QUEENS Park Rangers inched a step closer to the Premier League after a spirited draw with fellow promotion-hopefuls Cardiff City.
The R’s showed excellent resiliency to twice come behind, and also came inches away from that crucial winner when Heidar Helguson was inches away at the death.
Jay Bothroyd opened the scoring with a stunning solo effort, only for Adel Taarabt to respond with his customary brand of skill and ruthlessness.
Manchester City striker Craig Bellamy put the Bluebirds back in front following a defensive error, only for Taarabt to once again haul Rangers level after the break.
A game that ebbed and flowed with a glut of chances at either end, both sides can be contented with a point with Rangers looking to seal promotion and the title on Monday.
Neil Warnock opted to remain unchanged from the draw against Derby midweek with the same players charged with redressing the balance and taking QPR over the final hurdle.
Paddy Kenny started behind a back four of Bradley Orr, Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Connolly and Clint Hill, with Alejandro Faurlín and Shaun Derry continuing in the middle of the park.
Tommy Smith, Adel Taarabt and Wayne Routledge started behind the lone forward Heidar Helguson in what was a crucial encounter in terms of promotion.
Cardiff started with Stephen Bywater in goal behind a back four of Paul Quinn, Kevin McNaughton, Dekel Keinan and J’Lloyd Samuel.
Chris Burke, Stephen McPhail, Seyi Olofinjana and Peter Whittingham started across the midfield with Craig Bellamy and Jay Bothroyd in attack.
Kick Off: Cardiff City v Queens Park Rangers
This was being billed as the encounter to savour. St Georges Day in the Welsh capital in glorious sunshine. Rangers only needed three more points to assure themselves a place in the Premier League in the next term.
Over 2,000 fans travelled up from West London to support their side in the hope of cheering them over the final hurdle. 15 years in the making, Queens Park Rangers were 90 minutes away from climbing back into the top flight.
The teams entered the field to a cauldron of noise in the Cardiff City Stadium, with a record crowd in attendance in the Welsh capital. The weather was set fair for a fine afternoon of football, and Rangers were quickest out the blocks.
Useful possession play saw Adel Taarabt create some space on the edge of the area, his right-footed curled effort dipped over the bar in the opening minute. A useful early opportunity for the visiting side, whose supporters were in fine voice.
In riposte Cardiff looked to their formidable strike force who were adept at holding up play and bring others onto the ball. Peter Whittingham fired a drive goal-bound only for Paddy Kenny to deny the former Aston Villa wide-man.
The encounter was sitting on a knife-edge, even in the early stages, and it was clear that it was a fixture that both sides were looking to pick up the maximum. Out of virtually nothing a classy strike had the hosts in front.
Useful play from City saw Jay Bothroyd with the ball at his feet on the right. The England international came inside on his left foot before rifling a rasping drive beyond Paddy Kenny, a shot that cannoned into the back of the net off the underside of the bar.
GOAL: Cardiff City 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Rangers, who had more than matched their opponents in terms of possession and endeavour. Defensively there was little that could be done as Bothroyd displayed class in abundance to notch the opening strike.
In riposte Rangers were creating the majority of pressure, with intricate passing play combined with the direct approach searching for the head of Heidar Helguson. Eventually the pressure told as Rangers hauled themselves level.
A man for the occasion Adel Taarabt worked the space following a corner clearance. The Moroccan showed excellent direct running before dispatching a curling effort beyond Stephen Bywater – another effort fit to win any game of football.
GOAL: Cardiff City 1-1 Queens Park Rangers
The atmosphere was electric and the most notable noise was emanating from the visiting support. They were rather quick to remind the home support of their lofty league position and the players seemed to respond to the incredible atmosphere.
The threat that Cardiff possessed was not something to be ignored however, with Craig Bellamy’s snap-shot testing the palms of Kenny – a ‘keeper that has now kept a club record 23 clean sheets in one campaign for the R’s.
Blackpool loanee Dekel Keinan was the next to test the Rangers stopper. He latched onto Whittingham’s well guided corner but could only engineer a header wide of the mark when well-placed in the heart of the area.
Kaspars Gorkss glanced a header just wide of the left-hand upright following a Taarabt free-kick and Rangers were appearing to grow in confidence without that killer instinct and presence in the forward line that Cardiff City had in spades.
This was epitomised moments later when former Bluebirds wide-man Wayne Routledge worked some space down the right and carve out a useful cross. Faurlín was on hand to glance a header but it lacked the power sufficient to test Bywater.
It was almost a carbon copy on the half hour mark, when Routledge once again had the beating of J’Lloyd Samuel before crossing for Tommy Smith. The industrious wide-man could only nod straight into the arms of Bywater once more.
Out of the blue once more, the Bluebirds had themselves back in the driver’s seat and it was a goal that was once again carved out on the Cardiff wide right. Bothroyd once again worked a space before cutting inside once more.
This time he opted to centre the ball and a Matt Connolly horror show saw him unable to clear his lines, but also handle the ball. Lee Mason played an excellent advantage which allowed Craig Bellamy to smash an effort beyond Kenny.
GOAL: Cardiff City 2-1 Queens Park Rangers
Rangers had to guard against being put out of sight in this encounter as Seyi Olofinjana bounded forward for a Chris Burke corner, his header was powerful but misplaced as the giant Nigerian was unmarked in the heart of the area.
Rangers were inches away from going into the break level, as Shaun Derry’s effort deflected into the path of Taarabt. The Moroccan marvel was always stretching and was eventually beaten by the angle as his effort came back off the side netting.
Cardiff mustered the final effort of the half when Keinan flashed an effort wide of the upright, but it was a thoroughly entertaining opening period not only for both sets of support, but for the neutral watching live on the BBC.
Rangers would look to reassert their impetus on the display following half time as despite the Bluebirds having the lead, the fixture was still finely poised for yet more excitement and attacking endeavour – as it stood Cardiff City had the edge.
Half Time: Cardiff City 2-1 Queens Park Rangers
It was an opening period that more than lived up to expectations. Any thought that this would be a cagey affair were quickly correctly by the brisk attacking exertions of both teams, notably on the counter-attack.
A speculative effort from Taarabt, virtually from the halfway line, dropped onto the roof of Bywater’s net. Cardiff were the first to create a chance of note in the second period approaching ten minutes into the half.
Faurlín gave away a rare misplaced pass, and the man of the moment, Craig Bellamy, was on hand to capitalise. His excellent lay-off was guided into the path of Whittingham, but the winger lashed over the bar when well-placed.
A foul by Gorkss on Chris Burke was punished with a free-kick, but Whittingham’s powerful effort was straight into a grateful wall. A carbon copy of the offence took place at the other end of the field with Quinn booked for obstructing Routledge’s progress down the left.
Shortly before the 70 minute mark, Neil Warnock sensed, as many of the fans did, that his side were running out of steam. As a result Smith was withdrawn and Patrick Agyemang came on in his stead. The forward would play just off Helguson in attack.
The lull in play served to refresh QPR as useful build up play saw them draw level. Faurlín’s effortless cross-field pass found Routledge down the right – a player mercilessly heckled by the home crowd, but he responded in style.
His ball with the outside of the boot found Adel Taarabt – the Moroccan did the rest, showing exemplary strength to hold off Keinan before rolling his marker and slamming home into the bottom right hand corner.
GOAL: Cardiff City 2-2 Queens Park Rangers
It was the least their efforts had deserved and to say it sent the away end into delirium would be an understatement. This goal not only hauled the R’s level but gave them the self-belief to go for the jugular and take all three points.
It seemed to stifle the hosts, whose supporters had grown evidently quite nervous by the Taarabt brace. The impetus of the encounter lied with the visiting side and manager Dave Jones responded by sending on Arsenal loanee Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.
They Bluebirds players were not as keen to relent with Bellamy once again foraging in behind for scraps to feed on. On a couple of occasions both he and Bothroyd were finding their way in behind to little avail with regard to an end product.
Neil Warnock opted to sure up the Rangers rearguard by introducing Fitz Hall at the expense of the forlorn Matt Connolly. The defender was evidently struggling to recapture the confidence of earlier in the campaign and Hall would provide that solidity that the visiting side desperately needed.
A succession of counter-attacks from the R’s failed to bear the desired fruit, Routledge in particular was displaying all the flamboyance and flair of a winger unleashed, but his right footed effort flashed wide of the right hand upright.
The pressure was mounting on the hosts as the away supporters grew in voice, knowing that a goal would be enough to see them promoted, while they have other opportunities remaining this season to get the job completed.
Cardiff meanwhile appeared a side frustrated and this was reflected in sections of support departing with over five minutes of time left on the clock. The passing and movement of QPR on the break looked more likely to yield the crucial winner.
Taarabt once again dazzled down the left before his cross was dragged across goal. Helguson suddenly appeared in view on the far post, and time appeared to stand still. Heartbeats were as one in the away end as a stretching Icelandic international saw his effort agonisingly hit the side netting.
It was agonising for QPR who for a moment had their Premier League dreams – 15 years in the making – before their eyes, and were inches away from realising it on a grand stage. Nevertheless Rangers supporters would leave delighted with a point and look to complete the job on Easter Monday.
Hull City will provide the opposition on that day, and should Rangers display the same endeavour and class, then they will no longer be in touching distance of that dream – but realising the occasion in front of a home crowd.
Final Whistle: Cardiff City 2-2 Queens Park Rangers
Stephen BYWATER, Paul QUINN, Dekel KEINAN, Kevin MCNAUGHTON, J’Lloyd SAMUEL, Chris BURKE (Jay EMMANUEL-THOMAS 77), Stephen MCPHAIL, Seyi OLOFINJANA, Peter WHITTINGHAM, Craig BELLAMY (Michael CHOPRA 88), Jay BOTHROYD.
Queens Park Rangers
Paddy KENNY, Bradley ORR, Kaspars GORKSS, Matt CONNOLLY (Fitz HALL 81), Clint HILL, Alejandro Damián FAURLÍN, Shaun DERRY, Wayne ROUTLEDGE, Adel TAARABT, Tommy SMITH (Patrick AGYEMANG 70), Heidar HELGUSON