By KEVIN LINSEY
Junior Hoilett dribbled in down the right side, drawing the attention of two Derby County defenders. As Hoilett worked his way down to the end line in the 90th minute, fans around Wembley Stadium in London waited in suspense. Surely there was not long left in the game between Derby and QPR, which was still scoreless, and both sets of supporters knew how much this game would mean to the players on top of how much money and recognition this win could give the club. Hoilett, the QPR winger, delivered a cross into the box which bounced off Derby captain Richard Keogh’s knee, right into the path of QPR striker Bobby Zamora. He made no mistake, clinically finishing to give QPR a 1-0 win, sending Wembley into a frenzy just seconds before the game would end.
Why did this game mean so much? In English soccer, and across the European continent, many leagues use a tiered league system. In England, this consists of a Premier League, and below that is the confusingly-named English Championship league. Each year, three teams from the Premier League and three from the Championship switch places. The Premier League teams sent down are the bottom three of the standings, and the Championship teams that are promoted are the top two plus a third, determined by a four-team playoff. This game was the playoff final, a game in which the winning team would receive not only a place in the Premier League next season, but also the millions of dollars in extra TV money that comes along with it. Zamora’s goal gave the place in the Premiership to QPR, sending Derby County to another season in the Championship.
This past summer, Cardiff, Norwich and Fulham were sent down from the Premier League, and Burnley, Leicester and QPR came up from the Championship. This past weekend’s round of games means each team has played 13 games so far, or roughly one-third of the season, thus it is fair to reflect on the promoted three clubs’ progress acclimating to the tougher opposition of the Premier League.
Burnley has had a rough time so far. It took the club 11 matches to record its first PL victory, a 1-0 triumph at home to Hull. They followed that up with a 2-1 win at Stoke and a 1-1 draw versus Aston Villa. That’s three in a row unbeaten, and that is quite an achievement for a club that many see as punching above its weight. No one gave them a chance at survival to start the season, with many projecting them to finish dead last in the 20-team division, but they seem to have a shot at survival if they can find the right group of players up front. Goals will be the main concern for Burnley, and much of the goalscoring weight will be placed on Danny Ings’ shoulders. Ings has started well after being injured for several games, though it was the performances of Burnley’s other front men during Ings’ injury that will cause worry. Lukas Jutkiewicz, Ashley Barnes and Marvin Sordell failed to impress and have done little to show that Burnley’s strikers are Premier League quality. In the end, I would expect Burnley to put up a fight, but drop to 19th place and straight back to the Championship.
Leicester City has had a roller coaster season so far. A wonderful start to the campaign, including a 5-3 comeback win versus Manchester United, led some to believe Leicester was a shoo-in to survive this year. However, they just completed a five-game stretch without scoring a goal, so any momentum they gained during the winning spell has dried up, and they now occupy last place in the Premier League. One of the keys to their winning run was the form of Argentine striker Leonardo Ulloa. The club record signing from Brighton and Hove Albion in the summer had a stretch of five goals in five games. He has since faded and went five games without a shot at goal. For Leicester to stay up, they’ll need Ulloa and their talented attacking midfielders like Riyad Mahrez to contribute goals. At the end of the season, expect Leicester to struggle and fall to 18th place, straight back to the Championship.
Queens Park Rangers is always a difficult club to figure out. Midway through the 2012-2013 campaign, they were in last place, so they went on a spending spree in the January transfer window, bringing in expensive players from all over the world. That certainly did not work. The team never jelled as a unit and the squad was relegated to the Championship. After a year in the Championship, they went straight back up to the Premier League on the aforementioned Zamora goal. This year, they have tried not to make the same mistakes, refusing to make major changes to their team. Charlie Austin has really emerged as their main goal threat in recent weeks, and they’ll need him to be firing on all cylinders to stay up. If the defense holds together, QPR could find themselves in 16th place and safe at the end of the season.
QPR will be the best of these three clubs come the end of the year because they’ve shown they can get results against teams around them in the standings. When you run a team with a sole goal of survival in the division, like these three clubs, it doesn’t matter what happens when you play teams much better than yours like Chelsea or Manchester United — you know most of those games will be lost, and the teams you’ll be competing with at the bottom will lose those too. Even the games against middle teams like Stoke City and West Ham are decent chances for your club to pull an upset, but the games that really matter are matches against those rival clubs. The six matches that feature two of these three clubs — Burnley, QPR and Leicester — will be pivotal. QPR has shown that they can beat the teams around them, and their strikers seem a notch above the others, so I give them the nod as the best of the three with the most likely chance of survival. But fans of these three clubs will be in for a frustrating year as they struggle to keep up with more talented opposition.