Football: QPR rise on the treadmill

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The Independent Online
WITH a Premier League, the FA's Blueprint claimed last year, there would be 'fewer matches. . .less wear and tear' on the players, and 'the prospects of success for the England team would, at once, be enhanced'. Today, as Graham Taylor finalises his squad for the match against Spain, the new leaders, Queen's Park Rangers, tackle their fifth game in 12 days at Chelsea.

The treadmill is turning at a dizzying pace for Gerry Francis's side, who also face Arsenal in midweek. Rangers did not buy this summer, instead persuading the likes of Ray Wilkins to re-sign. While other 'bigger' clubs have been integrating newcomers, they have reproduced the fast, controlled football which destroyed Leeds and Manchester United last season.

On Wednesday, Rangers blew Coventry off the summit with a gale-force goal by Andrew Impey, prompting 'Hurricane Andrew' headlines. The calm behind the storm was Wilkins, the ageless one-time Chelsea prodigy, whose struggle for supremacy with Andy Townsend should provide a fascinating sub-plot to today's drama.

Whether Rangers could withstand a run of injuries must, however, be doubtful. Squad depth is not Coventry's most obvious attribute either, yet Bobby Gould has the luxury of being able to name Kevin Gallacher, the Scottish international striker he is ready to sell for pounds 2.5m, for the first time at home to unbeaten Blackburn.

Should Coventry and QPR lose, Everton could take over by seeing off Wimbledon at Goodison Park. Peter Beardsley's form in a deeper role continues to mock the judgment of Taylor and Graeme Souness, while Maurice Johnston is rediscovering the scoring touch that will make all the more regrettable his self-enforced exclusion from Scotland's squad for the World Cup qualifier in Switzerland.

Howard Kendall's response to being told Everton were in second place - 'Are we? That's not good enough' - epitomised managerial ambivalence towards early-season tables. They may not mean much, but everyone would like to be top.

The quartet most fancied to finish there have intriguing fixtures. Arsenal, now looking more like favourites, entertain undefeated if unconvincing Sheffield Wednesday, whom they crushed 7-1 in February. Anything remotely resembling a repetition would be particularly untimely for Chris Woods, England's No 1 keeper, and embarrassing for Taylor.

Leeds and Liverpool meet at Elland Road for the third time this month, having amassed 12 goals in the Charity Shield and Jim Beglin's testimonial. Their Wembley spectacular recalled the respect between the clubs during the Revie- Shankly era, not to mention their fans' mutual loathing of Manchester United. Today should be tighter but if Eric Cantona is on song, anything is possible.

Manchester United visit Nottingham Forest, who helped to wreck their title hopes at Old Trafford last Easter. With Teddy Sheringham gone, Forest have no proven scorer to call upon and United's recovery could continue.

Brian Clough's men must perform again on Monday, before BSkyB's cameras at Norwich, with Ipswich and a Spurs side reinforced by Sheringham tangling tomorrow. The managers are justifiably miffed but their own chairmen are to blame. This is what the Blueprint meant by 'an improved product in commercial terms'.

Television's demands are less draining in the First Division, though Birmingham stage a second Sunday fixture for Central against Grimsby tomorrow, have another coming up against Wolves and do not play a Saturday home game until mid-October.

Meanwhile, as homeward-bound Charlton try for a fifth successive win, against Luton, the free-spending favourites Derby go to Watford 12 points adrift after a different kind of 100 per cent start. Still, European football returns to the Baseball Ground next week when Derby receive Notts County in the Anglo-Italian Cup (County presumably qualifying by virtue of Juventus having adopted their colours a century ago).

Today's action promises to be of a more essential nature, not least in the FA Cup, in which the evocatively named Bemerton Heath Harlequins, Shotton Comrades and Boldmere St Michaels hit the Wembley trail before the obligatory two men, a dog and Grandstand crew.