For the first fifteen minutes of Saturday's match, Queen Park Rangers looked like a Championship side that had climbed too far, too fast, and were woefully unprepared to play in the Premier League. By the final whistle, they’d shown themselves to be a resilient team capable of overcoming mistakes and taking hold of a difficult fixture to see it through to victory.
After going a goal down and playing some of the worst defensive football since their opening day thrashing by Bolton Wanderers, QPR regrouped and turned the tables on Stoke, edging out a 3-2 win. Heidar Helguson's brace and a well timed goal from Luke Young put the R's ahead, despite a late push to equalise from the Potters.
Coming off an exciting but unsatisfying defeat at home, the R's travelled to one of the most difficult home venues in England, where the locals enjoyed a stellar history and looked poised to bounce back from a difficult few weeks. After their initial stumbles, QPR ground their opponents down to earn a hard-fought win. It was a banner day for the Premier League returnees, who are carving out a place in this league, one gritty performance at a time.
The match was free flowing from the start, as QPR moved quickly into Stoke's end to earn a free kick, which led to a Heidar Helguson attempt that substitute keeper Thomas Sorensen easily grabbed hold of. Moments later Stoke earned a corner that was deflected away, finding Jermaine Pennant at the top of the penalty box, where he and Barton collided to eliminate the threat. Stoke fans were calling for a penalty - QPR fans were howling that it was a dive - but the ref shook his head and play moved on. Pennant's trip over Barton's foot looked accidental rather than deliberate, but the home supporters took more than a bit of umbrage with that judgment.
They didn't have to wait long to get over it though, as a minute later Barton's pocket was picked in midfield and Peter Crouch fed a streaking Jon Walters, who nipped around Anton Ferdinand and fired a low strike across Paddy Kenny to put his side ahead. Stoke seized the momentum from that early goal and threatened QPR for the next several minutes, as the back line looked shaky and uncertain about who to mark or where to go. Peter Crouch had two shots in that sequence, including a close effort that Kenny deflected, and Clint Hill cleared from the goal line to hold the score at 0-1. Matthew Etherington pressed the back line a few minutes later to test the QPR defenders, who escaped punishment only by the grace of his sickly finish that rolled harmlessly out of play. The defence was out of sorts, and the usually solid Anton Ferdinand played centrally into a few mishaps that nearly put the game out of reach before it got going.
The noise at the Potters' ground was boiling over, and the Hoops badly needed to regain some composure and slow the game down. The strong form they'd shown in recent matches had evaporated, and they were rushing actions and failing to work as a unit in the opening stages. Whereas against Fulham that discombobulation never changed; at the Britannia the R's recovered after the early slip-ups and started to take care with the ball and support one another in the build up. They were soon rewarded for their renewed focus. Armand Traore, who was shifted to a wide midfield role by Neil Warnock, tracked down a Faurlin pass deep in the left corner and curled a beautiful ball into the center, where Helguson had slipped away from Danny Higginbotham and into a gift of prime real estate. He met the ball on the run with a textbook header that slammed home to level the game at one-all. It was a fantastic effort and came at the end of four good passes and several minutes of disciplined possession, which is the key to the R's game; taking the opponents out of it and working to create separation and take chances.
Coming up from the Championship, few gave the Iceman much thought, as DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd were brought in to challenge for his place and recent transfer talk has suggested that a new striker may be in on Warnock's radar in January. Despite the noise around him, and his shifting priority in the team, when his number is called Helguson delivers, bringing a tireless work effort each match and often finding a way to be in the right place at the right time. His steady presence has been the on-field anchor for this club lately, giving a sense of confidence and reinforcing the notion that QPR are never truly out of a game when he's on the pitch.
That hard working team play continued for the rest of the first half, as QPR turned the tables on the once-dominant home side and moved possession in and out of their territory. Near the end of the half, Mackie and Wright-Philips built up nicely on the right side of the penalty area, giving and going around the limp defending to threaten the net. Mackie was free with the ball inside the box and looked prime to drive on net, but showed great awareness to unselfishly center the ball to Luke Young, who raced unobstructed to thread a ball into the net. It was another great run of play for the R's to put them ahead, and a reminder that when they are executing their plan they can produce very good football. The slow defending helped their cause, but the second third of the game was some of the best work QPR have put in all season.
In the second half Helguson struck again following a corner that Sorensen weakly punched away, giving QPR another bite at the apple. Barton crossed the ball back in and once again Heidar was able to work past his marker for a sliding effort that tucked away QPR's third goal. For as loud as the Britannia typically is, the booming chants of the travelling fans that could be heard as QPR continued to press the attack. Things were rolling along for the visitors, but to their credit, Stoke didn't stop working to get back into the game, and the last half hour saw them pouring on the offence. For the most part the R's held their own, but Ryan Shawcross put his team back in it with a headed effort off a pass from Peter Crouch in the 63rd minute.
No football match would be complete without a bit of officiating controversy, and this was no exception. In the 82nd minute Robert Huth was battling for a ball just in front of the six yard box when he was manhandled by Barton and Ale Faurlin, in the end being dragged down from behind in the tussle for the ball. Referee Mike Jones waived it off to the misery of the home crowd, who will likely feel they had a game stolen from them there. It was the kind of call you love if it's in your favour, but would never forgive or forget if it went against you. Barton and Huth had been battling for the ball when he went down, but more often than not that kind of contact in the area winds up with a penalty. It was a lucky break for QPR, and a gutting turn for Stoke.
As the remaining time wound down, QPR continued to interrupt and frustrate Stoke's long-ball and deep throw attacks, withstanding the best that the home side could muster. Higginbotham and Glenn Whelan took their chances, and Kenwyne Jones had Stoke City's last, best attempt just before the final whistle but his headed effort sailed high over the bar.
Despite the late controversy, the fact remains that QPR outplayed Stoke for the majority of the match, and earned three points with the excellent play. It was an exciting contest and a good win for QPR, who were rewarded for their hard work and a strong showing on the road. If they can start more matches the way they finished this one, they will earn survival this season. This win marks another positive march on the evolution of this club and puts them in good stead heading to another tough match at Norwich City next week.