When they needed it most, QPR's leaders emerged with a crucial performance that may have saved their season.
Playing under the weight of a live-or-die game in front of their boisterous supporters, the team's key players delivered top drawer efforts to see through to victory. Adel Taraabt cut aggressive lanes through the Stoke defence; Joey Barton hustled after balls and harried the midfield; Jamie Mackie was a constant thorn in Robert Huth's giant side. The pressure continued to mount throughout what looked to be a scoreless draw until a well placed Djibril Cisse connected with a corner just before full time - sending Loftus Road and the QPR world in ecstasy as they snatched three vital points at the death.
The club is not safe yet, with Bolton only two points behind and a worst-case-scenario trip to Manchester City on the season's final day looming. But they have earned what may be enough to survive and will not go down without a fight.
Amidst the tight quarters of the relegation zone, QPR desperately needed a win Sunday over Stoke, and coming off a bruising display at Stamford Bridge there were no guarantees. A collective head scratch preceded the match when the team was announced and key man Djibril Cisse was left out of the starting eleven. Supporters were clamouring for a Zamora/Cisse duo out front to go after Stoke, wondering whether the conservative approach had booked a one-way ticket back to the Championship. In the absence of the fiery goal scorer, QPR battled to control possession and created some chances, but were held scoreless in the opening period.
Taraabt was a force throughout the game, continuing to improve and show his quality. He worked tirelessly at either end of the pitch, adding some defensive points to his attacking contributions. It has been a long, strange campaign for the midfielder but he looked every bit the engine he was to last season's promotion run. Barton and Derry held the midfield and Barton had a golden opportunity to be the hero, meeting a Bobby Zamora cross but only heading it right to the keeper. He added a huge block mid-way through the second half when Huth had a clear shot on goal, and overall put in one of his strongest matches since joining the club. Stoke created some moments of their own, but the defence held and their shots were rarely on target. At the other end, Jamie Mackie was a persistent annoyance for Huth, assaulting the larger man with a constant supply of intensity. He typifies the spirit of this team, never giving in or conceding the ball.
Cisse's introduction early in the second half was met with wild applause, but he struggled to make an impact as the game wore on. The introduction of Jay Bothroyd and Shaun Wright-Philips late in the day didn't inspire a ton of confidence, but the hour was late and with everything to lose the manager used his substitutes to press the attack. Wright-Philips moved with a quick counter to fire a shot that deflected out for a corner. Taraabt's delivery found Ferdinand who nodded it across the goal, and Cisse was there to tap in the winner. After eighty-nine grueling minutes of waiting, relief finally came and the roar shattered the tense atmosphere. The television feed covering the nervous gaze of owner Tony Fernandes put a face to the emotion, as he watched millions of pounds potentially circling the drain, before exploding in jubilation as the ball crossed the line. It was a momentous day and huge boost for the club as they try to stay in the top flight for another season.
As it stands, they now need some help to retain their position. Bolton's draw leaves them two points behind with a visit to Stoke on the final day of the season. QPR will be hoping Stoke's strong home form will continue, as a Bolton win could see them relegated. The R's meanwhile have the difficult task of heading to the blue side of Manchester to take on City, who can capture their first title in forty-four years with a victory. A draw will keep QPR up, but against the powerhouse champions-in-waiting, hoping even for that much is difficult. Rangers have been dreadful away from home this season, but they will try to summon whatever they have left to earn something from the clash, while City will try to keep pace with United. This is a team with quality, and they have pulled seemingly impossible feats this season, killing giants like Chelsea and Arsenal. It will be a huge mountain to climb, but the team and their noisy traveling supporters have to keep believing despite the odds. Whatever else, Showdown Sunday will hold plenty of excitement this season.
Come on you R''ssss!