R's Held By Battling Blades
QUEENS Park Rangers were held to a point by Sheffield United in a gritty display at Loftus Road this afternoon.
On a crisp winter day in West London it was Paul Hart's QPR that came racing out the blocks with former Blade Mikele Leigertwood striking home from distance with the aid of a deflection.
They were pegged back just moments later when Richard Cresswell managed to push home a goal-mouth scramble amid some suspect rearguard action.
The hosts in truth carved out the majority of opportunities with the Blades content to stifle play and push their credentials on the counter-attack.
On this evidence it will be Rangers that will be more disappointed not to come away with all three points, with United seemingly content to play for a share of the spoils throughout the 90.
Paul Hart decided not to make changes to Steven Gallen and Marc Bircham's outfit that did well in holding West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns.
Radek Cerny began behind a back four of Peter Ramage, Kaspars Gorkss, Damion Stewart and Tom Williams with Ben Watson once again partnering former Blade Mikele Leigertwood.
Wayne Routledge and Jay Simpson were the wide-men with Adel Taarabt playing just in behind striker Patrick Agyemang. Angelo Balanta claimed his place on the bench after a successful reserves fixture.
Kevin Blackwell set his side out with the prior statement that he planned to attack. Mark Bunn was between the sticks with Kyle Walker, Chris Morgan, Matt Kilgallon and Toni Kallio in the back four.
A three man central midfield comprised of the returning Nick Montgomery, Stephen Quinn and James Harper with Jamie Ward and Jordan Stewart supporting lone striker Richard Cresswell. This saw Andy Taylor and Lee Williamson drop out of the line-up.
Kick Off: Queens Park Rangers v Sheffield United
A depleted crowd were in position as the players took to the pitch at Loftus Road, on a bitterly cold afternoon in West London. Paul Hart received a warm reception from the home faithful, but it has become all too often that supporters have had to welcome a new man to the helm.
Indeed Hart was almost embarrassed as he lurched from the dugout to take a luke-warm reception from the supporters. The R's gaffer however had to set his sights on the task that lay before him, getting a group of talented players to realise their confidence and passion for the game.
From the very off Rangers were looking positive, if not the precise attacking unit that had been constructed effectively over the opening period of the season. Jay Simpson started wide right, and while not looking overly-confident in his new berth.
He did show a moment of class to unlock what was proving to be a stubborn defence when he linked up nicely with Patrick Agyemang on the edge of the area. With space at his disposal he didn't fancy the effort first-time and elected to come inside - the chance was wasted as it deflected wide of the mark.
From the resultant corner the hosts pressed their advantage by piling men into the box, and after the corner was only half-cleared, Mikele Leigertwood
steamed through to the edge of the area to strike a deflected effort past Mark Bunn via a sizeable deflection.
Perhaps it was the moment of luck that QPR needed as Paul Hart searched for that perfect tonic for the Rangers fans. It would be fair to say that from the early showing the fans were already warming to the partnership that he and Mick Harford were providing.
GOAL: Queens Park Rangers 1-0 Sheffield United
The R's were looking useful in spells, typified by the performance of their captain Leigertwood. The skipper seemed to do everything correctly in the early offing, tackling with great bite and strength, while distributing with the skill and efficacy he'd like to produce on a consistent basis.
His partner Ben Watson was also battling hard, with the wide-men Routledge and Simpson causing damage on occasion but by and large were being well marshalled by the pace of Kyle Walker and the sizeable nature of Fulham loanee Toni Kallio.
Kallio however was keen to show he was not all about his defensive prowess, getting forward to support Jordan Stewart down the left wing, who himself was afforded more space with the three man central-midfield deployed by Blackwell.
Indeed Kallio strode forward via a lucky deflection to fire a testing ball into the area. Some suspect marking and disappointing defending saw Richard Cresswell
bustle through the rearguard and stab a deflected effort off a defender and into the back of the net.
The old adage of 'you're never more vulnerable than when you've just scored' came to fruition on the day in this encounter as the former Leeds United and Preston North End front-man ghosted in, however fortuitously for the equaliser.
GOAL: Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Sheffield United
Where Rangers in the past have let their opposition attack, they seemed undeterred by the Blades hauling themselves level and continued to provide their own attacks in front of a quiet Loftus Road - slumbering since their side bagged the early goal.
Watson's short-corner was greeted with the usual amount of groans despite producing a multitude of opportunity in the past, and indeed if Adel Taarabt had been wearing shooting boots it may have paid dividends on this occasion.
The Moroccan international showed great skill and craft to fend off his marker, but could only fire his inevitable shot wide of Mark Bunn's right hand upright. A disappointing conclusion to what was a cleverly worked move by Rangers.
United certainly weren't out of the fixture, but lacked the calibre of ambition provided by a Middlesbrough, or indeed any side with promotion ambitions to truly test what is a defence suffering in confidence. Once their goal was scored their failed to provide meaningful chances of note in a lacklustre first period.
The imperious Leigertwood drove over the half-way line in what was becoming a performance out of the ordinary for him. Many who have seen the skipper consistently know that he is somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde player but everything early on seemed to be flowing.
He exhumed confidence as he ploughed forward and struck right footed, but the ball this time drifted wide of the right hand upright. The usual ironic cheers weren't in evidence from the away supporters who, like the home fans, seemingly forgot to bring their voices from Yorkshire - making for a dour atmosphere in W12.
Rangers were creating opportunities in spells with Wayne Routledge unfortunate not to latch onto a classy reverse pass from Taarabt. The former Aston Villa man was only inches short of nicking the ball beyond Bunn, who raced from his line to claim the ball expertly.
A neat pass from Peter Ramage found the aforementioned Moroccan in space moments later, as the midfield parted like the Red Sea before his eyes. This to Taarabt is like a red rag to a bull - but sadly he saw the red mist on this occasion and slammed the ball high and wide of the left-hand upright.
As previously mentioned United were a side that were content to wait for their opportunity, and it duly came before half time, as the Rangers back-line rather inevitably crumbled when a deep cross was knocked down by Cresswell into the path of Jamie Ward.
The former Aston Villa and Chesterfield forward sized up his options, but showed a distinct lack of composure in front of goal, lashing woefully wide of Radek Cerny's left hand upright. It was an important chance in the course of the game as the sides went into the break level.
A game officiated by a referee that seemingly wanted his linesman to do his work for him, and the game was played in similarly indecisive fashion with passes going astray and shots proving wasteful as deadlock ensued between Rangers and the Blades.
Half Time: Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Sheffield United
Hart and Harford's first half time team-talk must have produced a spark of life in the side as they came out of the blocks in similarly positive fashion in the second period. Taarabt in particular was looking lively coming through the middle in his free-role.
His clever flick bamboozled defender Chris Morgan who hauled the Moroccan down on the edge of the area. The disappointment could be felt in the crowd when the referee refused to even dish out a yellow to the central defender, despite the positioning of the kick.
The resultant free-kick from Taarabt was poorly executed and United could live to fight another day. It seemed like Rangers were playing most of the football in this the early stage of the second period, but the vulnerability of the defence including the yellow-carded Damion Stewart remained a worry.
A moment of true class, transcending the fixture at large came from the boots of Patrick Agyemang just moments later, as he received a pass from Kaspars Gorkss before beating two men on the edge of the area.
He then produced outstanding vision to provide a pin-point cross to Jay Simpson, but the anonymous winger's goalscoring prowess eluded him as he scuffed his volley well wide of Bunn's left hand upright. A big opportunity for the R's spurned by their top-scorer when well-placed.
The game was visibly swaying to the hosts, with the visitors now happy to pinch seconds from goal kicks and set-pieces to watch the time tick away on the scoreboard. Somewhat surprising tactics from the self-professed playoff chasers, but given their form it could hardly be criticised.
Quite how Rangers weren't awarded a spot-kick moments later only Mr Swarbrick will know as the ball bounced around in the area and Simpson placed himself under the ball. Morgan senselessly mistimed his tackle and brought down the Arsenal loanee in the heart of the area.
The luckiest man in football, who had evaded a certain booking earlier on, must have stared into the uncertain eyes of the official who simply ran away from the incident with little to no signal that he actually witnessed what had occurred.
The Blades carved out their most meaningful chance of the half when Jamie Ward burst free down the right flank and squared for James Harper. The former Reading midfielder steered his shot high and wide to Cerny's right, much to the bench's annoyance and frustration.
Only a slight lack of judgement by Kaspars Gorkss prevented him from putting the cap on an excellent display as a Ben Watson corner narrowly evaded the Latvian's head. It would have been a treble celebration given his goal against West Brom, while being named Latvian Footballer of the Year.
Rowan Vine had replaced Jay Simpson and the formation wasn't exactly laid bare for all to see with Taarabt, Vine and Agyemang seemingly leading the forward line and becoming interchangeable at times.
There was only one side in the game as it developed in the latter stages with Agyemang and Taarabt combining well and creating space for Watson. The central midfielder rather snatched at his effort as it scuffed wide of the right-hand post.
The crowd was becoming visibly frustrated at the lack of finishing touch or creative guile to unlock what was truly a well-drilled defensive unit. Defending in numbers and attacking their supporters only once the R's had over-committed.
Rangers left it very late to produce their best chance to hand themselves the victory and with a little more luck it may have come to fruition. A hopeful cross into the area found Watson leaning back to send a looping, dipping header goal-bound. It clipped the cross bar and went over with Bunn rooted to the mark.
There was only time for the referee to give Mark Bunn a long overdue booking for time-wasting, with deflation the main feeling around Loftus Road as the referee blew the final whistle. Rangers didn't hit full flow, but nevertheless Hart should be happy with a point in his first fixture in charge.
A gritty affair that needed something special to separate the game and unlock the United defence, lacked the impetus and cutting edge that Rangers have shown previously. It is nevertheless a foundation to build on, and two points from two tough games is certainly not to be snubbed.
Final Whistle: Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Sheffield United
Radek Cerny, Peter Ramage, Damion Stewart, Mikele Leigertwood, Wayne Routledge, Patrick Agyemang, Kaspars Gorkss, Ben Watson, Tom Williams, Jay Simpson (Rowan Vine 68), Adel Taarabt.
Mark Bunn, Nick Montgomery, Chris Morgan, Matt Kilgallon, James Harper, Richard Cresswell, Jamie Ward, Jordan Stewart, Stephen Quinn, Toni Kallio, Kyle Walker.
The central defender was exemplary at times at the heart of the rearguard and held the back-line together for much of the game while Stewart remained on a booking.
The Latvian has had a good week overall, and this performance will have certainly pleased him from a defensive point of view.
Both he and Tom Williams were excellent throughout the game, but Gorkss takes it over the left-back for his sheer consistency and leadership in defence, something that has led to many requesting he be given the captain's armband.