QUEENS Park Rangers were condemned to another defeat as referee Andy Woolmer took centre at the Riverside Stadium.
Two controversial decisions handed Middlesbrough a quick-fire double before the break, and despite a spirited display Rangers inevitably came up short.
Barry Robson slammed both penalties past Carl Ikeme, but the manner by which the kicks were conceded would give Mick Harford every right to feel aggrieved.
In a game packed with incident both sides also had goals disallowed in a string of perplexing decisions by the officiating team.
Rangers battled hard with Lee Cook and Peter Ramage providing excellent width and stretching the Boro backline, but the scything pass and finishing instinct evaded them on the day.
The manner of display will matter little to Mick Harford in what may have been his final game in charge – as Rangers slip to 20th position in the Championship.
Following the win over Doncaster, Harford made a solitary change with Mikele Leigertwood returning from suspension and taking the captain’s armband.
Carl Ikeme started behind a back four of Peter Ramage – returning from an abdominal injury – Kaspars Gorkss, Damion Stewart and Matt Hill.
The midfield quintet consisted of Jay Simpson, Ákos Buzsáky, Alejandro Faurlín, Mikele Leigertwood and Lee Cook – with Antonio German leading the line.
Middlesbrough started with Danny Coyne in goal with an unchanged defence of Kyle Naughton, Stephen McManus, David Wheater and Emmanuel Pogatez.
Willo Flood and Jeremie Aliadiere started wide – skipper Gary O’Neil partnered Barry Robson in the middle and Chris Killen returned to lead the line alongside Leroy Lita.
Kick Off: Middlesbrough v Queens Park Rangers
Overcast conditions greeted a modest crowd at the Riverside Stadium as the Rangers fans took their seats for their weekly instalment in the soap opera that is QPR. All the pre-match talk surrounded the potential Neil Warnock appointment, and whether this game may be Harford’s last.
There wasn’t a hint of defeatist attitude in the way Rangers expressed themselves on the field – firstly stifling the hosts before launching attacks of their own. Harford’s plan to frustrate Boro was certainly in evidence but the lack of potency in the forward line proved problematic.
Ákos Buzsáky was showing glimpses of recapturing his old form, seemingly enjoying his role in the centre of the park. His creativity and link up play with Alejandro Faurlín combined with the combative stylings of the returning Leigertwood made for a positive beginning for the R’s.
A couple of testing set-pieces from Buzsáky and Lee Cook provided Rangers with opportunities, however very little was being shown in the way of killer instinct with young forward Antonio German outmuscled as he attempted to use the channels.
Rangers even had a shout for a penalty inside ten minutes with Cook once again proving the architect. The R’s wide-man burst into the area and played the ball around his counterpart defender – in attempting to round his man the winger hit the floor.
Contact did appear minimal in fairness to Middlesbrough, but Cook was insistent that there had indeed been an infringement. The official allowed play to continue, clearly unimpressed with the incident but Rangers could look to another chance gone awry.
Middlesbrough displayed a side brimming with talent that has graced the highest level – Gary O’Neil in particular was looking commanding from the centre of the park and looking to pull the strings for talent such as Jeremie Aliadiere foraging down the left.
O’Neil himself tried his luck from distance via a 25-yard free-kick and it seemed to fluster ‘keeper Carl Ikeme. The strike itself wasn’t typical of something from the midfielder’s repertoire as it looked to be drifting wide of the left-hand upright – Ikeme eventually got down to the effort and palmed it away.
The brief glimpses of the old QPR swagger nearly came to fruition moments later when Cook fended off a couple of challenges before finding Buzsáky in the middle. The Hungarian rolled the ball to Jay Simpson but the striker snatched at his effort – hitting the stantion behind the goal.
Chris Killen was in the thick of the action when O’Neil’s centre found him in space inside the area, incredibly however he lifted the ball over the bar from just outside the six yard box. Moments later he had the ball in the back of the net, only to be denied by the offside flag.
Boro’s influence in the game was growing and they were proving the more likely to break the deadlock. The game itself was still relatively even and played against the back-drop of a negligible atmosphere – it was clear to see that despite the end to end nature of the fixture, Boro fans were not riveted.
They did have the advantage in controversial circumstances moments later as referee Andy Woolmer handed them an opportunity from the spot. Peter Ramage’s tackle on Aliadiere appeared expert – nudging the ball away from the French forward, but Woolmer had other ideas.
His decision to give the spot-kick sparked fury among the R’s fans, players and management who evidently could not believe the decision that had been made shortly before half time. It mattered little to Barry Robson who slammed beyond Ikeme for the opener.
GOAL: Middlesbrough 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
Tough to take for the travelling fans in an even clash, but their players wasted little time in their efforts to draw level, Buzsáky’s effort requiring a smart block by the Austrian Pogatez, whose influence wasn’t as noticeable as in the drubbing earlier this campaign.
The only unfortunate aspects for Rangers sat with the fact that they were a goal down in a relatively even game and they couldn’t make their superior shot count pay. This owed much to a lack of punch in the final third that Harford would surely look to rectify in the second period.
Just as the sides prepared for half time a long ball into the area was misjudged by Kaspars Gorkss, with Leroy Lita lurking in behind. The Boro forward got in front of his marker before hitting the floor with all the hallmarks of being shot by a sniper.
While a personal view of the incident wasn’t the best it didn’t seem cut and dry by any stretch of the imagination, but there seemed no doubt in the linesman’s mind as he flagged deliriously for the spot-kick – the referee henceforth pointed to the spot for a second time.
Once again it was Barry Robson that stepped forward for Boro and once again the Scotsman rifled his effort beyond Ikeme and down the centre of the goal. A bitter pill to swallow for Rangers who continued to make their feelings known to the officials.
GOAL: Middlesbrough 2-0 Queens Park Rangers
Rangers responded in a manner that pleased the travelling support and the manager alike with a good spell of football providing Buzsáky with an opening from distance. The Hungarian rolled back the months to send a rasping drive goal-bound – expertly tipped over by Coyne.
Lita – who had infuriated fans at Loftus Road with his antics earlier this season – was looking useful for Boro at times, but distinctly lacked class in the way he carried out his duties. Buying free-kicks from Gorkss with several separate acts of simulation and generally snarling and shouting towards both team-mates and opponents.
It was his influence however that helped Boro to their present position in what was an even game, and Rangers had a big task ahead of them if they were to claim anything from the game. Indeed one goal was proving a challenge, a second seemed almost mountainous.
Half Time: Middlesbrough 2-0 Queens Park Rangers
Harford opted against making substitutions at half time, given that Rangers were performing adequately but lacking an end product. Instead Simpson moved up to partner the isolated German with Buzsáky taking his place on the right.
The 4-4-2 formation seemed to boost the R’s, who appeared a tad more potent in the forward line and were at least competing territorially in the Boro half. Then came a big talking point as Rangers were denied a spot-kick of their own.
Buzsáky’s free-kick was expertly flighted into the area for an off-balance Stewart to loop a header into the arms of Coyne. His shirt was clearly being held, but the same eagle-eyed linesman wasn’t so keen to wave his flag – and neither was referee Woolmer.
Middlesbrough meanwhile were looking to consolidate their two goal advantage, as the basis of their game seemed to be more about seeing the game out than looking to assert their playoff credentials and putting on a show for the supporters.
Sensing that his side’s chances were slipping away, Harford made a double change with Marcus Bent and Gary Borrowdale replacing German and Hill. The young forward had shown well in the second period, but his influence was waning and a fresh approach was required.
Rangers now began to dominate possession and territory as Boro were evidently sitting back, contented with their advantage. Indeed a succession of corners and half-chances were all that greeted the visitors with a dominant defensive duo of McManus and Wheater dealing with the opportunities.
Indeed the ball seemed to stick to McManus’ head at times as he cleared the ball away with great competance and confidence. Strachan seems to have made a shrewd acquisition in the Scottish defender as he continues his fledgling partnership with local hero Wheater.
The ineffective Aliadiere was withdrawn for the hosts with young Jonathan Franks taking his place – such is the strength in depth and the excellent ground-work on the highly-acclaimed Boro youth system, Franks looking to be the next on the conveyor belt after Stewart Downing and Adam Johnson.
Rangers defender Peter Ramage was in imperious form on his return to the north-east, not only defensively but also in an attacking capacity. Maligned by some for a lack of crossing prowess, Ramage sent in a stunning centre that narrowly evaded Bent courtesy of a McManus touch.
Cook on the other flank was also testing the Boro rearguard with some tricky running and link-up play with Borrowdale. His testing cross was inches away from Jay Simpson who made a despairing lunge towards the ball.
A tactical shift saw Adel Taarabt take to the field in place of Faurlín with Buzsáky once again pushing inside alongside Leigertwood. The Moroccan has been used surprisingly sparingly by Harford with just over 20 minutes to impress from the bench.
He displayed his credentials to start from the off as he dazzled the defenders before striking powerfully towards the bottom left hand corner. It drew a smart save from Coyne and handed Rangers a chance from a corner.
Consistent pressure was being formed in the Boro half with Lita being sought as the out-ball for the hosts. It wasn’t proving too effective for the playoff chasers as Rangers high line was dealing with the majority of fleeting opportunities.
Inevitably Middlesbrough were going to get opportunities with Rangers attempted to eke out chances and commit more men forward. Lita’s stinging effort forced Ikeme into a stunning save high to his left, before he was replaced by Julio Arca.
Then followed a chance to epitomise the R’s fortunes with Ramage once again the architect down the right flank. His cross was nodded down by Bent into the path of Leigertwood – with the goal at his mercy the R’s skipper saw his poked effort come back off the upright.
Undeterred Rangers continued to press and Taarabt’s creativity down the right seeing Marcus Bent stab home from close range. Unfortunately for him and Rangers it was ruled out for offside – the striker just in advance of his adversary.
Gary Borrowdale was lucky not to be sent off with minutes remaining as a long ball over the top saw him handle on the half-way line with the forward searching in behind. Despite being a cast-iron handball the referee waved it away.
Middlesbrough applied pressure towards the end of the game with the visitors clearly flagging after an energy-sapping afternoon. A game where nothing appeared to fall for Rangers was drawn to a close, but the following supporters remained to clap their side from the field.
Full Time: Middlesbrough 2-0 Queens Park Rangers
Danny Coyne, Kyle Naughton, Stephen McManus, David Wheater, Emmanuel Pogatez (Andrew Taylor 78), Willo Flood, Barry Robson, Gary O’Neill, Jeremie Aliadiere (Jonathan Franks 65), Chris Killen, Leroy Lita (Julio Arca 83)
Queens Park Rangers
Carl Ikeme, Peter Ramage, Damion Stewart, Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Hill (Gary Borrowdale 54), Jay Simpson, Ákos Buzsáky, Mikele Leigertwood, Alejandro Faurlín (Adel Taarabt 69), Lee Cook, Antonio German (Marcus Bent 54)
Carl Ikeme – 6/10
Still very much undecided on this one as despite putting in a decent display today he has been found wanting in recent weeks in terms of shot-stopping.
His command of the area is far superior to Radek Cerny, but lacks in all the other departments such as kicking and shot-stopping – and these came to the fore today.
The conclusion for the time being is that neither Radek nor he can be considered as long-term fixtures in the Rangers line-up due to isolated errors and frailties in respective departments.
Peter Ramage – 7/10
The full-back had an excellent game which in truth was only blighted by the penalty he gave away for the opening goal.
In truth it appeared that he may well have been unlucky on that count, but certainly defensively and attacking-wise it was as good as I have seen Ramage play.
This could be attributed to the lack of threat posed by Aliadiere, but it could also be argued that Ramage managed to successfully nullify the former Arsenal front-man, which is an excellent achievement.
Kaspars Gorkss – 6/10
Not one of his more vintage displays by any stretch of the imagination, as a couple of isolated errors including the penalty he gave away epitomised the Latvian’s form at present.
The defender let the ball bounce for the second penalty and they never recovered from the spot-kick, but more worrying was his lack of confidence and swagger that he has played with previously.
His understanding with Damion Stewart has taken a battering in recent months with many changes to the back four around him.
Damion Stewart – 6/10
Another performer that is certainly due for an improvement after what was by and large an OK display, but isolated errors were far too frequent.
A lack of concentration was a criticism labelled at Stewart, and this was certainly proved true with a wild slash at the ball in the six-yard box which deflected eventually to a Boro player.
Couple this with a misguided header that handed Aliadiere a chance that the striker ultimately missed. He will need to improve to avoid being replaced.
Matt Hill – 6/10
Once again Hill has shown both sides of his game, and after being replaced by Borrowdale it highlighted a negligible difference between the two in terms of quality.
His passing was somewhat robotic at times, not playing to situations but looking to play the similar direct ball into the channels regardless of options.
When his loan period is up, it wouldn’t be cost effective to move for him permanently as in truth there is a player in Gary Borrowdale that can do a similar calibre of job.
Jay Simpson – 6/10
Once upon a time he played on the wing, but it becomes immediately apparent to me that in his current form and style it is completely counter-productive to play him there.
Simpson is a goal-poacher, a six-yard box man and the person most likely to fire the goals to keep the R’s up – today he was stuck on the touch-line and as a result German was left isolated.
Once he was moved up top to partner Antonio, he proved more effective and was able to fashion a couple of chances – a lesson learned hopefully.
Ákos Buzsáky – 8/10
It seemed to click again for Ákos and once again as previously mentioned it’s no coincidence that he featured in the middle of the park.
The Hungarian looked a different player as he did well in the physical aspect before offloading well and imparting with accurate shots.
He will hope to take this form into the West Brom game and look to once again be creative and provide/score goals to take Rangers clear of the relegation mire.
Mikele Leigertwood – 7/10
A genuinely good game from the returning captain as he vied for the ball with Gary O’Neill, but it was tinged with the usual inconsistency that blights his performances.
Mikele was exceptionally strong both on and off the ball but all too frequently he gave possession away when well placed.
It was a good return, and the rest may have been needed just to clear his head of the poorer displays and kick him on for the rest of the campaign.
Alejandro Faurlín – 7/10
The Argentinean midfielder showed his excellent spirit and eye for the battle as he faced off against Boro today – putting in a few stern tackles.
There was an incident whereby a tackle with Barry Robson looked a little over the top – to Robson’s credit he got to his feet and let the game continue.
His passing was relatively good and he linked up well with Buzsáky and Leigertwood going forward – hopefully a final change of manager will give him the stability he craves.
Lee Cook – 7/10
Cook was once again a great outlet for Rangers as he hugged the left wing in a bid to attack Naughton and create opportunities for the attacking players.
At times players doubled up on him, but still couldn’t stop the fleet-footed wide-man who seemed to relish the prospect of taking his men on and nearly provided an assist for Bent.
His eye for a pass was a positive particularly in the first half as both Buzsáky and Simpson benefited from his vision, but ultimately it was to no avail.
Antonio German – 6/10
Hardly seems fair to judge him on a display like this, when in truth he was left isolated and was persistently outmuscled by some strong defenders.
He worked hard and chased down his counterparts in the first half, which proved very effective as the defenders panicked.
When he had a strike partner and someone to flick the ball on to – he showed his talents and may well get the nod for the West Brom game.
SUB: Gary Borrowdale – 6/10
Replaced Matt Hill – 54
Borrowdale slipped back into the side like he’d never been away and already had a good understanding with Lee Cook down the left.
His clever back-heel provided a chance for Cook to cross and there was chemistry there that wasn’t evident during Hill’s spell on the pitch.
The disappointing aspect was the lack of communication with fellow defenders with several calamities in the latter stages.
SUB: Marcus Bent – 7/10
Replaced Antonio German – 54
Bent looked a more imposing presence than the youngster German, which is understandable given his experience in the game – and experience of facing a side he played for earlier this season.
Bent had one goal ruled out for offside and generally looked lively when the ball was at his feet throughout his spell – a perceived lack of effort had some questioning him but he did look useful in spells.
The West Brom game must surely see Simpson partnered by either he or German depending on Rangers’ approach to the game.
Replaced Alejandro Faurlín – 69
The Moroccan helped Rangers break through the Boro backline more so than previously in the game, and only Mick Harford will know how he hasn’t been starting games.
He looked very lively and never shied away from the ball – his shot was one of Rangers better opportunities and moments like this will make him wonder why he isn’t starting.
Taarabt is without question a talented player, and a key player and surely must get a start against West Brom next weekend.
Mick Harford: 6/10 – Mick will look to bad luck today as his side more than matched Boro for the vast majority of the game.
His persistence in not playing Adel Taarabt is perplexing, and will always be highlighted after a defeat – but in truth his formation gambit was working until the controversial penalty.
In what may well have been Mick’s last game he has rounded off a particularly poor spell on a sour note.
Gordon Strachan: 6/10 – He will have seen this as somewhat fortuitous when you look at the overall balance of play, and how a side brimming with talented players can underachieve so much is anyone’s guess.
The second half seemed to be a timewasting measure for his side as from the off select players were looking to buy the minutes here and there and wind down the clock.
Middlesbrough are a side that should be challenging the higher echelons of the division and today’s lack of ambition for what is a good side shows exactly why they’re not.
Mr A Woolmer: 3/10 – I think I’m being generous as I can’t think of much in the way of positives for this official.
He generally liked the sound of his own whistle and voice, stopping play frequently for extended periods – while being picky on certain things and not on others.
I haven’t mentioned the highly-contested penalties, plus the ones that weren’t given – also by the letter of the law Borrowdale should have been sent off at the end – suffice to say it was poor stuff.
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