The cream of the crop: Queen's Park Rangers 1 Nottingham Forest 1
The two best teams in the Championship met in the capital at the weekend. Neil Warnock’s Queen’s Park Rangers have proven their quality over the course of the season, but this was perhaps their biggest test yet. Billy Davies had led Nottingham Forest to six successive league wins prior to their visit to Loftus Road.
Norwich City have been consistent throughout the campaign, while Leeds United have also found their feet at this level following a patchy start. It is worth noting the quality of the two Welsh sides, of course, and the likes of Leicester City and Burnley are challenging the play-off pack with two-thirds of the season now gone. All in all, however, Queen’s Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest look the two clubs most likely to be in possession of those coveted automatic promotion places after 46 games.
The first half of the second clash between the pair was a tale of two left feet and two right feet. The left of Tommy Smith, which curled the ball past Lee Camp to give the home side the lead. The right of David McGoldrick, deflecting in a long-range Lewis McGugan free kick to haul the visitors level. And, sandwiched by those goals, both of Radoslaw Majewski’s feet. The Forest midfielder launched himself at Adel Taarabt’s ankles and was sent off by referee Mark Clattenburg.
Forest had started the game brightly but, with the injured Guy Moussi conspicuous by his absence, the Reds had started to surrender space to Neil Warnock’s talented midfield and there was a danger that Majewski’s red card would exacerbate this problem. Not so. Majewski’s exit galvanised Forest, who subsequently enjoyed the better of the half and deserved their equaliser.
Both sides made changes at half time, Ishmael Miller replacing Smith for Rangers and Forest attacker Marcus Tudgay removed by Davies in favour of left-back Joel Lynch, with Paul Konchesky moving to the left wing. This was an interesting tactical manoeuvre by both managers, with Davies perhaps happier to settle for a point. In the opening ten minutes of the second half, the hosts enjoyed two-thirds of the possession without forcing a clear opportunity. Only Alejandro Faurlin’s fierce shot from the edge of the area, which flashed just wide of the far post, threatened to trouble Camp.
Two recent sources of inspiration were being kept quiet. Taarabt found himself well marshalled by the ever impressive Forest rearguard, while Wayne Routledge was struggling to find space despite the opposition’s fewer numbers. There was, in fact, an element of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, as there had been when the two sides played out a goalless draw at the City Ground earlier in the season.
Nevertheless, Rangers were understandably on the front foot for the vast majority of the second half only to find Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers in superb form at the heart of the Forest defence. When Chambers did finally miss an interception with fifteen minutes remaining, Rob Hulse was unable to fashion an opportunity. Within a minute, Chris Gunter had cleared Bradley Orr’s goalbound header off the line with Camp well beaten.
Forest introduced the pace of Paul Anderson and Nathan Tyson in an attempt to freshen their approach and provide a greater threat on the counter attack, Tyson shooting wide at the near post from a narrow angle after latching onto a through ball with two minutes left.
Warnock, on the other hand, seemed to be banking on the speed of Miller down the home side’s right flank to force the issue. Forest substitute Lynch, however, ably assisted by the backtracking Konchesky, snuffed out the danger posed by the on-loan West Bromwich Albion man with ease.
Another Rangers substitute, the January signing Petter Vaagen Moen, enjoyed the best opportunity during injury time when heading wide despite being unmarked. The final whistle sparked typically bullish celebrations from Davies, who strode towards the sold-out away end and pointed towards his charges as if to signal his approval. Camp also celebrated the point as if it was a victory.
Forest have come a long way. At this point last season, their away form was disintegrating and defeat at Pride Park a year ago was indicative of their inability to travel. This time around, they have triumphed in Derby and taken an impressive point from the league leaders.
As for Queen’s Park Rangers, they remain the team at the top and the team to beat. The likes of Taarabt and Routledge will not have to face many defences in the same league as Camp and co for the remainder of the campaign and will be confident that they can stay as top dogs until the end.
All in all, it promises to be a fascinating conclusion to one of the best Championship seasons in recent years.