Lucky thirteen - report
Wednesday, 11th Feb 2015 15:20 by Clive Whittingham
QPR halted a run of 12 consecutive away defeats, 11 of them in the league, with a victory at Sunderland on Tuesday night by two goals to nil.
A shot in the arm for Queens Park Rangers, a poke in the eye for Harry Redknapp.
Rangers secured a first away win of the season at the thirteenth attempt in the first road trip without Redknapp at the helm, comfortably beating Sunderland 2-0 at the Stadium of Light and moving out of the bottom three in the process. The victory, achieved with a style and tenacity rarely seen from this group of players previously, was led from the front and the right by Leroy Fer and Matt Phillips, two players Redknapp bought and then failed to utilise correctly.
The result and performance were a particular triumph for caretaker manager Chris Ramsey, whose demand that his team play on the front foot, with flair, and attack opponents, is in stark contrast to his predecessor’s downtrodden demeanour, talk of how hard everything was, and open admission that he saw most Premier League away games as a “bonus” to a club of QPR’s stature.
One suggested reason for the record breaking run of defeats away from Loftus Road has been the lack of pace in the QPR team, preventing them springing the quick counter attacks away sides utilise so often in the modern day Premier League. Members of the Cleethorpes and District Knitting Circle have collectively moved faster than the starting 11 Ramsey selected on Tuesday night, and yet by playing high up the field, in possession of the ball, it scarcely mattered. Matt Phillips, the one in the side with genuine speed, ran amok.
Sunderland were awful: heckled throughout the game by their own fans, booed from the field at half time and left facing banks of empty seats long before the end. But when they did get a foothold in the match during the second half and threaten a comeback from two goals down, Ramsey moved swiftly to plug a gap created by Mauricio Isla’s increasingly poor defence. Left winger Adam Johnson had begun to have joy down the Chilean’s flank following Phillips’ withdrawal through injury so Ramsey sent on Michael Doughty – a youth team graduate no less – to tighten things up for the closing few minutes. He looked confident and assured. Redknapp deemed Doughty wasn’t even good enough to feature in second-string sides selected for cup matches against lower league sides.
It’s this creative thinking, positive outlook and optimism QPR have lacked all season long. It made Redknapp’s assertion that he’d “tried everything” to get an away win look ridiculous. It was joyous, and well worth the season’s longest trip on a Tuesday night in February.
QPR set off at a pace, pressing high up the field, defending tight and narrow, attacking wide and expansively. It startled Sunderland who, despite only winning twice on this ground this season, would have been forgiven for seeing this one as a gimme. Led energetically by Joey Barton, excellent for a second game in succession, and with Phillips and Fer in flying form, the only surprise was it took as long as 17 minutes for the first goal to arrive.
Niko Kranjcar, selected wide left, had a shot deflected wide in the opening minute after a lovely, long period of positive passing. Fer hit one straight at giant Romanian goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon from long range. The football was being played in Sunderland’s half, by Queens Park Rangers; the hosts unable to string two passes together or escape their own danger area. It was ludicrously one-sided given the league positions and recent form. On seventeen minutes Phillips powered down the right flank and crossed perfectly for Fer to arrive late in the area and head down into the net. It's amazing that it’s taken this long for Phillips to realise, or be told, to just concentrate on attacking the byline and delivering crosses rather than complicating things further than that.
Home left back Patrick Van Aanholt was constantly outnumbered and drowning in a sea of Hoops. Everything good Rangers did, they did down their right. Pantilimon had to fly out to the corner of his penalty area and tackle Mauricio Isla as he bombed forward from full back. Then the Chilean crossed for Phillips to head wide of the goal himself. On the half hour Phillips roasted his man once more and showed composure and awareness previously lacking in his game, aided by the new-found confidence a change of manager and upturn in personal form must be giving him, to cut the ball back to Fer on the edge of the area and the Dutchman planted a firm shot against the base of the post. When the ball rolled agonisingly along the line and stayed out you feared it could be a moment the Super Hoops would later regret.
Especially as, despite having none of the ball, none of the field position, and no real idea how to correct either issue, Gus Poyet’s team was able to carve out chances regardless. Jermain Defoe, signed at great expense to liven up one of the league’s dullest attacks, should have scored shortly after Fer hit the post but seemed to bottle out of the chance as Robert Green came to meet him and ended up flashing a shot wide when unmarked in the area. Before that Yun Suk-Young, back from injury and performing stoically on the left of the QPR defence, was lucky not to have a penalty awarded against him by referee Martin Atkinson when he thrust his arm up and deflected a bouncing ball in the area. Van Aanholt should have done better than hack a volley over when he arrived late in the area to meet a back-post cross first time and when Connor Wickham did likewise before half time it needed an extraordinary piece of goalkeeping from Green, thrusting the ball up onto the underside of the bar and then having the awareness to swivel and claw it out of the goal mouth, to keep QPR in front.
You feared Sunderland wouldn’t be as bad again after half time, and a makeshift defence shorn of injured duo Nedum Onuoha and Richard Dunne was ceding chances even when they were playing poorly. What the visitors really needed was a second goal.
It always looked possible, particularly as Sunderland centre half Santiago Vergini seemed inexplicably keen to stand three or four yards away from the man he was supposed to be marking allowing free headers, unchallenged touches and uncontested shots in equal measure. Lone striker Bobby Zamora headed wide on two occasions from two more Phillips crosses and Seb Larsson was rightly booked for chopping down Joey Barton as he crossed the halfway line with purpose. But it looked like it would just be the one at half time, with a torturous second half of finger nail abuse to come.
But then Phillips got going again, all athleticism and attacking intent. Another cross and Vergini standing off his man again, allowed Zamora to attempt an improbable hooked, first time volley, which whipped off his foot like a weapon of war and fizzed into the top corner. Pantilimon didn’t even know that it had happened. The QPR faithful high behind that goal could scarcely believe it had.
Sunderland made changes. They could hardly not. Alvarez came on for the woeful Jordi Gomez at half time, and was quickly followed by Wes Brown replacing Réveillère. QPR lost Matt Phillips early and introduced Shaun Wright-Phillips in his stead – the veteran winger predictably rusty and ineffective on his first league appearance of the season. There was no sit back and run the clock attitude from QPR, and Niko Kranjcar will be disappointed he couldn’t get a well situated free kick up and over the wall, but it was the jabs from Sunderland that carried more danger now. Robert Green saved twice, brilliantly, in quick succession, to deny Defoe at close range and Alvarez from the edge of the area.
There was a fear that QPR were perhaps becoming a little ragged. Ferdinand, turning in his best performance for the club from an admittedly short list, was rightly booked for deliberately wrestling Defoe to the ground in back play preventing him from getting involved in a counter attack – but he’d kept his England colleague reasonably quiet apart from that, aided and abetted by Sunderland punting aimless long balls for the diminutive Defoe to chase forlornly.
Barton followed him into the book for a Premier League record seventh straight game when he pulled down Adam Johnson after allowing himself to be turned – a rare mistake in a fine captain’s knock. Three times in the same ridiculous scramble the home crowd bayed for a penalty as QPR flung limbs in front of shots, then when the resulting corner was delivered Ferdinand did seem to make contact with the ball with his arm raised above his head. Atkinson, who owes Rangers a decision or three, was unmoved. Alvarez, disgusted, was booked for leading a vehement protest delegation.
But Ramsey reacted well. Mauro Zarate was sent on when Leroy Fer collapsed with a worrying looking knee injury. The Argentinean was able to not only hold the ball higher up the field, but carry it with attacking intent into dangerous areas. In the final 20 minutes QPR looked as likely to score as Sunderland and when Doughty came on for Isla as the third sub the solidity of the first half returned and the London side kept possession for prolonged periods of crisp, effective passing. It was almost as if QPR had watched Sunderland play and picked on their weaknesses, coming up with a coherent plan to win the game rather than just hold their own, and then reacted to developments in the second half with substitutions that nullified threats and improved the team performance. They used to throw women off cliffs for this sort of sorcery.
The home fans had, almost to a man, left long before five minutes of stoppage time was concluded. Ferdinand’s last ditch block from Larsson’s injury time shot, and a goal line clearance from Doughty as the corner was delivered, preserved a deserved clean sheet. Robert Green punched the air in delight at the final whistle. The QPR fans high above him were in raptures.
As we’d long suspected, survival, Premier League victories, and away wins are well within the ability of this group of players. Harry Redknapp extracted two successes on the road in the top flight in 24 attempts over two years. Chris Ramsey, whose last managerial job was with Charleston Battery in 2004, is now one for one.
Sunderland: Pantilimon 6; Réveillère 5 (Brown 63, 5), O’Shea 5, Vergini 3, Van Aanholt 5; Bridcutt 5; Johnson 6, Larsson 5; Gomez 5 (Alvarez 46, 6); Wickham 6 (Fletcher 82, -), Defoe 6
Subs not used: Mannone, Coates, Agnew, Graham
Bookings: Larsson (foul), Alvarez (dissent)
QPR: Green 8; Isla 6 (Doughty 85, -), Ferdinand 7, Caulker 6, Yun 7; Phillips 8 (Wright-Phillips 52, 6), Barton 8, Henry 7, Kranjcar 6; Fer 8 (Zarate 75, 6); Zamora 6
Subs not used: McCarthy, Traore, Hill, Taarabt
Goals: Fer 17 (assisted Phillips), Zamora 45 (assisted Phillips)
Bookings: Zamora (unsporting conduct), Ferdinand, Barton
QPR Star Man – Leroy Fer 8 What a difference it’s making playing the Dutch international in his favoured central position. A hard working box-to-box effort on Saturday against Southampton was followed by an altogether more threatening performance here in a more advanced position. He crowned it with a goal and was very unfortunate not to get a second. One can only hope that another serious injury to a key man hasn’t been sustained just as he was starting to really play consistently well for the first time since joining the club.
Referee – Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire) 7 Overall decent control of the game and hard to argue with any of the bookings. The Ferdinand handball appeal in the second half looked dodgy but several others he got right.
Attendance 39,077 (300 QPR approx) A wonderful reward for the faithful few who made the longest trip of the season on a Tuesday night after 12 straight away defeats. They were in fine voice at the end.
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Pictures – Action Images
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