QPR endured yet another early exit from the Carling Cup to a lower division club, falling two-nil to League One outfit Rochdale on a muggy Tuesday at Loftus Road.
Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro opened the scoring in the fifth minute while Gary Jones chipped a brilliant ball over substitute keeper Brian Murphy late in the second half to put the R's out of the League Cup.
Rochdale outperformed the Premier League side throughout the match, demonstrating a solid defensive plan and a surprising attacking pace that stifled the home side and led to their sixth Second Round exit in the last eight years.
Akpa Akpro's early goal buoyed the visitors, who began in a defensive set up but quickly showed they could drive up field and take the fight to the Ranger's defence, which featured new signing Bruno Perone, Matthew Connolly, Dan Shittu and Bradley Orr. After a good save by Murphy on an Ashley Grimes attempt from short range, Rochdale intercepted the clearance and found Akpa Akpro who forced his way into prime position and tucked home a quick shot from just outside the keeper's box.
Hogan Ephraim featured prominently for QPR, and was called on a few moments later in the R's first chance on goal. An Adel Taarabt corner found Shittu whose header was blocked, and Ephraim's volley at the rebound went just over the bar. The winger created a number of situations as the first half went on, but time and again his crosses were blocked away or interrupted by Rochdale defenders who worked tirelessly to deny Taarabt and Bothroyd any supply in the middle. Bothroyd did manage a few shots but never found purchase, and overall the attackers were under duress the entire night.
Matthew Connolly had one of the club's best attempts midway through the first half, driving a shot to the right side that forced a fine save from Rochdale keeper David Lucas. Lucas had a terrific night, saving six of the thirteen shots on target and holding on for a clean sheet. Without diminishing his effort, the credit must go to the defence, who stymied everything QPR threw at them, blocking crosses and moving quickly to get on the counterattack, which more than a few times caught QPR off guard. Dan Shittu narrowly avoided giving away a penalty in one of these instances when he knocked Ashley Grimes to the pitch in the area, but the referee's flag was up for offside and play continued.
The defence also lost the services of Bradley Orr, who removed himself with an injury on the half-hour mark. He limped into the training tunnel, though hopefully this was more precautionary than anything else. With the injury to Dyer, the back line can ill-afford any more absences.
QPR worked harder in the second half, pressing the attack and trying to create more opportunities, but found no success. Their urgency grew as the clock passed by, culminating in a headed effort by Jay Bothroyd that found the back of the net, only to be called back for offside. The frustrated team churned on, but they never achieved the level of pass-and-move control that they demonstrated against Everton this weekend, and squandered possession too often to create any goals.
Troy Hewitt subbed in for Cook late in the second half and sparked the attack, which moved to a 4-4-2 with his arrival, along with Shaun Derry who replaced an injured Martin Rowlands. Warnock's men continued to try and create chances, but Rochdale held and used their transition game to eliminate pressure as soon as it built up. By the same token, QPR never really dominated, despite having the ball a majority of the time. Each series seemed end with a broken up pass or a dispossession that led to another return to the visiting team. Rochdale put the game out of reach when Nicky Adams lead a charge and found Gary Adams at the top of the penalty area. His chip beat Murphy for the final goal, with less than ten minutes on the clock, and signalled the worst for the R's.
A furious series of chances ensued, culminating in a shot by Taarabt just before the close of regulation that Lucas knocked down. Two chances at the rebound were blocked and the ball cleared, and Dale hung on in extra time for the victory.
On a night when all three of the newly promoted Premier League sides were shown the door, the focus was clearly not on this Cup. Survival in the league is paramount, as manager Neil Warnock stated plainly enough before the match, admitting this competition was "not a top priority." No one likes to lose, but if trading additional rest and focus in the league comes at the cost of another early defeat, it seems a price he'll pay again and again. Birmingham's Cup run comes to mind from last year - how would their team have fared in the relegation battle with more rest during a key times in the season?
While the fans would have liked to have progressed further in the cup, the R's can now focus squarely on surviving the top flight and building for the future.
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