SAMBA Diakité went from villain to hero on an afternoon where Queens Park Rangers overcame the odds to defeat an in form Arsenal.
An afternoon of mixed emotions saw Adel Taarabt shine and Arsenal flatter to deceive as the magical Moroccan caressed home a first half opener.
The Malian Diakité was looking in fine form before giving possession away needlessly just inside his own half. The swift counter-attacking move saw Theo Walcott take his chance at the second attempt.
While Arsenal had the lion’s share of possession they failed to display that cutting edge or scything pass that such slick build up play demanded, but it was QPR that stole the show.
Jamie Mackie was inevitably relentless in his chase of possession and had his reward to make a fool of composed defender Thomas Vermaelen, his cross was converted in emphatic fashion by Diakité.
While Arsenal had a late rally they failed to penetrate a stubborn Rangers rearguard who looked an entirely different prospect from the side that capitulated against Sunderland.
The small task of Manchester United away to come on Easter Sunday, but the Red Devils will be cheered from the rafters prior to this if they can get a maximum at Blackburn Rovers.
Mark Hughes raised more than a few eyebrows with his team selection, with Clint Hill and Joey Barton returning at the expense of Luke Young and the suspended Djibril Cissé in a 4-5-1 formation.
Paddy Kenny started behind a back four of Nedum Onouha, Anton Ferdinand, Hill, and Taye Taiwo. Barton skippered the side alongside Shaun Derry and Samba Diakité. Jamie Mackie and Adel Taarabt played off lone forward Bobby Zamora.
Arsenal started with Wojciech Szczesny in goal behind a back four of Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Keiran Gibbs. Tomas Rosicky, Alex Song and Mikel Arteta started across the middle with Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey starting behind Robin van Persie.
KICK OFF: QUEENS PARK RANGERS v ARSENAL
It would be fair to say that Queens Park Rangers needed points, from anywhere and everywhere following a dour display against Sunderland. They were going to be short in supply against an Arsenal team who were in some truly stunning form coming into the encounter.
The Gunners have belied their early season malaise with a string of consistent performances that has propelled their expectations to third place and the distinct possibility of a finish ahead of their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
A capacity crowd at Loftus Road was in fine voice from the off and even reserved a good reception for Joey Barton – a player heckled from the park against Liverpool, helping to herald a stunning comeback against the Reds. Rangers set about their task of taming the Gunners right from the off.
Taye Taiwo wasted little time making Theo Walcott aware of his presence as the old adage, ‘they don’t like it up ’em’ would hopefully take centre stage once more as QPR looked dogged without the ball and thoughtful in possession.
Paddy Kenny was called into action early on by the 28-year-old forward, who couldn’t add to his tally of 26 for the season after the QPR stopper saved his effort at the second attempt – Rangers would be wise to be wary of the free-scoring Dutchman.
A flurry of corners ensued for the hosts, who were now finding their feet in the encounter after a period of Arsenal pressure. They could not convert these set-pieces to goals which culminated in Bobby Zamora nodding over the bar when well placed.
Clint Hill was a dominant presence at the back in the early showing – in the rare occasion Arsenal did go direct, the former Crystal Palace defender was more than capable in snuffing out a rather subdued Gunners front-line.
It was he that had the next attempt of the fixture seeing a deflected header go wide of the upright. Rangers persisted in their pressure tactics, consistently putting the onus on Arsenal to play around them, while feeding off scraps to present a fine counter-attacking presence.
Bobby Zamora managed to engineer some space among the Arsenal back line before eliciting a tame effort that had Szczesny untroubled. Nevertheless these were good signs for the hosts that find themselves in all manner of relegation bother.
Then came a moment of class and inspiration to separate the two sides just a minute later. Hill’s ball forward fell to the educated feet of ADEL TAARABT. The Moroccan effortlessly rolled an experienced defender in Thomas Vermaelen before caressing beyond a forlorn Szczesny.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 1-0 ARSENAL
It was a moment fitting to separate any two teams in the top flight and Taarabt’s first of the campaign after a glut of attempts. He was booked for what was judged to be an over-zealous celebration which was rather harsh from referee Mr Dean.
Arsenal were unrelenting in their tactical approach – something one would come to expect from Arsene Wenger’s Gunners by now. The urgency was evidently, but the inspiration was elusive – even van Persie failed to beat Kenny despite being offside.
The home team was certainly on the back foot for vast proportions of the half but the effort and passion in the performance was something that had been seldom seen previously, but was certainly a requirement today.
Diakité had been looking a revelation in the middle of the park, but orchestrated his own downfall when he gave the ball away in a key area. A few touches later van Persie slid through THEO WALCOTT bearing down on goal.
His effort came back off the right hand upright but lady luck was clearly shining on Arsenal as the ball fell right back to the wide-man who tucked home gratefully at the second time of asking – harsh given the work rate by the home team, but fair on the overall balance of play.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 1-1 ARSENAL
Arsenal now had their tails up and pressed for the advantage prior to the break – Aaron Ramsey contributed hugely towards the visiting effort but his daisy cutter faded away to the left hand upright to keep the scoreline intact.
The two teams went into the break at a stalemate but the level of performance from both teams promised much for a second period that could make or break both club’s relative ambitions set out prior to the fixture.
HALF TIME: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 1-1 ARSENAL
Arsenal had the bit between their teeth and set about testing Paddy Kenny early on. Kieran Gibbs nodded an effort wide of Kenny’s left hand upright before the ‘keeper had to be in smart form to deny van Persie from a free-kick on the right hand touch-line.
Controversy ensued as van Persie looked for all the world to be offside as a ponderous assistant referee kept his flag down as the Dutchman bore down on goal. Kenny pulled off a smart stop to deny the league’s top marksman and preserve parity.
Taarabt took the game to the Gunners, coming in from the right flank to fire a rasping, swerving drive into the grateful arms of Szczesny. Falling as he struck the effort the Moroccan lifted the home crowd that had been simmering after their early vocal showing.
It would be the hosts however that would strike the next blow in the fixture and it owed much to the perseverance of Jamie Mackie. A much improved Joey Barton clipped a ball into space that the workhorse Mackie seized upon.
He was fouled by Vermaelen after making a fool of the experienced Belgian, with Mr Dean playing an excellent advantage. The former Plymouth Argyle man laid the ball back to the unmarked SAMBA DIAKITÉ who slammed home a composed effort.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 2-1 ARSENAL
If Arsenal were attacking before, their intent was laid bare now. Rosicky’s speculative drive seemed all they could muster however as QPR’s organisation and endeavour proved to be a decisive factor in the present score-line and flow of play.
This was epitomised moments later when Koscielny tried his luck and was met by a forest of legs before firing over – two of which belonged to Clint Hill it seemed, such was the spirit and endeavour among the set-up among the home side.
Arsenal were looking good coming forward but were without the inspiration and cutting edge to get beyond a stern Rangers rearguard. When possession was yielded Rangers looked dangerous if a little hesitant.
Rosicky, Ramsey, Song – all guilty of gifting possession to the hosts with Jamie Mackie forcing a save from Szczesny. A double change from Wenger saw Ramsey and Arteta withdrawn for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho.
It wasn’t long before Maroune Chamakh replaced Keiran Gibbs in a reshuffle that saw Vermaelen go to left back and Song slot in at central defence. The final ten minutes were fought and nail biting.
Arsenal pressed, Rangers bought seconds by the corner flag and four minutes injury time was interrupted by an incident involving the linesman. Referee Dean held play up to let tensions cool among support – inexcusable nevertheless were their actions.
Bobby Zamora was withdrawn to a standing ovation – being replaced by a man half the size – Shaun Wright-Phillips. A player who had fallen on hard times had found himself on the periphery, he had but minutes to make an impact here.
QPR rode the late storm to pick up a priceless win, while result elsewhere tempered the joyous atmosphere somewhat. It will not dampen some renewed hope that can indeed complete the great escape.
FINAL WHISTLE: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 2-1 ARSENAL