QUEENS Park Rangers have opened up a five point gap at the top of the npower Championship with a priceless win over rivals Cardiff City.
The R’s were imperious in defence and inspirational in attack as they saw off what is arguably the league’s best side, particularly in light of the glut of offensive talent that the Bluebirds possess.
The pre-match billing regarding Craig Bellamy proved well-founded and was borne out in the first period when he coasted clear to slot home following an uncharacteristic defensive error.
Barely five minutes later and Kaspars Gorkss atoned for his earlier error when he latched on to a Tommy Smith cross to guide a perfectly placed header into the bottom left-hand corner.
Cardiff’s style of play lent itself a counter-attacking performance with Craig Bellamy ostensibly at the centre of City’s play – nevertheless QPR were determined, dogged and got their just reward.
It came as playmaker Adel Taarabt cut inside and smashed home to epitomise his effort and work-rate throughout the fixture, but Rangers were far from a one-trick pony.
Defensive colossi Matt Connolly and Kaspars Gorkss proved truly to be as much a match-winner as the lively Moroccan – stoutly keeping a talented Cardiff front-line at bay.
Five points clear at the summit, Queens Park Rangers and Neil Warnock have sent out a message to their supporters and the Championship at large – QPR will be tough to shift.
Neil Warnock made two changes from the victory over Preston North End with Shaun Derry returning from suspension and Tommy Smith also eligible to re-take his place in the squad.
Paddy Kenny lined up behind the resilient back four – Kyle Walker, Matt Connolly, Kaspars Gorkss and Clint Hill – Derry rejoining Alejandro Faurlín in the middle of the park.
Jamie Mackie, Adel Taarabt and Smith were the trio behind the established lone front-man Rob Hulse, Heidar Helguson and Patrick Agyemang were options on the bench.
Cardiff’s formidable line-up consisted of ex-QPR loanee Tom Heaton in goal, with Kevin McNaughton, Mark Hudson, Darcy Blake and Lee Naylor populating the back four.
The midfield quartet included Chris Burke, Seyi Olofinjana, Manchester United loanee Danny Drinkwater and Peter Whittingham with international duo Craig Bellamy and Jay Bothroyd up top.
Walker – Connolly – Gorkss – Hill
Faurlín – Derry
Mackie – Taarabt (c) – Smith
McNaughton – Hudson – Blake – Naylor
Burke – Olofinjana – Drinkwater – Whittingham
Bellamy – Bothroyd
Kick Off: Queens Park Rangers v Cardiff City
The time for talking had stopped as the two sides entered the field of play in bitterly cold conditions at Loftus Road. A full house and an ever-growing atmosphere was evident to greet the division’s two best sides to date, all the ingredients of a classic table-topping encounter.
The hosts were quicker out the block as they stole Cardiff’s centre with the minimum of fuss and continued to build on their possession on the opening five minutes. Indeed it didn’t take long to carve out the first opportunity of the game.
It was Jamie Mackie that looked to take the initiative in the early stages, cutting inside from the left-flank to curl an effort wide of the left hand upright. In truth ex-QPR man Tom Heaton may have had it covered, but it was an early sighter nevertheless.
Cardiff had a host of household names in their front-line, Jay Bothroyd has shot to prominence of late with his surprised England call-up, while Craig Bellamy is every bit the class international forward that QPR had come to expect – quite out of place in the npower Championship.
It seemed the mantra of the visiting side to play on the break and use the exuberance of the home side against them – picking them off on the counter-attack. Bothroyd was winning countless balls in the air and Bellamy was a constant menace, dropping into gaps and playing on the shoulder.
A reputation for goalscoring had been well-founded for the Welsh international as he broke the deadlock in West London. Matt Connolly’s rather harsh and needless ball across the box caught Kaspars Gorkss by surprise and the Latvian’s slip allowed Bothroyd to attack.
His reverse pass for Craig Bellamy saw the Welsh forward in behind and it seemed academic from there on in. He coasted towards goal and despite giving Paddy Kenny a chance, all the ‘keeper could do was divert the ball into the middle of the net.
GOAL: Queens Park Rangers 0-1 Cardiff City
There was a question of offside over the goal itself but there could be no doubting the quality of the finish as Cardiff took top spot momentarily. QPR to their credit were straight back at Cardiff with a barrage of attacking play and combative midfield work.
Alejandro Faurlín in particular was evidently working tirelessly winning the ball in the air against the man-mountain Olofinjana and battling with the big Nigerian in the centre of the park. Both he and Shaun Derry were tightening up and starting to take control of the fixture.
Barely five minutes later this style of play bore the desired fruits as QPR grabbed a deserved equaliser. It came from the educated feet of Tommy Smith down the right who managed to work some space following the break-down of a set-piece.
The former Portsmouth man sent a stunning cross to the near post and Kaspars Gorkss rose highest to glance a perfect header beyond Heaton, and supporters rose in unison as the ball nestled neatly into the bottom left hand corner.
GOAL: Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Cardiff City
Adel Taarabt started coming into his own in the middle of the park, and his passing and movement was asking all manner of questions to the Cardiff midfield. His run took him away from Olofinjana and the fleet-footed Moroccan powered a left-footed effort inches wide of the right hand post.
Alejandro Faurlín went close moments later when after a move broke down the Argentinean hit a snap-shot through a crowd of players, it was low and picking up pace as it headed towards the target. Somehow the hand of Heaton came out and denied what would have been a well-executed strike.
Rangers were proving arguably the more dominant of the two teams, but Cardiff City also seemed content to soak up the pressure and play on the break, something which was proving exceedingly effective and nearly yielded a goal.
The hosts had been caught up field and scything through ball found Jay Bothroyd ploughing away down the left. What seemed harmless enough became alarming as Bothroyd merely strode into the heart of the area.
The sheer pace and power in his direct running bought him the opportunity but Paddy Kenny was on hand to save with his feet and preserve the level-pegging challengers. Kenny has been crucial to Rangers’ challenge thus far this season and continued to add to his ever-growing reputation.
The two sides seemed content with taking matters into half time level, with both sides having chances in an open first period. It promised much for the second half as Cardiff City and Queens Park Rangers knew the winner would take top spot.
Half Time: Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Cardiff City
The second half started off a little more tentative than the first, with both sides keen too press their advantage but mindful of the pitfalls that awaited them should errors be committed. QPR were seeing a great deal of the ball without truly penetrating a tough defensive line.
Rob Hulse was having his best game to date in a QPR shirt, looking fitter and stronger than previously. His aerial dominance over Darcy Blake and Mark Hudson was proving a menace for the Bluebirds as Taarabt, Mackie and Smith fed from the knock-downs.
Hulse threw himself at a Taarabt cross only to receive a nudge in the back as the ball drifted harmlessly away wide of the left-hand post. It proved to be the necessary catalyst as QPR started to pour forward in numbers.
The striker Hulse once more was at the centre of the move as he knocked down a measured pass forward into the path of Mackie. The Scottish international unleashed a dipping drive that seemed destined for the goal, only for Tom Heaton to throw out a hand and deny the striker.
Cardiff were being pinned back under the pressure and it was certainly unrelenting from the hosts. Taarabt was the key tormentor as ever, but it seemed to date that lady luck was not shining on the Moroccan who saw his efforts blocked and cleared accordingly.
Taarabt is not a man to shirk an opportunity when he senses one however and he got just reward for his persistence. With little under 20 minutes remaining Adel Taarabt cut inside, beating two men before rifling an effort into the roof of the net.
As the roof of the net rippled the roof of the ground came off – Rangers had themselves in front for the first time in the fixture and as a consequence looked intent on cementing their place at the summit of the table.
GOAL: Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Cardiff City
What was to follow was academic, as Cardiff City finally relented on their purely counter-attacking style to instead instil some impetus on what was an important game. Dave Jones’ pre-match team-talk had played down its importance but evidently the seriousness had just kicked up a notch.
The Cardiff boss saw Chris Burke go closest for the Bluebirds as Kenny once again thwarted the opposition with a stunning save. Quite how much he knew about it was open to debate but when the ball skipped up off Gorkss, Kenny’s face came to the rescue.
Michael Chopra was thrown into a growing front-line as Jones was forced to gamble with his line-up, as Neil Warnock responded by sending on two forwards of his own. Leon Clarke and Patrick Agyemang were the players of choice as they sought to hold onto the ball up front.
The nerves were palpable around the ground as the importance of this win continued to become apparent – a five point gap is something that would give Rangers a good buffer going into a fixture against Hull City.
There was a late appeal for a penalty as Bothroyd went down under a challenge in the area, Mr Friend sized up his options and decided against the kick. Bellamy became the second to throw himself in close succession and was ultimately booked for his protestation.
Four nervy minutes of injury time ensued, but when Mr Friend blew his final whistle it was almost like another goal had been scored. Rangers supporters celebrated deliriously as this result would prove to be the most important of the season thus far.
Final Whistle: Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Cardiff City
Queens Park Rangers
Kenny, Hill, Derry, Taarabt (Clarke 87), Faurlin, Mackie (Agyemang 88), Gorkss, Walker, Connolly, Hulse, Smith (Hall 90).
Heaton, McNaughton, Naylor, Hudson, Blake, Bellamy, Bothroyd, Olofinjana, Drinkwater (Koumas 57), Burke (Chopra 80), Whittingham.