CHARLIE Austin’s sublime second-half equaliser wasn’t enough to prevent QPR tasting defeat at Southampton on Saturday.
Austin fired Rangers level in style at the St Mary’s Stadium with an explosive volley after Ryan Bertrand had broken the deadlock.
Graziano Pellè quickly restored the Saints lead less than two minutes later, while the woodwork denied Niko Kranjcar’s free-kick late on to leave Harry Redknapp’s men empty-handed.
Redknapp made two changes for the trip to the South Coast. Midfield duo Joey Barton and Jordon Mutch missed out, while Matty Phillips and Sandro returned to the starting XI.
The Saints – second in the table prior to kick-off – made the early running. Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama both tested Rob Green within the first five minutes, before the R’s goalkeeper rushed off his line to deny Dušan Tadić with a decisive, one-handed save.
Rangers were handed a blow moments later, as Sandro’s afternoon lasted barely 10 minutes. The Brazilian, back after a knee injury, came off second best in an aerial challenge with Mané and, after several minutes of treatment, was replaced by Karl Henry.
The change couldn’t quell the early pressure, though, as Rangers had Green to thank again for preserving parity. Green somehow clawed away a Tadić header from close range, before Pellè sliced into the side netting less than 60 seconds later.
Rangers improved as the half wore on, but found sights of goal hard to come by. It took until the 36th minute for the first, only for Phillips’ long-range effort to sail harmlessly over.
Pellè and Mané almost combined at the other end, but Henry reacted quickest to prevent Saints pulling the trigger.
The R’s defence were given another let off two minutes before the break. Morgan Schneiderlin wriggled his way into the area, but placed his left-footed strike the wrong side of Green’s far post.
At the other end, Kranjcar had Fraser Forster sprawling as his dipping long-range strike sailed just wide.
Rangers threatened again deep into first-half stoppage time. Eduardo Vargas and Austin combined, before Austin fired across Forster but wide of the target.
Despite finishing the first half on top, it was Southampton who began on the frontfoot after the interval – breaking the deadlock within nine minutes of the re-start. Mané’s ambitious backheel undid the R’s defence, allowing Bertrand to squirm his shot in off Green’s body and into the roof of the net.
Redknapp responded with his second change of the afternoon – replacing Phillips with Junior Hoilett on the left-hand side of midfield.
One very nearly became two, though, as Saints twice came close to doubling their lead in quick succession. A pull-back from Pelle eventually found its way through to Tadic, but his toe-poke was blocked by Green from point-blank range. From the resulting corner, Wanyama’s goalbound header was blocked on the line before Pelle slid the rebound wide.
Rangers made their hosts pay, finding the net in spectacular style. Vargas’ cross from the right found Austin who, after taking one touch to control the ball in flight, rifled the ball past Forster with his next to send the travelling R’s faithful into delirium behind the goal.
The celebrations were cut short, though, as Pelle provided a wonder strike of his own just two minutes later. After controlling substitute Shane Long’s knockdown, the striker steered his acrobatic volley into the top corner to restore the Saints’ lead.
The goal sparked Saints back into life, and only the woodwork denied them a third shortly after as Steven Davis’ thundered a long-range effort against the left upright.
Austin again almost provided the perfect response, but fired wide with his next attempt – glancing Leroy Fer’s centre wide of the target.
Green denied Long next, blocking with his body after the striker latched onto Davis’ through ball.
Rangers rallied in the closing stages – bolstered by the addition of Bobby Zamora in place of Vargas – and only the woodwork denied Kranjcar a late equaliser for the second week running. The Croat curled his free-kick over the wall but back off the crossbar.
Southampton wasted chances to secure victory still as Davis and Tadic both came close, while the R’s search for a second in stoppage time ultimately proved elusive at the end of a pulsating 90 minutes.