LIFE after Harry Redknapp at QPR began with the cruellest of late defeats to Champions League hopefuls Southampton on Saturday.
Rangers were seconds away from a morale-boosting draw after Rob Green twice kept out Sadio Mane in a lively first-half which also saw Jose Fonte’s header come back off the crossbar.
Charlie Austin came closest to breaking the deadlock at the other end, foiled by Fraser Forster from point-blank range as Chris Ramsey and Kevin Bond’s caretaker stint looked set to start in stalemate.
Mane would have the final say, however, finding the net in the third minute of stoppage time to snatch victory at the death.
Ramsey and Bond, deputising in the dugout following Redknapp’s resignation on Tuesday, made four changes from defeat at Stoke City seven days earlier.
Steven Caulker returned to the centre of the R’s four-man defence, while Matt Phillips and Armand Traore were preferred on the wings. In attack Adel Taarabt made just his second league start of the season, replacing Niko Kranjcar – joining Mauricio Isla, Karl Henry and Eduardo Vargas amongst the substitutes.
The visitors – who began the day in fourth – were without Ryan Bertrand through suspension but welcomed back midfield pair Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin, on the bench, from injury.
In front of a sold out Loftus Road, Rangers began brightly – forcing the first corner inside the opening couple of minutes after good work from Phillips down the right.
The Saints soon settled too, and could have opened the scoring when Green found himself in no man’s land outside his area. Eljero Elia beat Green to the ball from Mane’s through ball but couldn’t direct his attempted lob on target, comfortably missing Green’s right-hand post.
Moments later Joey Barton provided the R’s first effort of the afternoon, whistling a volley just over Forster’s crossbar.
Play was halted on the quarter-hour mark, however, after Matt Targett was left motionless following an aerial challenge with Phillips. Targett eventually departed on a stretcher after several minutes of treatment, replaced by Florin Gardos in the Saints backline.
Once play finally resumed, Green did well to smother a long-range drive from Mane before clawing the forward’s next effort around the post.
The woodwork came to the R’s rescue from the resulting corner as Fonte’s header crashed back off the crossbar.
Green was forced into action again during seven minutes of stoppage time which concluded the first half. Elia burst clear but the R’s number one was relieved to see the winger’s run on goal end with a tame effort into his clutches.
Green would have been equally pleased to see James Ward-Prowse curl a free-kick just wide with the final action of a lively yet goalless first-half.
Rangers remained on the back-foot after the break, but it was the hosts who threatened first from the re-start. Phillips’ raking cross eventually found Traore, but he could only direct his header into the side netting.
Ramsey and co. made their first change on the hour-mark. Taarabt made way to a rapturous applause with Mauro Zarate taking his place.
The Argentine was soon in action, stretching to meet another Phillips cross only to cushion his half-volley into Forster’s arms.
A second change wasn’t long in the waiting, either. Traore this time made way for Isla.
From the re-start, Rangers came agonisingly close to the breakthrough. Barton’s shot was seemingly helped on its way in by Austin from six yards out only for Forster to miraculously claw the ball over one-handed from underneath his crossbar.
Eduardo Vargas provided the R’s final change, replacing Dunne for the final seven minutes as Rangers reshuffled in defence.
It was another second-half substitute who almost stole the show late on. Zarate jinked side before thundering just over three minutes from time.
There was crucially still time for one final effort, however. Mane wriggled away from Onuoha’s attentions in the box before guiding his shot into the opposite corner to break Rangers hearts.