Alex McLeish made three changes to the team that had drawn at Derby, with Seb Larsson coming back in on the right, meaning Mehdi Nafti dropped out and Kemy Agustien moved into the middle alongside Lee Carsley. Up front there was a bit of a surprise, with Cameron Jerome and James McFadden both dropping to the bench and Garry O'Connor and Kevin Phillips coming in. O'Connor and Phillips had perhaps been the most ineffectual forwards of late, so no doubt it was a way of freshening things up, giving everyone a game and keeping people on their toes. When you have approximately 48% of the entire Championship's forwards in your own squad, you can do that.
I have to confess that pre-game I felt that this was the game where Blues would finally click this season, and I could see a 3-0 or 4-0 scoreline. Yet again, that failed to materialise and Blues got the three points with the narrowest of margins and were left hanging on a bit at the end. Subsequently the voices around me (I mean in the stadium - I'm not some kind of mentalist) and the talk leaving the ground was pretty negative, again. Well, let me be a dissenting voice...
I actually thought Blues played pretty well. Not spectacularly, and they still missed a bit of a cutting edge, but I was fairly pleased with the performance. There was a clear and blatant attempt to up the tempo, and as such Blues' build-up play was much quicker, which always helps. There was less aimless knocking the ball across the back, into midfield, then back again, and players were getting on the ball, looking for an attacking pass and their team-mates were making probing runs. It didn't always work, but there was clear evidence on Blues having worked on stepping up a gear. The fact is that it won't always work, but at least there was evidence of it happening and of one or two problems being addressed. Some of the moves that Blues put together were excellent, and whilst they're not "doing an Arsenal" and doing that all the way through the game, there is some good football in short spells. The one move where David Murphy tried to pick out Larsson when he perhaps should have driven the ball across the face of the goal was a fine example. Murphy's not having the greateast of times defensively, but some of his support going forward has been excellent, as has Stuart Parnaby's on the right.
Then there's the "Second Half Sit Back" that's been oft-discussed (not least by me) this season. Well, again, it looked like Blues really attempted to address this, having gone in front seconds before the interval (always a good time to score, of course). Blues came out for the second half a good three or four minutes before QPR, and went through some training drills. One can only imagine that this was designed to keep everyone "up an' at 'em" for the second half. Then, when the second half began, Blues played possibly some of their best football of the season for the first 10 minutes or so, and it was clear again that problems in the past few games (the tendency to immediately sit back second half) had been addressed, or at least was trying to be addressed.
Yes, at the end of the game Blues were hanging on a little bit, but when you're 1-0 up against any team, that's going to happen. Again, there were voices in the crowd dismissing this as Blues "sitting back" and "inviting them onto us". Well, that's a little unfair. I've been as bigger critic as anyone for that this season (indeed, over the past few years), but I realise that having to defend isn't necessarily the same. When you're 1-0 up with a few minutes left, you're going to have to defend a bit - that's the nature of football. You cannot expect to simply keep the ball away from the opposition and for them to create nothing. They're chasing a game, so a bit of pressure is inevitable, and in turn, you have to defend that pressure. It's only natural.
Defending the lead Blues did, and did well, with Radhi Jaidi again outstanding. QPR were very limited though, and in some ways this game only highlighted why Iain Dowie should really be feeling the pressure. Granted, there hasn't been a great deal of player investment from their list of illustrious (and very rich) owners, but the squad's still decent enough, and alongside Derby they're about the worst side I've seen this season. Dowie seems to be stuck five to six years ago too, when he was having success at Crystal Palace. His answer to the problem of "how to equalise" was to simply throw Fitz Hall up front. There was no real thought or logic to it, it was just a case of "lump it at the big man". It's a bit of a throwback to what teams used to do, but generally managers try and be a little more clever now.
As I said above, I was as surprised as anyone with the selection of the front pairing for Blues, but the only goal was a result of fine work by O'Connor and Phillips doing what he does best - sniffing out a chance. Phillips had a better game and was no doubt helped by the fact that he wasn't asked to come on for 5 minutes, play up front on his own and hold the ball up to help the side see out a 1-0/2-1 win. O'Connor too, for me, had a good game. As usual, however, those voices from behind me were critical of everything he did. I guess it's just football fan mentality that a lot of people make their mind up about a player and then refuse to even consider altering that. People might say that I'm like that with Martin Taylor and Liam Ridgewell, although I'd argue that Taylor is rubbish and that Ridgewell is doing fairly well at the moment, but still has some stupid moments in him.
But with O'Connor, it seems that he's the fall guy of the majority at the moment. Personally, I thought that he won a decent amount in the air, considering that Fitz Hall is about 4 inches taller than him, I thought he worked really hard in closing people down and helping the team out, and whilst not Berbatov-esque or anything, I thought his hold-up play and link-up play was reasonable. It was no more than a 7 out of 10 performance, but it was just that, and it's a shame that more people didn't recognise it.
It was also a bonus for Blues having the likes of McFadden and Jerome coming off the bench. Although it didn't quite click, the pair of them (with O'Connor) certainly kept QPR on their toes late on and helped Blues see the win out. The other substitute, Nafti, really didn't have a good game when he came on for the injured Lee Carsley, whose condition may be a concern.
So, like I say, on the face of it, it was just the same again for Blues who failed to kill a team off and were left battling to hold on to their win. However, I do like to be a bit more objective (as I wish some people would with O'Connor...), and whilst I'm not for one second suggesting that this was a great performance, I'd say that it was pretty good and that it's encouraging that their are signs of the problems being addressed, rather than ignored. Blues have needed to up the tempo and impose themselves on games more this season, and the evidence here was that they're starting to have the inclination (and belief) to do that a little more. If they continue to do so, and if they find a little more cutting edge in and around the final third, then they'll be fine this season.