Mark Warburton’s “sleepless nights” as Africa Cup of Nations pose the biggest threat to QPR’s Play-Off hopes

4 min

Although QPR have enjoyed a fantastic start to the season as they push for a Championship Play-Off place, Mark Warburton’s side are about to face their most challenging test yet – the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

The 2021 version was initially set to be held last summer but, due to the coronavirus pandemic, was rescheduled to start in January 2022 and run until the beginning of February.

As it stands, it means Ilias Chair (Morocco), Seny Dieng (Senegal) and Osman Kakay (Sierra Leone) will make the journey to Cameroon – leaving an already stretched QPR squad further decimated at one of the busiest parts of the domestic campaign.

Should FIFA rules be followed to the letter of the law, QPR will have to release the players for international duty by the Monday morning of the week before the start of AFCON (January 9).

That would mean the worst case scenario of the trio missing QPR’s home game against Bournemouth on Monday December 27 and if any of the player’s respective countries reach the final (February 6) they would also miss the game away at Millwall on Saturday February 5.

In total, without even factoring in the ever-changing coronavirus parameters and restrictions, QPR could be without their stars for up to NINE games. 

The Hoops have already done well to find themselves fifth in the table despite niggling injuries in recent weeks to the likes of Moses Odubajo, Lyndon Dykes and Andre Gray alongside longer spells on the sidelines for Lee Wallace, Sam Field and Luke Amos.

And, whilst the old adage that it could present an opportunity for someone else to step into the fray, it is hard to see them having a similar impact as the missing three – particularly Dieng and Chair.

Dieng is not only QPR’s first-choice goalkeeper but one of the most stand-out in the entire Championship, claiming seven clean sheets already this season when he only managed 11 during the whole of last term.

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Speaking after the win over Huddersfield Town, Warburton was full of praise for the keeper’s development and overall importance to his side, saying: “If you watched Seny (Dieng) in the second half of last season, he was outstanding. 

“He’s gone away with Senegal and got some international experience, learning from some top class players.

“He’s got everything to be a top goalkeeper. His athleticism, his physique, his work ethic, his desire to improve. 

“He’s working on his distribution, the highest level has to be first class, and he’s getting better and better.”

Similarly, Chair has also gone from strength to strength this season, being a creative spark in the attacking third linking up well with fellow youngster Chris Willock to score eleven league goals and provide seven assists so far this season.

“It’s always a worry when players go away because everything is out of your control,” Warburton added.

“Travel, illness, injury – you name it, you worry about it. Until they’re back with you, you know you’ll be having sleepless nights. It’s as simple as that and there’s nothing you can do. 

“They obviously want to represent their countries, it’s big games and big tournaments, that’s what players play for. 

“There’s no doubt that we’re losing some big players and we have to recognise that.”

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With such notable absentees at such a crucial time, QPR may well be tempted to delve into the transfer market in January to bolster their options  – even if only in the form of loan deals.

The approach paid dividends last year with loan arrivals Charlie Austin and Stefan Johansen reinvigorating the side as they quickly became the form team in the second half of the season.

One way or another, QPR will need to find a way to win or remain in the promotion pack without their international stars, otherwise it could be a long, hard winter in W12.

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