Wednesday, January 2, 2013
QPR given hope of great escape
Miguel Delaney, Stamford Bridge
Harry Redknapp may be occasionally given to hyperbole but, after a high-energy night at Stamford Bridge, it's difficult to deny he perfectly caught the mood - because, in one corner of the ground at least, that mood was raucous.
As the QPR fans continued to chant and sing and roar outside, as the players wildly celebrated in the dressing-room, the club's new manager described it as one of the greatest results in his long career.
"I said it to Joe Jordan afterwards. I can't remember having many better wins than this one. Chelsea have been absolutely flying and, on the back of Liverpool and West Brom [where QPR were beaten twice], it was a great result tonight."
And not just in the context of this campaign. This was QPR's first away victory in this fractious London derby since April 1983. You could certainly feel that from watching and listening to the fans.
The key question now, though, is whether the QPR team will properly feel the effects of this win. In Redknapp's first week in the job, he spoke of the importance of a 'Pedro Mendes moment' - the sudden momentum his 2005-06 Portsmouth team derived from a desperately late win over Manchester City to eventually stay up. And, as a consequence of tonight, we're going to hear an awful lot about turning points over the next few days. Redknapp was naturally asked about it the moment the game finished.
Amid all the emotion, though, perhaps the most telling element was the actual turning point in this game itself. A few minutes into second half, after Victor Moses had flashed wide and Gary Cahill had grazed the top of the crossbar, a Chelsea goal suddenly seemed inevitable: particularly when, on 52 minutes, the box suddenly opened for Fernando Torres.
Julio Cesar, however, took the full force of the effort and, as a consequence, it was as if QPR took some of the force out of Chelsea. After that, and having weathered a considerable seven-minute storm that was in stark contrast to a flat first half, QPR seemed to finally believe they could get something out of the game.
Within minutes, Esteban Granero was forcing Ross Turnbull into his first true save of the game with a dangerous curling effort before Shaun Derry should have scored from a set-piece. By then, in fact, QPR were implementing the perfect game plan away to a team that had recently been so prolific. Keeping it tight, disrupting their rhythm, exploiting any errors - as Shaun Wright-Phillips eventually did decisively on 78 minutes.
What will reveal the most about the ultimate direction of these two teams' seasons, though, is the exact root of that turnaround. Was it down to QPR finally finding and believing in their approach or was it down to Chelsea finally running out of steam? Because, as tenacious as Redknapp's team were, Rafa Benitez's did look quite tired.
That's hardly a surprise, of course, given their exertions over the last month and the fact they managed to sustain form over a demanding festive period. In fact, had the home side beaten QPR, they would have become the only side other than Jose Mourinho's Chelsea to win all four games of a Premier League Christmas schedule.
The reasons why that is so difficult a task, of course, were revealed at Stamford Bridge. In order to maintain such levels while also keeping general energy levels up over the next month or so, Benitez was forced to make four changes to his team. It's impossible otherwise.
Where there are legitimate questions, though, are in the areas he made them. Was it wise, for example, to change his entire attacking midfield three. Afterwards, the manager had to concede it had an effect on Chelsea's forward thrust.
"We were confident we could carry on doing well," Benitez said. "We changed some players but, to be fair, Marin was not playing. Some players were very tired. We were not precise in possession, we were not passing the ball with the intensity and high tempo we were expecting. At the end, we made a mistake. Too many things were not working for us."
Then, though, Benitez offered another comment that summed up the night. "It wasn't just Marin... if you are playing against a team who are bottom of the table, you have to trust your players," he added.
Redknapp, however, was rewarded for trusting certain individuals in his squad. And, to be fair, for a manager who does have a certain reputation for doing no more at training than organising matches but compensating with man-management and motivation, he explained the source of this victory - and the impressive transformation after such a dismal display against Liverpool - was down to some rigorous preparation.
"Liverpool was difficult," he said. "I felt, maybe the way we set the team up, we opened up... I felt maybe the players weren't sure, the message didn't quite get through how we wanted to play and we were all over the place. Some were pressing high, some not. We started the game like we didn't know what we were doing. We've a few Spanish lads and a few French lads and you have to make sure you get the message across plain and clear.
"We did that yesterday. We spent a few hours, lots of shadow work. Everybody knew exactly where they were. Don't press high up the pitch, drop into our own half then look to press from there and I thought we did that well tonight and hit them on the break when we could."
QPR certainly did that on the night. Whether they can replicate it sufficiently to stay up is another matter though. At the very least, they will have to properly use the momentum from this game to do so because, ultimately, this is no time for exaggeration.
Chelsea can probably forget any fanciful talk of a title challenge and concentrate on finishing in the automatic Champions League places. QPR, meanwhile, should probably temporarily forget any talk of great escapes and just concentrate on racking up sufficient points.
Then, they can re-assess. At the very least, as Redknapp himself said, "we have a chance". And, after a night like that, that's no exaggeration.