Charlie Austin proved the difference between QPR and Wigan in the second leg of the Championship play-off semi-final, coolly slotting home a penalty to level the scores in the latter stages of normal time before netting the winner from close range in extra time. The Hoops will now be hoping Austin can work his striking wonders again at Wembley on Saturday afternoon.
What-if scenarios exist all too often in football but QPR’s form and automatic promotion push dipped sharply after the prolific Austin suffered a shoulder injury in February and missed several weeks of action. And when one considers that the Hoops were better known up to then as a side that didn’t concede goals rather than one that scored them for fun – indeed, 11 teams ended the season with a superior goals tally to QPR’s 60 – it’s difficult not to see a connection.
It must have been hugely frustrating for Austin during his period on the sidelines, not least because his former club Burnley were taking everyone by surprise and disappearing into the promotion sunset. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to label QPR a one-man side, particularly given the strength of Harry Redknapp’s squad, deep enough for Bobby Zamora and Ravel Morrison to have to settle for substitute appearances against Wigan, for the much-travelled Yossi Benayoun to be unused, and even for an out-of-favour midfielder in Stephane Mbia to be loaned to Sevilla and become a Europa Cup winner.
Despite all this, it will be Derby who go into the money-spinning fixture as slight favourites. The Rams have their own prolific marksman in Chris Martin, who netted 22 times. Martin was the fifth- highest scorer in the Championship and just outside the top 10 was Craig Bryson, who added 16 from midfield.
Derby finished as top scorers overall in the division and, perhaps more ominously for their opponents, Steve McClaren’s side are in sparkling form, with, when taking the two play-off semi-finals against Brighton into account, seven wins and a draw from their last eight competitive fixtures.
Chief executive Sam Rush said this week that there wouldn’t be a glut of new signings should the Rams be promoted and it’s not a surprise as the current playing staff are likely only to improve. Investing in youth has been the club’s policy in recent seasons and the average on the pitch in the second leg win over Brighton at Pride Park was under 24. Six of QPR’s starting line-up against Wigan were over 30, although in fairness the ‘old guard’ should not be dismissed as their experience could play a vital part on Saturday.
Perhaps the most intriguing battle will be between Redknapp and McClaren, who started the season together in the Loftus Road dugout before McClaren left for Derby in the wake of Nigel Clough’s departure. “We respect Derby very much and especially their manager, who worked with us at the beginning of the season. He knows how to set his teams up,” said QPR midfielder Niko Kranjkar this week.
As such it would be a shame if the clash proved to be overly chess-like tactically but expect extra time – at least.