Middlesbrough v QPR - Sky Bet Championship - Saturday, 16th September 2017 - Riverside
QPR went down 3-2 at the Riverside Stadium in a match which was ultimately decided by a controversial winner for the hosts.
The R’s took the lead in the second minute of this game when debut-boy David Wheeler was the first to react after Luke Freeman’s initial shot was blocked.
The former Exeter man decisively swept the ball into the back of the net for a dream start to his QPR career.
On 36 minutes the hosts levelled through Lewis Baker’s well-taken goal, but the R’s restored their lead five minutes after the re-start through Jamie Mackie, who closed down goalkeeper Darren Randolph’s clearance before tapping the ball into an empty net.
But that lead only lasted five minutes as Boro levelled again, this time through Ashley Fletcher’s well-taken header.
And on the hour, Britt Assombalonga headed the hosts into the lead following Marvin Johnson’s cross from the left. The R’s players were furious as they felt the ball had gone out of play before Johnson crossed, but the goal stood, and proved to be the decisive one in five.
Ian Holloway made five changes from the side that drew 2-2 with Millwall on Tuesday night, with three of those changes enforced on the manager through injury.
Nedum Onuoha, Conor Washington and Josh Scowen were all sidelined while Pawel Wszolek and Jamie Mackie were on the bench.
In their place came Darnell Furlong, Ryan Manning, Kazenga LuaLua and Matt Smith, along with David Wheeler who was handed his first start for the R’s since his arrival from Exeter last month.
The change in personnel also led to a chance in formation for QPR, with Holloway switching to a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Alex Smithies lined up between the sticks behind a back four (from left to right) of Jake Bidwell, Jack Robinson, Alex Baptisite and Furlong.
Mass Luongo, handed the captain’s armband in the absence of Onuoha, sat in front of the back four, with Manning partnering Luke Freeman in the centre of the park.
Wheeler started on the right wing with LuaLua, making his first start since returning on loan, operating down the left flank.
Smith led the line for the visitors against a Middlesbrough side yet to concede a goal in four games at the Riverside in all competitions this season.
Having drawn 0-0 at Aston Villa in midweek after playing most of the game with ten men followng Adama Traore’s early red card, the hosts were keen to extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to five games today.
With £15million-man Britt Assombalongo leading the line for Garry Monk’s side, Rangers knew they would need to be on top of their game at both ends of the pitch.
But it took Rangers less than two minutes to open the scoring through debut-boy Wheeler. After scoring 21 goals for Exeter last season, he continued where he left off by giving his new club the lead on his full debut.
After Freeman was allowed to advance and saw his initial shot from 20 yards blocked, the ball fell to the right, and Wheeler was the one on his toes to fire the ball home from close range.
And on six minutes it was Wheeler again who went close. This time a long throw from the left by Robinson was allowed to bounce in the area thanks to the combative efforts of Smith, and Wheeler arrived at the far post but on this occasion was unable to keep his effort on target.
Stewart Downing broke clear down the right in the 12th minute but his low drive from 16 yards was comfortably gathered by Smithies.
On 16 minutes a long ball over the top found Assombalonga but as he looked to bring the ball down under pressure from Robinson, it hit the Boro man’s arm and went behind Smithies’ goal. Home fans felt it was Robinson who had handled, but referee Darren Bond was unmoved as he awarded Rangers a goal-kick.
Four minutes later, the hosts came ever-so close to levelling when Marvin Johnson got in behind Furlong but his shot fizzed just wide of Smithies’ far post.
In truth, the opening 25 minutes couldn’t have gone much better for QPR. Aside from Wheeler’s goal they had looked creative in attack, while disciplined in defence.
The home fans were growing restless but Holloway’s men were wary of the attacking threat Boro posed – and knew there was still a long way to go in this one.
The match went through a scrappy ten-minute period with both sides giving away a series of free-kicks. This suited Rangers at this point as they were more than happy to take the sting out of the game.
But Boro levelled in the 37th minute with a well-worked goal which saw Lewis Baker slide the ball beyond Smithies following a perfectly-weighted pass from the right by Johnson following a brilliant run.
Right on the stroke of half-time, Rangers had Smithies to thank for keeping the scores level when he pulled off a stunning save to deny Baker from getting his second of the afternoon.
He was brilliantly teed-up by Assombalonga, and the Boro goalscorer hit a fierce drive goalwards, which Smithies tipped around the post.
At the break, Holloway made two changes with Jamie Mackie and Pawel Wszolek coming on for Matt Smith and Kazenga LuaLua.
The move saw Wheeler work alongside Mackie in attack, with Wszolek taking up a position on the right wing.
And it was Mackie’s typical-persistence which saw Rangers regain the lead. As the ball was played back to Boro stopper Darren Randolph, Mackie chased a seemingly-lost cause. His presence forced Randolph into a quick clearance which slammed into the R’s frontman, and fell invitingly for him to run the ball into the unguarded net.
But it was a lead that didn’t last long as Boro levelled once more, this time through substitute Ashley Fletcher. The ball was swing in from the right, and he was there to flick the ball into the far corner.
On 58 minutes Assombalonga looked to break down the right, but he was closely marshalled by Furlong and Baptisite, and was forced out of play.
But on 60 minutes the hosts took the lead in highly-controversial circumstances when Assombalonga headed home after Johnson had crossed from the left byline. The controversy centred around the delivery, as the ball seemed to be clearly out of play when Johnson reached it for the cross.
Rangers’ protests fell on deaf ears and with the Riveside in full voice, the visitors had to ride a storm as Boro went close to increasing their lead, this time a combination of Furlong and the post denying Fletcher.
With just over 20 minutes remaining, Holloway introduced Sylla for the impressive Wheeler.
On 72 minutes, Assombalonga looked set to net Boro’s fourth of the afternoon but blazed over with only Smithies to beat.
Rangers forced Boro back for periods and kept the ball well but were unable to create any chances of note, and now it was the turn of the hosts to be happy to let the clock run down.
In the 85th minute, Cyrus Christie forced a fantastic save from Smithies, who pushed his ferocious effort from distance over the crossbar.
But two minutes later Wszolek came so, so close to levelling for the R’s. After good work by Freeman on the edge of the Boro box following Furlong’s long throw from the right, the ball squirmed out to Wszolek in space. He took a touch before firing the ball beyond Randolph but it smashed off the post!
That was the final real opportunity for QPR. Despite defeat, it was another performance which had so many positives aspects for Holloway and his staff.