LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: Tommy Smith (R) of Queens Park Rangers celebrates with his team mates after scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Queens Park Rangers at Goodison Park on August 20, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
It figures that Villa didn't catch QPR prior to the close of the transfer window. QPR was quite busy right at the deadline, bringing in Joey Barton, Luke Young, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Anton Ferdinand and Armond Traore. In the space of about a week QPR went from being a team that looked a decent candidate to being a team that looks like it's capable of finishing close to the top half; not a bad haul. Meanwhile, Villa bought Alan Hutton and borrowed Jermaine Jenas.
Still, despite their improvement QPR are surely no more than a middling team. They've got some very good players; Wright-Phillips had clearly been left behind by the pace of Manchester City's ascension, but there's a reason so many of their fans were sorry to see him go. He's a limited player but the things he does well he does very well, and it's reasonable to expect him to give the back line absolute fits. Joey Barton is a player that was rumored to be headed to Villa, and though that was probably never going to happen it will be somewhat frustrating to see him in their midfield. Adel Taarabt is one of the more promising young playmaking talents in the Premier League. But on the plus side for Villa, Luke Young is still awful. Probably not as awful as Hutton, but still.
On the not plus side for Villa, Emile Heskey is out. Also, so is Darren Bent. Yes, yes, Bent may score all the goals but Heskey falls down and is hilarious. Given the way Villa have played so far this season that's about as much entertainment as we're likely to see, so it's going to be really tough without the big man.
In seriousness, the loss of Bent is less painful than it perhaps otherwise might have been due to the stunning form of Gabriel Agbonlahor so far this season. Gabby has been a good player in the past, but he's taken things to a completely new level this season. He's playing the best football of his life, and he's doing it in a way that perfectly suits Darren Bent. I've not been especially sparing in my criticism of Alex McLeish's tactical approach this season, but I'm also enough of a realist to know that until Charles N'Zogbia and Marc Albrighton get into a rhythym that his options are somewhat limited. But a striker pairing of this version of Gabby Agbonlahor and a healthy Darren Bent receiving quality service from the wings is reasonably mouth-watering; we might not see that tomorrow, but if Gabby can show continue to sustain this level of performance it's going to be encouraging.
This is a big game for Villa; most of the goodwill from the undefeated start is gone thanks to the team's embarrassing performance in and subsequent exit from the Carling Cup on Tuesday, and there's a pretty palpable sense of tension amongst the supporters at the moment. A draw is probably a acceptable result from this game, but a win-and more importantly a win earned by nature of playing something other than the opposite of attacking football-would go a long way towards stomping out the embers before anything catches fire. And if the team can pick up a win, the timing of this game may actually turn out to help them; everyone is aware of the investments made by QPR's new ownership and many have held up their shopping spree against McLeish's modest signings as evidence of "how far Villa have fallen" or some other such nonsense. Going to Loftus Road and winning would lend credibility to the club's retrenchment policy.
But if they go to Loftus Road and lose? Well, things might get unpleasant.