QPR beginning to sniff salvation
"Tony Fernandes" sang the fans. Harry Redknapp gave them a wave. Loic Remy was clapped from the field, so too Bobby Zamora. Suddenly there is a whiff of safety about a Queens Park Rangers team who have been in the bottom three since the first day of the season. Jermaine Jenas' smash past Sunderland 'keeper Simon Mignolet confirmed that for the first time in 19 years they have won two successive top-division games.
Redknapp made repeated reference in his programmes notes to those players prepared to "put in a shift". Adel Taarabt, dropped last week and absent this, would not seem to be one of those players. Flaky dilettantes need not apply for this rescue job. The target is 37 points, says Redknapp. It now looks reachable though Rangers' desperate requirement of Premier League survival is written in black and white.
Financial figures published this week spelled a potential for insolvency. They did not even include Mark Hughes' splurge last summer on a group of players who performed so poorly that he had to be replaced. There is also the not-so small matter of the January spree that brought in Remy and Christopher Samba on long-term deals.
There are several cautionary tales of clubs plummeting once relegated. Parachute payments no longer guarantee ease of return. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers will not be back next summer while only a late surge from Bolton Wanderers appears to have given them an outside chance. There is also the glaring example of Portsmouth, a club who overspent beyond their means and have since paid a price of ruin. Their manager, when things were going well was Redknapp, though he rescued them in 2005-06, when to quote him, his team was "crap".
He is granted a better group at Rangers and hope has sprung eternal for Harry ever since he swept into Loftus Road. Repeated statements of optimism have often met with bemused doubt, and especially after a lifeless defeat to Manchester United a fortnight ago. A win at Southampton was duly delivered in the face of a tabloid kiss and tell - by three of his own players - that had Redknapp on the attack. As yet there has been no official denial of the Daily Mirror's version of events from the club, and no legal action, perhaps because the Saturday splash preceded Rangers' best result of the season, a win in a relegation six-pointer. They followed up with another victory via three goals from Redknapp January signings.
"We have had two great results and shut up the silly story," Redknapp said. "Today we picked a team that could have a go and try to win."
Sunderland's were an opponent that QPR might almost have handpicked. These Black Cats have been inconspicuous in a moribund and bleak season, until now rarely threatened by the drop and never looking remotely like contenders for Europe. While Rangers have pulled in headlines all season, Sunderland have suffered 'last on Match of the Day' status for a season neither one nor the other. It now looks like the other. On 30 points, the Wearsiders face a daunting run of matches to avoid being dragged into the relegation fight.
"It was disappointing for us," Martin O'Neill said. "We have difficult fixtures coming up so we have our work cut out. It's been tough going all season and we really have to fight through these nine games."
O'Neill's first full season has been deflating, never matching the excitement of his early weeks in charge. Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson as a pair cost north of £25 million yet neither has produced consistency to justify that outlay. They combined for Sunderland's first-half goal, after Stephane Sessegnon's burst onto an Alfred Ndiaye flick had drawn the attention of Rangers' defence. On the opposite flank, Johnson had time to control Sessegnon's loft and drill inward where Fletcher could score from close range.
It did not get better than that for Sunderland, and had not been before either. Rangers had begun with a spirit of adventure. Junior Hoilett, Andros Townsend and Bobby Zamora all went close. Fletcher's goal was the type of setback that Rangers have often failed to recover from, but fortune favoured their bravery when Remy profited from a lucky break. Townsend's shot did not match his ambition but its rebound off John O'Shea squirted to Remy, clear on the edge of the penalty box. He had time to aim across Mignolet to revive hope for fans audibly beginning to fret.
"One can hold the ball up, the other guy's got pace and can score goals." Redknapp has placed faith in a strike pairing of Remy, an expensive signing with a worrying injury record, and Zamora, a striker requiring a hip operation among other problems. Having nodded down a ball which Remy could only fire over, Zamora's limping lope back to halfway betrayed physical problems he seems unable to surmount. Even when infirm, he remains useful. Zamora eventually left proceedings with 18 minutes to play, his centre-forward know-how having caused the problems that led to Townsend's goal.
"Bobby's done a miracle, he's played with his ankle ligaments damaged," Redknapp said. "There's players not playing today who are not as injured as him. He played 60% fit, the physio last week said he'd be out for six weeks."
Danny Graham, the Geordie boy trying to make it as a Mackem, looked short of the gossamer touch at Swansea that buried Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final, and was substituted for Danny Rose. Sunderland were in the ascendancy at the point of Graham's departure, their dominance of possession pinning back Rangers and causing anxiety within the home support. A small margin for error in the battle against relegation can only intensify nerves but Rangers held theirs.
Mignolet's poor punch clear under pressure from Zamora caused a melee in the Sunderland box. Hoilett's cross was headed out and Townsend, never shy of a shot in his ninth loan from Tottenham, took full advantage with a dipping lash. Rangers sang the theme tune to the "Great Escape". Jenas' drive extended the triumphalism and deepened belief in safety.