SUPER SUB: Wright-Phillips strikes to win the match
RAFAEL BENITEZ will have a red face when answering Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich as to how his side contrived to lose 1-0 to Queens Park Rangers at home for the first time in the league since 1983.
Prior to the match, no one seemed willing to suggest QPR could claim a point, let alone all three. But win they did, deceiving all expectations that the Blues would romp home to victory in similar style to how they demolished Aston Villa 8-0 on Christmas Eve. Former Liverpool and Villa boss, Gerard Houllier, told the Voice of Sport before kick-off that Chelsea would win "5-0". How wrong he and most were.
Yet the shock win for Harry Redknapp's men still sees them remain stuck bottom of the table on 13 points with fellow relegation candidates Reading. Chelsea stay fourth, a point off Tottenham, but with a game in hand. Tonight’s defeat would seem to suggest Abramovich’s team is out of the title race, languishing 14 points behind pace-setters Manchester United.
After a day of rainfall, the Stamford Bridge pitch was slick – seemingly the perfect stage for Chelsea’s flair players to zip passes through their struggling opponents. Yet in a surprise team selection, Benitez left Juan Mata, arguably the side’s best player so far this season, and Eden Hazard on the bench, preferring the German Marko Marin, his first league start of the season, and Victor Moses.
Marin was lucky not be taking an early bath, for in the opening minutes he miscontrolled the ball and, attempting to win it back, flew in against Stéphane M’Bia, raking his studs across the midfielder’s shin – the Cameroonian was lucky not to suffer a broken tibia. Referee Lee Mason’s yellow card was extremely lenient, and the official will be fortunate to be overseeing a game in the next round of Premier League ties.
The home-side dominated the early spell of the match, retaining possession neatly, however, they could not carve out any clear chances, leaving QPR’s keeper, Julio Cesar, largely untroubled. David Luiz came closest in the first 45 with a looping volley that nestled on the roof of the net.
A tight hamstring in the 16th minute meant Junior Hoilett was replaced by the eventual match-winner, Shaun Wright-Phillips. The 31-year-old former Chelsea winger, who left the London club in 2008, was greeted with warm applause from the home support. His first contribution was to have a snap-shot from a counterattack, which flew well wide of the target.
Like Cesar, who left Inter last year to join QPR, Ross Turnbull, standing in for the injured Petr Cech, was not made to sweat as he watched his team-mates in front stroke the ball about without any real menace.
Adel Taarabt looked like the best attacking player for the visitors; the Moroccan played up front, a position unfamiliar to the midfielder. But the 23-year-old exhibited strength with his back to goal, a good touch, and awareness in his distribution.
Despite picking up the tempo after the restart, Benitez’s men still lacked a cutting edge in their approach play, with final balls going astray. Chelsea appeared to be missing the incision of Mata and direct running of Hazard.
Benitez twisted in the 58th minute, exchanging the ineffective Marin for the Belgian winger. And 16 minutes later, Moses was withdrawn for Mata. Nonetheless, the substitutions failed to deliver any impact, and within two minutes of the Spaniard’s introduction, Wright-Phillips silenced the Chelsea fans, and sent the travelling pack into sheer delirium.
Taarabt collected the ball on the left of Chelsea’s box and laid off a clever pass across the edge of the area to the winger. Wright-Phillips allowed the ball to run across his body, and then unleashed a sumptuous strike that raced into the bottom left corner, easily beating Turnbull’s despairing dive.
Before that, Chelsea’s best chance had already been and gone; a loose ball had fallen to Torres in the box, and Cesar expertly rushed off his line to smother the £50m striker’s fierce goal-bound effort.
The aerial threat of centre-back Branislav Ivanovic kept Chelsea’s hopes alive of an equaliser – on more than three occasions the Serbian almost headed in a goal, his closest attempt skimming the top of the bar in the 52nd minute. However, in spite of Chelsea’s huffing and puffing, QPR’s rearguard remained deep, allowing the opposition no space behind them.
Veteran defender, Ryan Nelsen, was outstanding, putting on a dogged display that encapsulated his side’s efforts.
After the match, the winning manager could not hide his satisfaction with the result. “We hit them on the break well,” said Redknapp. “After the Liverpool game [which QPR lost 3-0] I had a meeting with the players and convinced them we can stay up. Tonight, I think, is proof we have a chance.
“I can’t remember having many better wins than this one. It was a great result for us.
“I hope [that this is a turning point].”
The former Spurs boss singled out his man between the sticks for praise. “The keeper was different class tonight, and I felt he wouldn’t get beaten.
“The atmosphere in the dressing room after was fantastic, and now we’ve got to build on that,” he added.
Benitez lamented his team’s surprise loss, acknowledging his players were fatigued. “We were tired, and we didn’t have the intensity and tempo,” he said.
“Too many things didn’t go well for us.”
Asked about resting Mata and Hazard, the former Liverpool manager spoke of his faith in his squad. “You have to trust your players and I trust them.
“We were doing well, and we had confidence we would do so,” he said of Chelsea's Christmas results – they had won four on the spin before QPR defied all predictions, leaving Benitez impotently seething as he paced along the dugout.
He refused to be drawn onto Chelsea's prospects in the title race. “I’m not too worried about the league table. I take each game as it comes, and the priority is the next game," Benitez said.
Man of the match: Ryan Nelsen