LUKE Freeman’s 63rd-minute reply wasn’t enough for Rangers, as Sheffield United moved to within a point of the Sky Bet Championship’s top six with this 2-1 victory.
Playmaker Freeman’s fine individual strike – advancing from the halfway line before firing in from 20 yards – set up a grandstand Bramall Lane finish.
But Ian Holloway’s men couldn’t register a second against Chris Wilder’s play-off chasers, who admittedly just about deserved their win after goals from Richard Stearman (27 minutes) and John Lundstram (50).
Following our weekend success over Bolton in W12, Rangers boss Holloway made one enforced change for the trip to the Steel City.
Jack Robinson (toe) was ruled out, so Alex Baptiste took his place in an R’s back three.
QPR – in a familiar 3-5-2 formation – lined up as: Alex Smithies; Baptiste, Nedum Onuoha (captain), Joel Lynch; Pawel Wszolek, Josh Scowen, Massimo Luongo, Freeman, Jake Bidwell; Conor Washington, Matt Smith.
The opening exchanges were keenly contested, if a little scrappy.
Rangers had the first real chance of the game with less than two minutes on the clock.
Freeman’s left-wing corner was met by Smith at the front post, but the latter’s low effort was deflected behind.
Hosts United then spurned two excellent opportunities to lead inside 10 minutes.
First George Baldock, in space on the edge of the box, blazed over in the third minute when Smithies failed to get distance on his punch clear.
And five minutes later, Lundstram shot straight at the sprawling R’s goalkeeper from 12 yards, before Leon Clarke’s follow-up attempt was hacked off the line by Onuoha.
The scrap continued thereafter – but it was United who missed their best chance yet in the 23rd minute.
Sharp robbed Rangers skipper Onuoha of possession around 25 yards from goal, but his subsequent attempt to lob Smithies resulted in the ball dropping just wide of the target.
The Blades would take the lead come the 27th minute, though.
Mark Duffy’s right-flank corner was flicked on by Clarke – and an unmarked Stearman didn’t pass on the opportunity to edge his team in front at the back post.
One-nil was almost two on the half-hour mark. Lee Evans’ range effort fizzed just past the upright.
In truth, the hosts now looked good for their lead – but Washington almost levelled matters for the R’s 10 minutes before the break.
Freeman’s inswinging corner from the right was met by the head of the Northern Ireland striker at the far post, but Chris Basham responded in the nick of time to clear off the line.
That proved to be the last real talking point of the first period, even though United passed on a couple of decent openings in the final third before the half-time whistle was sounded.
Rangers needed at least one goal in the closing half to take anything from this contest – and so nearly equalised in 48th minute.
Freeman’s initial blast from 18 yards was repelled by Blades ‘keeper Jamal Blackman, before Washington’s rebound effort from six yards was deflected just wide.
A good opportunity for the R’s, who were made to pay when United doubled their advantage only two minutes later.
Tidy approach play ended with Sharp swinging over a low cross from the right, before Lundstram stole in at the back post to slide home.
Rangers now had it all to do, with their hosts only looking stronger after registering their second goal of the night.
However, hope was restored when the Hoops reduced the two-goal deficit thanks to an impressive individual effort in the 63rd minute.
QPR’s most-creative individual for the duration of the campaign, this time Freeman got himself on the scoresheet for the fourth time this season – running from halfway before shooting home from 20-yards out.
Suddenly, the momentum swung Rangers’ way – and Holloway soon opted for an attacking change, introducing Paul Smyth for Baptiste on 66 minutes.
By now, the R’s were piling on the pressure, with Blades chief Wilder opting for a 74th-minute double substitution in a bid to stem the tide.
The game was finely poised as the clock ticked down, and Holloway used his final throws of the dice in minutes 80 and 87. Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ebere Eze replaced Washington and Luongo respectively.
Could Rangers force a late leveller?
With tension mounting inside Bramall Lane, Smith rose to head Freeman’s left-flank cross firmly at Blackman from 14 yards, before some five added minutes were signalled.
Unfortunately, though, a second goal wasn’t ultimately forthcoming for the R’s – despite pushing hard at the death.