TWO first-half goals proved crucial as QPR fell to a 3-1 home defeat against fellow strugglers Southampton.
Rickie Lambert and Jason Puncheon handed the Saints a first-half advantage but Junior Hoilett’s header gave the R’s hope soon after the re-start.
A comeback wasn’t forthcoming, though, as Anton Ferdinand’s own goal seven minutes from time sealed Rangers’ fate – and the Saints departed Loftus Road with maximum points.
Mark Hughes named the same XI which lined up at the Britannia Stadium last time out. Stand-in skipper Ryan Nelsen retained the armband amongst the back four despite missing New Zealand’s midweek international through injury, while there were places for fit-again duo Fabio da Silva and Kieron Dyer amongst the substitutes.
In front of a boisterous sell-out crowd, it was the Saints who settled quickest but Lambert’s early forages forward were dealt with easily enough by the R’s backline. Neat interplay in the middle of the park on nine minutes next saw Lambert tee-up team-mate Adam Lallana but the playmaker couldn’t prevent his volley from flying over Julio Cesar’s crossbar.
It was Lallana’s presence, though, which nearly created the opening goal two minutes later. Puncheon’s dangerous inswinging cross was inches away from finding the highly-rated Englishman but instead clipped the far post, as the ball rebounded off the woodwork to safety.
Rangers soon found their stride at the other end and it wasn’t long until Adel Taarabt made an impression. The Moroccan danced his way past two defenders before opposing goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga came to the visitors’ rescue, standing firm to beat the ball away for a corner.
The Argentine was called upon again moments later to claw Hoilett’s curling effort around the post.
The R’s were on the back foot soon after, though, and Hughes’ men had Nelsen to thank for clearing Lallana’s pullback across the six-yard line. Respite for the Hoops was brief, however, as Southampton made the all-important breakthrough on 23 minutes.
Lallana’s corner caused mayhem in the box and after Jose Fonte and Puncheon were both denied, Lambert bravely stooped to head the visitors in front from the rebound.
The home side battled tirelessly as the half wore on but clear-cut chances were proving hard to come by. Esteban Granero came closest to finding an equaliser six minutes before the break after Taarabt stole possession midway in the Saints’ half, but the Spaniard dragged his 25-yard shot wide of the left-hand post.
The R’s were dealt a hammer blow on the stroke of half-time, though, as Nigel Adkins’ side doubled their lead. Persistence from Nathaniel Clyne on the touchline handed Puncheon the opportunity to let fly from the edge of the area, and the former R’s loanee arrowed his effort into the far corner.
The half-time whistle sounded seconds later and the hosts were left with a mountain to climb in the second period.
Hughes wasted little time in trying to repair the damage and made a change for the second half, replacing the industrious Ale Faurlin with Jamie Mackie.
Taarabt was leading the charge for the hosts, though, and his pinpoint pass found Cisse, whose glancing volley was smothered at the second attempt by Gazzaniga.
Gazzaniga was exposed moments later as the R’s made the perfect riposte to the second half, reducing the deficit just three minutes after the re-start. Another inswinging cross from Taarabt found Hoilett unmarked six-yards out, who headed past the stranded goalkeeper and into the unguarded net to restore belief around Loftus Road.
But it was the visitors who reacted quickest to losing their clean sheet and Puncheon almost restored the Saints’ two-goal lead with a carbon copy of his earlier strike. Again the midfielder was allowed room to cut inside his marker but this time Cesar was equal to the shot before Ferdinand cleared the danger.
At the other end Taarabt was the R’s main hope going forwards and was unlucky not to pick out either Cisse or Granero with his pull-back from the by-line on the hour mark.
Southampton’s attacking trio of Lallana, Lambert and Puncheon continued to cause Rangers problems, though, and the latter twice came agonisingly close to doubling his tally. After Lambert’s clever knock-down, Puncheon’s half-volley tamely bounced wide before he saw a rasping effort from 30 yards drift inches wide of the same post.
Adkins’ men were taking command and Hughes responded by bringing on Shaun Derry after 71 minutes for Samba Diakite to bolster things in midfield.
The R’s carved out a chance of their own a minute later but Cisse skewed wide after being released by Taarabt, while Cesar was called upon to tip away Puncheon’s strike at the other end.
Hughes made his second switch on 74 minutes as Fabio marked his return from injury, replacing Jose Bosingwa on the right-hand side of defence.
And it was the home defence who were the busiest as closing 10 minutes approached. A succession of Southampton corners reaped havoc in front of Cesar’s posts, who was in the right place to keep out Maya Yoshida’s close-range volley.
But the Brazilian could do nothing to prevent the Saints extending their advantage with seven minutes left on the clock. Morgan Schneiderlin was allowed freedom in the area to cross and the ball ricocheted off Ferdinand into the net.
The third goal quelled any thoughts of a comeback as the visitors controlled the final stages, playing out time as the full-time whistle signalled another disappointing afternoon for the R’s.