Tomorrow’s derby at Loftus Road will have real feeling. Before the arrival of Mark Hughes at QPR, it might have been a feisty – and yet forgettable affair. There’s certainly little chance of that being the case now that Bobby Zamora has joined the former Fulham manager in Shepherd’s Bush. The game also comes at a crucial time for both teams. Rangers badly need points to pull away from the relegation zone, whilst Fulham manager Martin Jol has identified this contest as the first in a run of matches that could help his side move up the table themselves.
The hosts have an added reason to put one over on their local rivals tomorrow afternoon. There’s the small matter of avenging that 6-0 humbling at Craven Cottage last October. On a glorious early-autumn afternoon, Fulham swept past their opponents with effortless ease. Even though Hughes has almost completely restructured his defence from the one that was torn apart by Andy Johnson that day, victory will still be a tall order for QPR. They haven’t even managed a goal against Fulham in their last five meetings and haven’t beaten the Whites in more than 28 years.
All that being side, Rangers shouldn’t be underestimated. Hughes has a terrific record of turning his sides around in the second half of the season, as Fulham fans would testify, and he now has plenty of quality at his disposal. Taye Taiwo’s arrival on loan from AC Milan showed just what pulling power the new manager has and Armand Traore, although prone to the odd defensive lapse now and again, is a real prospect. Nedum Onouha seemed to lose his way after losing his place at Manchester City – and despite an unfortunate own goal the other week – should play a key part in strengthening a previously leaky defence.
Hughes has also reinstated Akos Buzsaky to first-team action after the Hungarian was unfairly jettisoned by Neil Warnock, although he might not make the team tomorrow. Rangers have plenty of options in midfield, with Joey Barton and Shaun Derry sure to be at their combative best as they try and shackle Danny Murphy in the centre of the park. Mali midfielder Samba Diakite, fresh from the African Cup of Nations, could make his debut and QPR can also call upon the mercurial talent of Adel Taarabt, assuming he isn’t sat at a nearby bus stop this time.
It is, of course, up front where most eyes will be focussed. Zamora, who never enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Martin Jol, will be desperate to prove a point against his old club. Fulham profess themselves happy with their part of deal: a structured transfer, which could net them £6m in total, for a 31 year-old, who has recently been struggling with injury, doesn’t seemed too bad – especially if Pavel Pogrebnyak continues to prosper as Zamora’s replacement. Should the England striker manage to outmuscle Brede Hangeland and Philippe Senderos on his way to winning the game tomorrow, however, there might be cause to reassess that judgement.
Fulham can take heart from their thumping win at the Cottage, but the players and the manager have sensibly sought to play it down. For one thing, it offers little indication of what will transpire at Loftus Road tomorrow. Rangers, buoyed by a sell-out crowd and a new manager, are now a totally different proposition. Nobody needs reminding of Fulham’s pitiful struggles on the road, either. Jol has been boosted by the fact that Pogrebnyak has shaken off a foot problem to play, whilst Senderos and Johnson are both available again after groin injuries.
How he sends out his side will of most interest. The adventurous 4-1-4-1 formation worked for an hour whilst Fulham still had the services of Pogrebnyak against Stoke, but spluttered once the Russian was forced off early. It may be a little too ambitious for the frenzied atmosphere of a derby tomorrow. There would be an understandable temptation to ask Johnson to repeat last year’s heroics alongside Pogrebnyak, in the knowledge that the pint-sized striker has profited on the rare occasions he’s had a partner to play alongside, but the former Everton striker is more likely to start on the bench.
Jol will most likely opt for his favoured 4-2-3-1 system. That would allow for the inclusion of Dickson Etuhu, whose presence will be badly needed in the centre of the park, as well as both Moussa Dembele and Bryan Ruiz. The effectiveness of Dembele’s elusive running can sometimes be lost from a deeper position, whilst Ruiz will profit from the freer role he is afforded in this set-up. It would also give Clint Dempsey, still in red hot form, room to roam behind a striker.
The manager’s instructions should be simple. Keep calm, keep things tight early and knock the ball around. Chances will come – and a rare away win could even follow.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Etuhu, Murphy; Dembele, Ruiz, Dempsey; Pogrebnyak. Subs: Stockdale, Baird, Hughes, Davies, Duff, Frei, Johnson.