QUEENS Park Rangers pushed Brighton & Hove Albion all the way in a pulsating second half at Loftus Road.
The game was value for parity at the break but when the Seagulls came roaring out in the second half it appeared that top spot was sewn up for the evening.
First Glenn Murray latched onto a Tomer Hemed through ball to carress beyond Alex Smithies, before just minutes later Sebastian Pocognoli curled home a sublime set-piece to double the advantage.
Game over – Or so they thought. Rangers threw a glut of attackers onto the field and went for the throat. They halved the arrears from a Matt Smith glanced header and set up a grandstand finale.
They found David Stockdale in fine form however – notably denying Idrissa Sylla from point blank range to preserve their advantage. A performance that promised much and most certainly augurs well for the future, but in truth the game was won and lost in the opening part of the second half.
Ian Holloway elected to make seven changes from the side that lost out narrowly at Aston Villa. Out went Darnell Furlong, Jake Bidwell, Luke Freeman, Sean Goss, Yeni Ngbakoto, Jamie Mackie and Idrissa Sylla. Into the side came James Perch, Joel Lynch, Jack Robinson, Ryan Manning, Ravel Morrison, Matt Smith and Conor Washington.
QPR reverted therefore back to a 3-5-2 – Alex Smithies behind a three of Nedum Onuoha, Lynch and the more advanced Grant Hall. Perch, Manning, Massimo Luongo, Morrison and Robinson played in behind the returning Smith and Washington for Holloway’s men.
Brighton & Hove Albion knew a win would take them top. Manager Chris Hughton made two changes from the win over Birmingham City – Gaetan Bong and Beram Kayal replaced by loanee Sebastian Pocognoli and Steve Sidwell.
The Seagulls therefore started in a 4-4-2 – David Stockdale behind a defence of Bruno, Uwe Hunemeier, Lewis Dunk and Pocognoli. The midfield comprised of Anthony Knockaert, Dale Stephens, Sidwell and Solly March with Glenn Murray and Tomer Hemed starting in attack.
ONUOHA – HALL – LYNCH
PERCH – LUONGO – MANNING – MORRISON – ROBINSON
WASHINGTON – SMITH
BRUNO – HUNEMEIER – DUNK – POCOGNOLI
KNOCKAERT – STEPHENS – SIDWELL – MARCH
MURRAY – HEMED
Ryan Manning first effort of the game after ten minutes when his left footed curling effort was ably held by David Stockdale. At the other end Nedum Onuoha had to be alert to deny Glenn Murray a touch from a fine Solly March centre.
While Anthony Knockaert has generally drawn the plaudits for the Seagulls it was the aforementioned March that continued to be the thorn in the side for QPR. He had the better of the returning James Perch on a couple of occasions in the early offing and fizzed a shot wide shortly before the 20-minute mark.
March had switched flanks with Knockaert in a bid to further test Rangers’ returning full-backs – Robinson playing his first game since the home defeat to Wolves on December 1st. March tested Smithies from distance with the keeper managing to get behind his stinging left-footed drive.
The game started to pick up some momentum as Manning tested Stockdale at the other end – from the resultant corner Rangers had a penalty appeal waved away when Lewis Dunk saw a knock down come back off his arm – nothing doing for referee Simon Hooper.
Rangers continued to press with Washington making a fool of Bruno before bearing down on the area and firing a rasping drive just beyond the reach of Stockdale. A shot that was always rising but nevertheless displayed the attacking endeavour and intent from the home side as the half progressed.
The Seagulls felt aggrieved to have a Glenn Murray goal ruled out for offside. The forward latched onto to a Knockaert centre to poke beyond Smithies – only to be denied by a flag. Murray protested, but the officiating team had this one spot on.
A pot shot from distance from Luongo brought cheers from the away end while James Perch’s close range effort was scrambled away by the visitors. The game was end to end but devoid of any real quality in the final third – both sets of defences standing up to the challenge.
A first start in his second spell – Ravel Morrison was rather underwhelming. Luongo and Manning around him appeared to be picking up the bulk of his workload and his lack of enterprise and creativity was a disappointment in a first half desperate for a little more quality.
Brighton were once again denied by an offside flag on the stroke of half time when Hemed this time stroked home from close range. Once again it was justifiably ruled out despite the protests of the Brighton players.
The half was rounded off by a challenge from the Perch playbook, lunging in out of nowhere and lucky not to receive a stern punishment, as it stood referee Hooper elected for just a free kick. A first half that promised much in terms of attacking endeavour but both rearguards holding firm.
Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori came on to replace Lewis Dunk at half time for the Seagulls in a like for like change. The Canadian born defender replaced Dunk in the recent win over Birmingham City also with Dunk suffering from illness.
Rangers were on the back foot early in the second period with Knockaert and March once again pressing for the visiting side. March saw two efforts from distance deflected wide in succession as the home defence were pinned back in the opening stanza. Murray’s pot shot ten minutes into the half wasn’t as fruitful however – a shot swerving well wide of the right-hand upright.
Luongo was next to try his luck however, the ball seemed to take an eternity to drop down just outside the area and his shot on the on the rise deflected wide. From the resultant Morrison corner, Smith climbed highest at the far post only to nod straight at Stockdale.
They barely had time to catch breath when Bruno beat Morrison to send in a whipped delivery towards Hunemeier – but the defender was beaten to the ball by Smithies and felled the keeper as a result. Inches away however from handing the visitors an advantage.
They did have that advantage however shortly before the hour mark. Rangers lost the ball in the heart of midfield and a simple lift over the top from Tomer Hemed found strike partner GLENN MURRAY who strode with ease in behind a static defence to caress beyond Smithies with effortless ease.
A nightmare challenge from Joel Lynch saw him clearly bring down Murray on the edge of the area and West Bromwich Albion loanee SEBASTIAN POCOGNOLI put the ball on a postage stamp into the top corner. Two lapses in concentration defensively and two Seagulls goals.
Holloway responded by throwing on Yeni Ngbakokto and Luke Freeman at the expense of Robinson and the wholly underwhelming Ravel Morrison – a player with a lot of work to do. It was however one way traffic and the visitors looked more and more likely to score again.
Freeman did more in five minutes than his predecessor did in over an hour. His run down the left and cross saw Smith draw a save from Stockdale. The resultant corner saw QPR get themselves back into the game. A corner from Massimo Luongo found MATT SMITH in the heart of the area to beat Hunemeier and glance home – Game on.
All out attack now for QPR – Idrissa Sylla being thrown on Joel Lynch. Grant Hall therefore moving into a back four while Sylla partnered the lively Smith in attack. Brighton threw on Jamie Murphy for Tomer Hemed in a like for like change.
Rangers had the bit between their teeth and nearly drew level via Conor Washington. Panic had set into the Brighton rearguard with all the attackers Rangers had at their disposal. Washington was well placed when the ball dropped on the edge of the area but never really got the ball under his control to lift over the bar.
Manning then did incredibly well to slip his man on the left wing to square for Idrissa Sylla but the Guinean forward spurned a gilt-edged opportunity in front of goal albeit with a spectacular reaction save by Stockdale. The home support grew frustrated with Brighton’s time-wasting tactics, something to be expected in their position in the game; Mr Hooper however noted this and added on five more minutes.
Rangers unfortunately couldn’t muster a chance of note in a nevertheless frenetic final few minutes. Yeni Ngbakoto came closest when he skewed his effort wide of the left-hand upright when well-placed.
Try as they might Rangers were victims of falling asleep at the start of the second period. Substitutions livened them up significantly but it was too little too late for a much-changed Rangers side.
Queens Park Rangers: Smithies; Perch, Onuoha, Hall, Lynch (Sylla 76), Robinson (Ngbakoto 65); Manning, Luongo, Morrison (Freeman 65); Smith, Washington.
Subs not used: Ingram, Bidwell, Goss, Wszolek,
Brighton & Hove Albion: Stockdale; Bruno, Dunk (Tomori 46), Hunemeier, Pocognoli; Knockaert (Norwood 83), Sidwell, Stephens, March; Murray, Hemed (Murphy 77)
Subs not used: Maenpaa, Forren, Skalak, Akpom.
Referee: Mr S Hooper