Nov 162011

Stoke’s biggest advantage will be playing on their home pitch at the Britannia Stadium. Their difference between their home and away record last year was extreme – while in front of their boisterous supporters, Stoke won ten league games against four draws and five losses, outscoring their opponents a whopping 31-18. Compare that to their travelling results: A mere three wins, three draws – and thirteen losses away – not to mention getting knocked out of the Carling Cup at Upton Park or the heartbreaking FA Cup final at Wembley .

The wide margin points to a side that ground out a few results away from home but often struggled on the road. Hence, their improved quality at the Britannia can’t be ignored, and QPR’s own troubled road work this season – two wins, no draws and three losses – particularly the still stinging obliteration at Fulham – make this a volatile clash.

The last time the two clubs faced each other was 2008, when both sides were still in the Championship. QPR came away with a 3-0 win at Loftus Road, with a memorable strike from former player Mikele Leigertwood. Both teams have come a long way since then, and now find themselves battling for fortunes in the top flight and in Stoke’s case, the Europa league.

QPR are coming off a hard-luck loss against Manchester City at home, where they gave their best effort since earning promotion last May. In a thriller that nearly ended level through Heidar Helguson’s last minute header, the R’s came up short but laid the groundwork for continued improvement. Albeit losing to Tottenham and City coming into this fixture, their pace, aggression and decision making have been steadily improving.

Watch for Jamie Mackie to feature prominently in the attack once again. While away on international duty last week, he netted a goal for Scotland in their 2-1 victory over Cyprus. Cutting in from the corner, he neatly turned a defender and slipped past another to before finishing well for his country. QPR fans have been loud in support of the returning striker, and he has looked better and better since coming back from his double leg break.

Adel Taarabt should return to the team this week after missing the last match due to illness, and it remains to be seen who will lose a position to accommodate him. Jay Bothroyd filled in nicely as a centre-forward, netting his second goal in as many games last time out. Whether he or Helguson come off remains to be seen, but a midfield with Barton and Faurlin in defensive positions; Mackie and Wright-Philips on the wings and Taarabt in centre seems pretty set.

That deployment will be facing a Stoke defence that has been battered for the better part of the past month, suffering injuries and poor play alike. Keeper Asmir Begovic has been shaky to put it nicely, and while Jonathan Woodgate’s return from injury was a nice off-season story, there are reasons Tottenham did little to retain his services. His form has fallen off rapidly and he’s become a liability – one Taarabt and Helguson/ Bothroyd will try to take advantage of. Robert Huth looks like the biggest obstacles QPR will have to worry about when working up field as Ryan Shawcross may miss the game with a lingering injury.

On the other side of the ball, Tottenham cast-away and one-time QPR youngster Peter Crouch continues to lope around the forward end for the Potters. He remains dangerous in the air, but lacks the pace or creativity to threaten the improving QPR back four. The real threat will come from Jermaine Pennant and Jon Walters, who provided the few bright moments in Stoke’s defeat at Bolton. Walters scored in Ireland’s Euro 2012 4-0 romp over Estonia and I suspect Neil Warnock has mentioned his name often as a man to guard in the preparation for this match.

This is a winnable game for QPR, but by no means an easy feat. They will be facing a team that has slumped badly and is eager to reboot their season and gear up for the sprint to January. If the Hoops can match the intensity and commitment they demonstrated against Manchester City last week, they can come away with a victory. If they allow Stoke to set the tempo and move the ball like Chelsea or Fulham did against them, they are in for a long day.

The result will likely be somewhere in between – QPR have had spells of confident possession and determined attack this year, punctuated by sloppy defending or half-thought-out approaches. The last match saw a great combination of physical work in the midfield and hustle on the attacking side of the ball. So long as they continue to mix aggression with good sense, support one another while on the ball and build up with some forethought, they should come out with something to show for this match.

Come on U R’s!

Follow @BrianTMahon

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