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New QPR manager Hughes faces dilemma with enigmatic Taarabt


Speaking after Queens Park Rangers' lung-busting win over Stoke City in mid-November, then-manager Neil Warnock broke off from analyzing the minutiae of the match and looked at the gathered hacks with the luminous eyes of a Jackanory storyteller. "I love this league," he said. "It's an incredible journey." That journey detoured into murkier territory after the victory at Stoke, with Rangers not having won since, but Warnock -- who got the club promoted at the first attempt after 16 different managers had overseen 15 years in the lower divisions -- will still have been stung by the owners' decision that preserving Premier League status is a job for another man.

There was a moment's pause in which the brutality, the swiftness of the decision throbbed white hot in front of our eyes before rumors that Mark Hughes would be the other man gave everyone an excuse to look away. Whatever Warnock had achieved, the squad he had been able to assemble in the last frantic days of the transfer window after Tony Fernandes' buyout had never really managed to gather momentum except to put together a run of defeats. If the excitement over Hughes' arrival is arguably disproportionate to his CV, it is at least worth keeping in mind that the former Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham manager is responsible for bringing talents such as Christopher Samba, Vincent Kompany and Moussa Dembele to England.

He has a couple of weeks in which to spend Fernandes' money and will expect to be dialing the numbers of better players than Jay Bothroyd and Armand Traore. Already he has been linked with moves for Chelsea's Alex and Didier Drogba, Fulham striker Bobby Zamora, and Aston Villa poacher Darren Bent. Though Samba has suggested to L'Equipe that his search for a more ambitious club than Blackburn may take him back to France, with PSG, the self-confident Hughes will believe he can sell a reunion. He has been extremely positive about the state of his relationship with his new chairman, and virtually guaranteed new signings before the window closes.

In among the inevitable comings and goings, Adel Taarabt makes his way to the African Cup of Nations with no official word on his future at the club. The Moroccan playmaker is variously described as moody (subbed off at halftime in the 6-0 hiding by Fulham in October, he got the bus home rather than watch the rest of the game); complex (last summer he walked out on Morocco because he was not in the starting line up, but by October he was back and after scoring a free kick against Tanzania, he ran to embrace the coach) and ill-advised (struggling for game time at Tottenham, he said he wished he had joined Arsenal, but that Real Madrid and Barcelona would call soon). Earlier this season Warnock said he would happily drive Taarabt to France if he could get the right price, but of late he had begun to praise his former captain's attitude and commitment.

Taarabt has the kind of talent that every player longs for: tricky, whirling-on-a-sixpence skill and often-delightful vision. When he was younger, local children in his neighborhood in southern France forced him to play with older groups because they grew tired of being outwitted. By the time he arrived at Spurs in 2007, aged 17, he was already being described as the new Zidane. But my gosh, didn't he know it. When Harry Redknapp likened Taarabt to Paolo di Canio, the comparison leaned more on the tantrums than the trickshots; he recently described him as "a bit of a fruitcake." Though the Tottenham manager believed he had a prodigious talent on his books, it seemed he could not shake off the feeling that Taarabt could lose the team as many games as he might win; Redknapp could not fathom a way to include him in the team without being unsettled by thoughts of him trying to do too much or not trying to do anything at all. Like the skillful Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos, Taarabt was sent out on loan.

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In Warnock, Taarabt seemed to find his ideal manager: a man so besotted by his talents that he built the rest of the team around him. Ostensibly lining up as one of three attacking players stationed behind the main striker, Taarabt was given license to play wherever he pleased. And why not, when he made so merry against Championship opposition? He was good in the 2009-10 season (scoring a memorable solo effort against Preston, a team he almost single-handedly took apart as QPR came back from behind in the return fixture) and great in the 2010-11 season, scoring 19 and setting up another 16 league goals. The only rule, enforced with a fine, was: don't pass to Adel if he's in our half.

"There were times last year when we played with 10 men either because he threw a strop or decided he didn't want to play," Shaun Derry said in the London Evening Standard, recently. "But when he is on form, he is like two men because it takes two to stop him." Taarabt was a luxury and a necessity at the same time, but in the top flight, Warnock seemed unsure about the 4-2-3-1 formation in which Taarabt had prospered. Once Joey Barton arrived from Newcastle it was no longer the default QPR shape, and Barton was now the man to keep happy, given the captain's armband and established in a central midfield three that forced Taarabt and Shaun Wright-Phillips up alongside Heidar Helguson. The Moroccan was wretched in that position as Rangers lost 3-1 to his old club, Tottenham, and his energetic replacement that day, Jamie Mackie, gained favor. It was at this point that Warnock's European road trip became a possibility, as Taarabt welcomed rumors of £20 million ($30M) interest from Paris Saint-Germain.

This 'incredible journey' is a long one, though, and Taarabt has turned in noticeably improved performances in recent weeks -- from various positions. Coming on as a substitute against Manchester United and Sunderland he played on the left wing and as a right-sided forward, respectively; starting behind Heidar Helguson against Swansea and Norwich; and in his most familiar role in a 4-2-3-1 against Arsenal. "He's been fantastic," said Warnock. "He knew he had to knuckle down and become more of a team player, and he has. He's lost weight, looked sharper, and been an all-around better player." The trouble for QPR, though, is that despite this new and improved Taarabt, the team took just one point from those five encounters.

The paper talk is that Hughes will take the first opportunity to get Taarabt out of the door, though Qatari outfit Al-Sadd blanched at the £15 million ($22M) asking price. Newcastle apparently hopes for a cheaper deal, and it is easy to see the appeal of Taarabt for Alan Pardew, who has the kind of side in which he could allow the player certain positional liberties. Might Hughes yet take on the challenge of keeping Taarabt happy at Loftus Road? He has managed Robinho -- a player that Santos FC claimed to be "ashamed of having produced" -- after all.

Not that Robinho's spell at Manchester City was any kind of success. In addition to flying back to Brazil without permission having grown disillusioned midway through his first season at the club, his away form was embarrassingly predictable, and predictably embarrassing; he once ran only 38 meters during a match at Stamford Bridge. Hughes, whose resting expression is mildly peeved in any case, was regularly described as being 'livid' with his huffy forward, but was prepared to steer a course between outright rollickings and softly softly man-management nonetheless. His patience may have been extended by the vulnerability of his own position if he could not get City's record transfer to perform, of course, and Fernandes is unlikely to hold such ruthless ambition for Taarabt, who cost only £1 million ($1.5M). With no desperate need to sell, though, Hughes might just fancy a six month-shot at the new Zidane.

Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.