TEN-MAN QPR lost 3-0 to Sky Bet Championship promotion-hopefuls Brighton & Hove Albion at the AMEX Stadium on Tuesday lunchtime.
Victory took Chris Hughton’s side to the summit of the division, but they were given a helping hand on their way, with referee Keith Stroud’s decision to send R’s skipper Nedum Onuoha off early in the second half baffling to say the very least.
Earlier, Sam Baldock’s thunderous strike gave the hosts an 11th minute lead, and although Rangers competed well for the remainder of the half, their failure to take the handful of chances that came their way before half-time ultimately proved costly.
Glenn Murray made it two from the penalty spot on 53 minutes after Massimo Luongo upended Dale Stephens in the box, before Onuoha harshly saw red for a tangle with Baldock.
The scoring was complete in the 69th minute when Anthony Knockaert made it three, condemning the R’s to a sixth straight defeat.
Rangers made the trip to the high-flying Seagulls without joint top-scorers Tjaronn Chery and Sebastian Polter.
The duo missed out owing to injury, as Ian Holloway was forced into changes for the trip to the AMEX Stadium.
Alex Smithies started in goal, behind a back four of James Perch, Onuoha, Grant Hall and Jake Bidwell. Joel Lynch missed out owing to a rib injury.
In midfield, Ariel Borysiuk and Jordan Cousins returned from injury alongside Luongo, with a three-pronged attack of Yeni Ngbakoto, Idrissa Sylla and Pawel Wszolek leading the line for the visitors.
The Seagulls made two changes themselves, with Oliver Norwood and Solly March handed starting berths ahead of Jiri Skalak and Steve Sidwell, in a 4-4-2 formation.
Brighton – knowing victory would send them to the summit of the second tier after Newcastle United’s surprise slip-up at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day – began brightly, forcing an early corner following a defensive mix-up involving Smithies and Onuoha.
Thankfully, that set-piece came to nothing, but the hosts didn’t have to wait too long to open the scoring, going a goal up on 11 minutes.
Baldock turned Onuoha before firing an unstoppable 25-yard drive past Smithies, that gave the R’s stopper absolutely no chance.
Rangers, to their credit, responded positively to the early setback, with Ngbakoto seeing his powerful shot deflected wide six minutes later.
Indeed, the visitors were enjoying a sustained spell of pressure midway through the half, with David Stockdale flinging himself full stretch to deny Luongo from an acute angle, before the Australian international fired wide from the edge of the box just moments later.
But Brighton were always a danger on the counter-attack and after Wszolek diverted March’s effort wide, Murray rose tallest to meet the resultant corner, only to head wide with the goal gaping.
At the other end, Sylla forced Stockdale into another save, this time with his right foot, as the R’s continued to ask questions of the hosts.
And as the clock ticked past the half hour mark, Sylla was again causing problems for the Seagulls back four, expertly bringing the ball down on his chest, only to drag his volley wide.
It was a decent spectacle if truth be told, and after Luongo was denied by a last-gasp Gaetan Bong challenge, which replays showed was a fair challenge despite protests from the R’s bench, Onuoha was in the right place at the right time at the other end to thwart the hosts, as the game continued to ebb and flow from one end to the other.
As half-time approached, Lewis Dunk saw his back-post header well saved by Smithies, before the impressive Knockaert looped a 25-yard free-kick over the bar.
Rangers could, perhaps, feel slightly aggrieved to be trailing at the break, with one moment of brilliance from Baldock proving to be the difference.
As expected, Brighton came out on the front foot at the start of the second period, with March tricking his way into the box, only to be denied by Smithies.
Smithies was powerless to prevent the hosts from doubling their advantage on 53 minutes, however.
Luongo’s mistimed challenge on Stephens left referee Mr Stroud with little option but to point to the spot, and Murray stepped up to slot home from 12-yards.
Bad turned to worse two minutes later, when Onuoha was given his marching orders for what referee Mr Stroud deemed to be a foul on Baldock, when replays later showed there was minimal contact.
For what contact there was, quite how the official decided it was a straight red card came as a surprise to most in the stadium, including Onuoha himself, who looked visibly shellshocked as he made his way down the tunnel.
Holloway responded to seeing his side reduced to ten men by replacing Borysiuk with Jamie Mackie just before the hour mark.
But it was the hosts who were celebrating again on 69 minutes, as Knockaert made it three with a well-taken individual goal, cutting in from the right flank before burying the ball beneath Smithies.
Smithies was working overtime now, saving again from Stephens on 73 minutes, before Stockdale produced heroics at the other end to keep out Sylla’s looping header,
Cousins and Ngbakoto made way for Sandro and Osman Kakay respectively – the latter making his league debut – with ten minutes to play, but it mattered little by that stage, as the Seagulls coasted home to victory.