A GENUINE game of two halves as Wes Brown snatched all three points to see Sunderland leapfrog QPR in the Premier League.
Queens Park Rangers were fairly a shadow of their former selves as they laboured in a tawdry opening period – Nicklas Bendtner opened the scoring from a routine set-piece.
The enigmatic Stéphane Sessègnon scythed a gaping hole in the Rangers rearguard time and again to double the advantage for the dominant visitors.
Then the winds of change began to howl – Heidar Helguson netted his eighth of the season from close range before Jamie Mackie levelled matters for the now inspired hosts.
With substitute Adel Taarabt in sparking form it seemed that QPR would go for the winner, only for a tactical defensive shift saw the game drift away from the hosts and Wes Brown snatch the late winner.
More home disappointment for QPR who end 2011 with a solitary home victory and more cause for concern in the fight for Premier League safety.
Neil Warnock made a couple of changes from the side that were defeated by Manchester United with Paddy Kenny and Shaun Derry returning to the fold at the expense of Radek Cerny and Jay Bothroyd.
Kenny started behind an unchanged back line of Luke Young, Danny Gabbidon, Matt Connolly and Armand Traoré. The aforementioned Derry was the protective presence sitting in front of the back-line.
Alejandro Faurlín and Joey Barton played through the middle with Jamie Mackie and Shaun Wright-Phillips flanking top scorer Heidar Helguson as Rangers searched for a much-needed home victory.
Sunderland started with Keiren Westwood behind a back four of John O’Shea, Titus Bramble, Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley – while Sebastien Larsson, David Vaughan, Lee Cattermole and Kieran Richardson made up the midfield quartet.
Stéphane Sessègnon partnered Arsenal loanee Nicklas Bendtner in attack as Martin O’Neill’s Mackems searched for what would be only their second win on their travels – a record to sit neatly alongside Rangers W12 woe.
KICK OFF: QUEENS PARK RANGERS v SUNDERLAND
This had all the ingredients for a completely unpredictable encounter. Two sides with respectively disappointing records, in a fight to save themselves from slipping towards the trap door with relatively little to lose in what looked a Christmas cracker.
Rejuvenated under Martin O’Neill, Sunderland’s results are by no means reflective of their overall displays as the blueprint for the boss’ blueprint for success was being rolled out at the Stadium of Light.
What appeared a relatively defensive shift from Warnock was paying immediate dividends as the hosts ploughed forward in the early offing with a view to getting matters off on the right foot against their closely-placed adversaries.
Warnock’s tactical gambit was proving a positive ploy as Shaun Wright-Phillips marauded down the right and Heidar Helguson and Jamie Mackie sniffed out opportunities from a below-par back-line.
A succession of free-kicks and corners proved positive but ultimately fruitless as Sunderland defended manfully with their brand of zonal marking. Despite relatively good deliveries, the opportunities were not forthcoming.
In truth the only opportunity of note fell to the head of Shaun Derry who could only dolly a header over the bar from a Joey Barton delivery. While having comparatively little of the encounter – Sunderland came inches away from the lead.
Sebastien Larsson’s set-piece from the left saw Matt Connolly slip in the heart of the area – John O’Shea flicked on to Nicklas Bendtner who saw his guided header bounce thankfully – from a home perspective – back off the left-hand upright.
A moment of relief for the home side who were thoroughly pulled apart from a routine set-piece. Defensively it was looking rather ponderous as the notable absence of Anton Ferdinand left a gaping hole in the Rangers rearguard.
Wright-Phillips has had the most attempts without troubling the scorers and on this evidence it wasn’t difficult to see why – a speculative effort from the right drifted harmlessly away to Westwood’s right – seemingly a winger short on confidence and lacking conviction.
In a nutshell there were the two biggest problems in Rangers’ game – defensively naive and offensively impotent and the former was duly punished, once again with the sheer simplicity of a set-piece.
Luke Young thrashed away a clearance for a corner, helping douse another fiery Sunderland counter-attack, but Kieran Richardson’s corner was planed firmly on the head of Nicklas Bendtner and with the QPR defenders dozing – the Danish striker powered his header home.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0-1 SUNDERLAND
It will have undoubtedly riled boss Neil Warnock, seeing his side force the issue positively early on before succumbing to routine, training ground defending – his still presence on the touch-line painted a thousand words – none of which were probably repeatable.
It appeared an indication of things to come and Rangers imploded in the face of Sunderland’s attacking intent. Richardson cut through the home midfield like a knife through butter before unleashing a rasping drive just wide of the left-hand upright.
Sunderland were looking tactically astute, pressing the ball in the right areas and retaining possession before finding space to exploit. Sessègnon was the key architect, dropping into space and running at a depleted Rangers rearguard.
Traoré was getting caught by Larsson all too many times down the right with Bendtner by now playing with the bit between his teeth – sniffing around Gabbidon and Connolly for his brace – particularly on the ground he was dismissed for Birmingham City.
Point-blank range blocks from Sessègnon and Richardson helped curb the Sunderland attacking intent while Rangers could not make the most of their set-piece advantage – again owing much to the defensive organisation of the Mackems.
There was much to ponder as the sides left the field at the break – a smattering of boos but no more as the spirit of giving was certainly in the air judging by the actions of the Rangers defensive unit.
HALF TIME: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0-1 SUNDERLAND
Warnock responded to what was a disappointing opening half. Wright-Phillips was withdrawn – whatever the reasoning it was the right decision – and Adel Taarabt was given his reward for a fine cameo against Manchester United with a second half start.
Sunderland once again displayed why they had the advantage with a couple of expert bursts from midfield. Paddy Kenny watched as first Sessègnon then Richardson fired venomous but wayward efforts towards the R’s goalmouth.
A spark of hope made itself apparent before the 50 minute mark as Traoré tantalised down the left flank. His centre was nodded low by Helguson only for the ball to be hacked from the line by the lively Bramble.
Once again a lesson not learned for the shot-shy hosts as Sunderland doubled their lead. A hopeful long pass was too much for Gabbidon who could only glance his header back towards goal.
The lively Stéphane Sessègnon leapt on the opportunity. Flying in behind the back-line with a frightening amount of pace before rounding the forlorn Kenny and placing into an empty net to double the visitors advantage.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0-2 SUNDERLAND
Devastation would be the apt word as what would have been a powerful half time team talk was quickly demolished by the pace and precision finishing of Sessègnon an ingredient that QPR severely lack.
It prompted a change – but not for either side. Referee Andre Mariner had evidently made a foolish attempt to keep up with Sessègnon and had pulled a muscle – unfortunately for the two teams Stuart Atwell warmed up with intent and took to the field after a long delay.
The delay seemed to stir something on the hosts and the dead body twitched. Taarabt tricked his way inside on the right before crossing with the outside of his boot. Helguson’s deflected header flew just wide of the right hand upright.
Finally however, a stroke of luck – something that was accompanied by a fine build-up. Faurlin’s patient play in the middle of the park saw him find Traoré, who disguised a clever pass back to the Argentine.
A perfect first time cross saw a clearance canon back off Heidar Helguson and into the back of the Sunderland net. A bizarre way to halve the deficit but Warnock and QPR cared little as they had an ill-deserved foot-hold back in the encounter.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 1-2 SUNDERLAND
The noise at Loftus Road turned from discontenting grumbles to cries of hope as the green shoots of recovery were being made evident on the field – all owing to the fortuitous goal that gave the hosts something to grasp.
It didn’t take long for Rangers to level as the two sides promptly swapped positions in terms of defensive shortcomings. Traoré and Faurlín combined once more down the left as the latter crossed deep for Helguson.
The Icelandic international nodded down for Jamie Mackie for his first QPR goal since the Boxing Day massacre over Swansea City last season – a goal to mark his full return from a double leg fracture last January.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 2-2 SUNDERLAND
Taarabt was causing havoc, a sight missing from Rangers early season form. A couple of efforts from the edge of the area saw the Moroccan test Westwood as Rangers were by now rampant, desperate for that decisive third goal.
O’Neill threw on Jack Colback at the expense of David Vaughan – a moved design to patch up a midfield carved wide open by the repertoire of skills from the locker of the Moroccan marvel.
Another substitute Craig Gardner nearly restored the visitors lead when a masterful counter-attacking move saw the former Aston Villa man come inside from the left, shoot first time and draw a save of genuine class from Kenny.
Then came a move to baffle many – Fitz Hall was sent on at the expense of the presumably injured Armand Traoré, Matt Connolly therefore was moved out of the centre of defence to a revised full-back berth.
Quite why a like for like change with Clint Hill instead coming on for the full-back was perplexing, even more so considering Hall is on the come back trail from injury – nevertheless the decision was made.
Imagine a switch being flicked – Rangers were now under pressure with Sunderland sensing an air of unease drifting over Loftus Road – and this soon cast a malaise over the stadium as Sunderland snatched their late winner.
Once again Rangers were caught napping on a set-piece as Richardson sent his corner from the left to see Wes Brown climb highest and nod an inch perfect header home off the cross bar – a goal to puncture the burgeoning atmosphere.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 2-3 SUNDERLAND
It was devastating – the emotion could be felt around the ground as despite pressing their way back into the encounter they were undone by a goal of sheer simplicity. This was the most disappointing aspect on an evening of contrasting emotions.
Mr Atwell was providing his normal brand of farcical officiating, and while watching Mr Mariner referee with great prudence, the young official seem to take great delight in dispensing with this tempered performance by dishing out yellows like Christmas cards – in a nutshell the very problem with inconsistency in modern officiating.
Nevertheless his decision making could not help mask the disappointment of what was a devastating home defeat. Sunderland had got out of jail twice, while Rangers were left to contemplate a torrid Premier League 2011 on home soil.
FULL TIME: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 2-3 SUNDERLAND
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Kenny, Derry, Gabbidon, Faurlin, Mackie, Traore (Hall 80), Connolly (Bothroyd 90), Barton, Young, Helguson, Wright-Phillips (Taarabt 46).
Westwood, Bardsley, Brown, Cattermole, Larsson (Gardener 75), Richardson, Vaughan (Colback 71), O’Shea, Bramble, Sessegnon, Bendtner