Agony, Ecstasy, Chelsea & Queens Park Rangers
The crisis-o-meter klaxon sounded at just after twenty-five past nine last night at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had suffered a stodgy evening against Queens Park Rangers, the sort of bad day at the office that all of us have from time to time, when everything takes thirty seconds longer than we were expecting it to and that inevitable feeling of clock-watching is tempered only by that nagging feeling that there was something that needs to be done which hasn’t been. Queens Park Rangers, for their part, had defended doughtily, broken with menace and looked some distance from being the eleven man soap opera that we might have expected them to be if we took the entirety of our knowledge of them from the tabloid press, and with twelve minutes to play, when Shaun Wright-Philips swept in what turned out to be the only goal of the evening, it was well deserved, a solid indication that talk of their relegation from the Premier League isn’t quite the discussion of a foregone conclusion that it had been supposed to be.
Bad nights at the office and decent, solid performances, however, do not make for click-happy headlines, though, so it is likely that last night’s result will now be extrapolated into gaudy colours and breathless language. Rafael Benitez has been skating on thin ice as the Chelsea manager since he took the job a couple of months ago. Recent performances had suggested that he had managed to fit the expensively-assembled jigsaw that is the Chelsea first team squad into something recognisable. Their recent eight goal thrashing of a hopelessly demoralised Aston Villa, for example, displayed more than a hint of the swagger that carried the club to the Champions League trophy by what frequently seemed to be a sheer force of personality. The trouble with the thin ice upon which Benitez skates, however, is its width. It would always only have taken one bad result for the unwelcoming signs that greeted him when he first arrived at the club to be dusted down again, and it would be unsurprising if they didn’t start to make appearances at Stamford Bridge again in the near future.
At Loftus Road, meanwhile, there are signs of a pulse. Queens Park Rangers’ inglorious basterds drew on all their reserves of experience last night, and in doing so pulled a result out of the hat which keeps them in touch with the clubs above them at the foot of the table. The gap remains at five points, true enough, and this was only their second league win in twenty-one matches so far this season, but where there are three points and a clean sheet there is at least hope. And hope – as well its somewhat more tangible and useful cousin, self-belief – is a start. After the match, Redknapp indicated this result was proof that his team is capable of pulling itself clear of the relegation trapdoor between now and May. Self-evident though this may be, it hints at a truth which is often trampled underfoot in the rush to condemn and canonise that is the culture of the modern Premier League – if confidence counts for anything in football, as it surely must, then Queens Park Rangers may well have turned a critical corner last night.
In terms of both clubs, the prognosis for the remainder of this season is somewhere between the polar extremes of agony and ecstasy that we are expected to believe in. Chelsea probably aren’t going to win the Premier League this season, but bringing in Demba Ba from Newcastle United and losing Daniel Sturridge to Liverpool seems like an astute piece of business (Ba couldn’t have been much more blunt in front of goal last night than any of those that he would seek to replace in the first team, on last night’s evidence) and it would be no great surprise if they ended the season with a major trophy. Queens Park Rangers haven’t enjoyed one of them since the 1967 League Cup, and they still have a considerable amount of work to do if they are going to hang onto their Premier League status, although talk of them already having been relegated by Christmas is obviously wide of the mark. The extent to which any revival that they do manage from now on will have been solely down to Harry Redknapp is impossible to known for certain, but all that Rangers supporters will care about today is there is hope, and that they beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It doesn’t ensure Premier League survival by a long chalk, but it’s a start.
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