added 14:33 - Apr 23
Thanks for your preview.

The thing I keep thinking is that even if by some miracle we were to get into the play-offs, how are we going to do without players like Dieng and Willock (not to mention the precipitous loss of form of the older players like Johansen and Austin, plus all our other injuries)?

On the 'sustainable development' model there does seem to be a bit of schizophrenia - is the club a shop window for developing and selling players where results are not the be-all and end-all, or is promotion everything?

Anyway, at least it looks like we've got going again after that terrible barren run.
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