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Dec 1, 2012

Redknapp's Rangers still await lift-off

So the perfect finish never came. In two senses.

All week since Harry Redknapp's appointment as QPR manager, the storyline for this game seemed perfectly set up: the effect of a new manager; the motivational effect of this particular new manager; a first home game, against fellow strugglers. And, ultimately, a rousing first win of the season.

All of the emotion seemed to be building up to that point. In his pre-game press conference, Harry Redknapp even referenced such a victory at Portsmouth, when Pedro Mendes scored a last-minute winner against Manchester City to trigger their 2005-06 survival.

At Loftus Road against Aston Villa, though, such a moment never came for QPR.

Instead, Redknapp was left to rue different kinds of finishes. Shaun Wright-Phillips volleyed against the post and shot directly at Brad Guzan when through on goal, while Park Ji-Sung later did the same and Clint Hill hit the bar with a late header.

As a result, rather than a first win, Redknapp is left with a team equalling a Premier League record set 18 years ago. QPR have now matched Swindon's 1993-94 run of going the first 15 games of a season without victory, while only picking up six points.

That, in itself, told the true the story of this game beyond the widely expected narrative.

Ultimately, a good motivational manager in Redknapp has been dropped into a squad with a fair amount of talent but also one without a clear design or shape. On Saturday, that situation was made all the more interesting by the fact he was facing a side that were so different. For all Villa have spent in the Randy Lerner era themselves, the current team are not enjoying any such lavishness. Instead, a thoroughly modern manager in Paul Lambert is attempting to more organically integrate a core of young players into a proactive playing style.

But, although the timescales and the contexts are entirely different, the Villa manager is ultimately encountering the same issue as Redknapp, applying his specific approach to a group of players he is still getting to know.

All of that told in a game that wavered between spells of energetic action and more prosaic periods that better reflected the current positions of the teams. Not unsurprisingly, QPR had the better of the former, Villa the latter.

Take the first half. Emboldened by the emotion around Redknapp's introduction, QPR came out attempting to make a statement with a whirlwind first four minutes.

As has been the case throughout this campaign and a few difficult situations, though, Lambert kept calm and his team kept their nerve. Eventually outmanoeuvring QPR with their 3-5-2, Villa played their way through that storm and then right through the home side's defence. After good work from Ashley Westwood on eight minutes, Brett Holman steadied himself at the edge of the box, looked up and drove a firm effort which Rob Green could only tip onto the post and in. A fine goal, a fine start.

That was only the trigger, though, for calmness and calculation to give way to emotion and energy again. Desperate to make amends, QPR undid the Villa defence within 10 minutes as Samba Diakite crossed for Jamie Mackie to head home.

That, at the least, vindicated Redknapp's selection of the attacker ahead of a true striker in Djibril Cisse. It also, however, illustrated where he may have to make adjustments come January.

"I just felt he'd give us that energy we needed," Redknapp said. It ended up being essential. Imbalanced in key areas, as Redknapp made a point of mentioning after the game, QPR needed it in order to counter Villa's attempts to outwit them.

"Having gone behind early, they could have easily dropped their heads. They didn't. They came storming back, fixed a few problems and then dominated the game from then on," he added.

That latter statement probably has an element of self-serving exaggeration, but it can't be denied that QPR had the better chances.

Through their full-backs and a few lofted through balls, they were constantly getting at Villa in the first half, before changing tack and driving at them through the centre with substitute Park in the second.

"Only one team was going to win," Redknapp insisted. "Only one team was creating chances. I don't think they did after they scored. They started well but only one team was creating chances after that. Us. The woodwork saved them on a couple of occasions. They kept the ball in some not dangerous areas. They were never a threat, the longer the game went on."

That's not quite true given Karim El-Ahmadi flashed an effort wide late on and, as Redknapp admitted himself, the excellent Christian Benteke caused constant problems.

It was an odd game. QPR had enough chances to win it but that is not to say they necessarily deserved to. As good as goalkeeper Brad Guzan needed to be for Aston Villa, they were good value for a point.

And, having secured one to go a third consecutive game unbeaten, Lambert couldn't deny a sense of momentum was building with his young team.

"It seems to be," he said. "I hope so. Since the Swindon game [a 3-2 win in the Capitol One Cup], we've been playing very well. I'm really happy with the way things are going. QPR were fighting for every point. New manager syndrome usually kicks in but I had nothing but praise for my team. We were strong when we had to be. Every game is getting better and better."

Ultimately, Redknapp needs to engender a similar sense of momentum. There's only one way to do it, though: that kind of Pedro Mendes moment.

"If we had got a goal, the place would have kicked off," Redknapp said. "To go to Wigan next week with a win would have been massive. There were chances. We just needed something to fall for us, to get that goal, and then it's lift-off."

It seems Redknapp needs that perfect finish for his work to truly begin.

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