Following two dour away performances – one a professional if dull victory and the other an unfortunate but uninspiring defeat – David Wagner unleashed a vibrant, attack minded line up against a QPR side reeling from a 6 goal reversal at home in midweek.
Deciding that Bunn’s defensive ability was not needed against the West Londoners and resting Jack Payne, Wells and Kachunga were given offensive responsibilities with Van La Parra and the quite excellent Palmer adding vitality to the attack.
Any lingering disappointment or lack of confidence from the south coast defeat was comprehensively swept away in a first half full of verve, quality and intent as QPR’s early threat was first extinguished then completely neutralised by a team moving smoothly up the gears in to dominance.
Mooy’s trademark serenity in possession, intelligence and precision of pass coupled with Hogg’s immense work rate soon quelled Rangers and allowed the talents of Van La Parra and Palmer to shine, while Hudson and Schindler handled the opposition’s increasingly mundane threats with some ease.
Town’s first foray forward was a blistering run by Kachunga, beating four men before running out of space and winning a corner off a defender. The crowd was lifted by his deep incursion and the relatively slow start by the home team was well and truly over.
Seemingly inspired by his colleague, Palmer started to get on the ball and a sumptuous pass to Smith on the right set another attack in train ending in a wayward effort by Kachunga.
With the insouciant Mooy setting the pace and flow of the game, Town began to strangle the visitors with intricate moves, switching of play and controlled possession, it was no surprise when they took the lead.
Smith, operating excellently down the right again, was fed by another probing Palmer pass and while his cross evaded Kachunga and Wells, it fell to Van La Parra on the left who lifted the ball over for Palmer to finish what he had started with a close range header.
Other than the occasionally dangerous but ultimately ineffective Shodipo on the left, Rangers had little in response – Hogg uncharacteristically gave the ball away a couple of times but the visitors were unable to breach Town’s rugged back line even when presented with opportunity.
For the most part, it was Town in the ascendant and Palmer, in particular, was a joy to watch as he illuminated a dominant home performance with dribbles and good passing, with the movement of Wells, Kachunga and Van La Parra causing concern for the visitors even if clear cut chances were at a premium.
Wells brought an excellent save from his erstwhile team mate Smithies in the visitors’ goal, but he had already been flagged offside.
It has been something of a feature for Town to dominate yet create relatively few chances. Rather than this being a criticism, it is a hope that adding some final third ruthlessness will elevate this so far remarkable outfit even further.
More worryingly, Hudson (for a cynical foul to stop Shopido) and Hogg (for his part in an altercation after he had been fouled) were both booked in the half, and both now teeter on the edge of a ban, joining Loewe who is in a similar predicament. If and when suspensions arrive, it will be interesting how Town fare without the Mooy/Hogg and Hudson/Schindler axes.
Those are problems for a different day, however, and the immediate one was to ensure that Town’s habit of dropping in intensity at the restart wasn’t repeated.
QPR made two changes at half time; up front, the rather limited Washington was replaced by Polter – a big man for a big man, in essence, – and Borysiuk replaced the overwhelmed Henry. Neither substitution suggested a different challenge for the home side, though perhaps Jimmy Floyd Hasselbiank’s mood in the changing room could have an affect on his listless charges.
For the first 30 minutes of a more prosaic second half, Town continued to dictate the pace of the game but, again, without fashioning regular chances despite a few early corners.
They did, however, have a serious penalty appeal turned down as Wells’ attempted flick over a central defender appeared to be thwarted by an arm, which moved towards the ball. It was probably a bigger shout than Newcastle’s against Hudson on that heady day, but the referee was unmoved.
Kachunga then had the ball in the net following good work from Palmer, but was ruled offside. He should have let Palmer finish off his own work, but instinct took over.
Town were finally rewarded with the luxury of a two goal lead, the first of the season, when Hogg found Smith’s excellent run down the right. The much improved right back – it is rare to see him err these days – lifted a cross to the back post and Kachunga rose to loop it over Smithies’ despairing hands.
It was no less than the home team deserved who had comprehensively outplayed Rangers, and the buoyant crowd could enjoy a comfortable victory for once. Or so it seemed.
On 75 minutes, the tone of the game changed with an unfortunate sequence of events which left Town disadvantaged at a corner. Leading up to it, Hudson and Smith collided and the latter was pole axed and requiring treatment. Off the pitch as a routine corner was headed out, the ball was picked back up by Chery with no one available to close him down effectively and his floated cross was met by substitute Sylla to give QPR an unlikely and undeserved lifeline.
12 months ago, such a setback was likely to be fatal for Town with a healthy 15 minutes and lengthy stoppage time to go.
In typical Wagnerian fashion, however, Town negotiated the time largely in comfort, though substitute Whitehead (brought on to shore things up along with Bunn) had to deal with a dangerous situation with a cool header back to Ward.
QPR’s blunt attempts at winning a point via the aerial route no doubt caused one or two palpitations among the fiercely supportive crowd, particularly us long time sufferers, but the unflappable Schindler and the experience of Hudson repelled them effectively.
In an attempt to run down the clock and add height to his defence, and to huge cheers of anticipation, Wagner withdrew Wells for Hefele to make his first home appearance.
It seems that defending wasn’t particularly in the mind of a player who has caught the imagination despite clocking up only about 20 minutes of playing time in the League as he latched on to a loose ball, bounded forward in to space, played a one two with Bunn only to be robbed as he got in to the area.
As injury time started, Whitehead’s intervention calmed nerves and though there were a few balls in to the box to suffer, the 6 minutes were also eaten up with balls in to the corners for Town to shield.
The final whistle was greeted with some relief but the crowd, including the away supporters, knew that the result was more than fair as Town maintained their leadership of the division and by a slightly increased margin following Newcastle’s shock defeat.
With rising and increasingly enthusiastic crowds (boosted by some excellent marketing leading up to the game), a talented and improving squad of players and an intelligent, charismatic manager, the future cannot be anything but bright, even if we have to suffer setbacks from time to time.
The most difficult off field job must have been the choice of man of the match.
Mooy is almost always a candidate and was as supremely influential as ever. Kachunga looks as energetic in the 90th minute as he does in the first; his appetite for work seems unquenchable. Hogg is the team’s heart to Mooy’s brain and has a player ever improved to the extent of Smith?
All of the others gave good and very good performances too, but it is the mercurial Palmer who caught the eye the most. One piece of skill on the touchline while being fouled summed up his performance as he flicked the ball through the legs of an opposing player through to Smith.
Rotherham at home a week on Tuesday gives the team the chance to win a previously inconceivable 5 on the trot, but this is sandwiched between 2 long distance and tough away assignments at Reading and Ipswich.
The game against the Millers may also give Wagner the opportunity to manage the looming suspension problems by utilising his squad more extensively.
For now, rejoice!