Defeat to QPR sends alarm bells ringing at Sunderland

Queens Park Rangers' goalkeeper Robert Green and Clint Hill (floor) appear dejected after Sunderland's Steven Fletcher scores the opening goal of the game during the Barclays Premier League match at Loftus Road.
Queens Park Rangers' goalkeeper Robert Green and Clint Hill (floor) appear dejected after Sunderland's Steven Fletcher scores the opening goal of the game during the Barclays Premier League match at Loftus Road.
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A WELTER of unwanted statistics washed over Sunderland fans at the final whistle of a game which was among the most alarming and depressing of the Black Cats’ entire season.

Those supporters will be finding it difficult to keep their heads above water right now especially as the suspicion grows that if they’re not panicking, it’s because they haven’t appreciated the gravity of the situation.

There they stood angrily, impotently, in yet another away enclosure they had sold out – fleeced for £45 at a grasping Loftus Road – and paying the price in any way you cared to choose.

Some of them flicked the Vs at the players who sheepishly acknowledged them in the wake of having claimed just two points from their last 18.

But mainly they were in shell-shock at a result which had plunged their club right back into the relegation mire.

It’s not just that at 30 points Sunderland are not out of it yet. It’s the fact you’re beginning to see where the next point is coming from – no disappointing Sunderland result really surprises you.

And if Norwich are not beaten at the Stadium of Light this Sunday, everyone fears the worst with Chelsea and Manchester United to come and perhaps Newcastle at St James’s Park to apply a humiliating coup de grace.

Should that grim prospect come to pass, Sunderland will be right in the thick of it with Wigan, QPR and Villa – always assuming those sides have not already slipped past them.

And if that’s not to become a realistic prospect then Sunderland have to improve in all areas of the pitch, bar goalkeeping.

Too pessimistic? Maybe.

Hopefully.

But it’s hard to be bullish after the league’s rock-bottom side gave themselves hope of avoiding the drop at floundering Sunderland’s expense.

QPR are the league’s lowest goalscorers but they managed to fire three past the Black Cats at the weekend. Rangers had not scored at Loftus Road in the league since Boxing Day, but they filled their boots against Martin O’Neill’s men.

They had not won back-to-back Premier League games since 1995, but they managed it on Sunderland’s visit. They have not come from behind to win a game in over a year but they managed that, too.

Dispiriting stuff, and yet the Wearsiders had arrived in London with statistics their friend – undefeated in their last 11 encounters again QPR, not having lost to the Londoners since 1991, winning four of their last five at Loftus Road.

They were given the best possible start too, when they took a 20th-minute lead courtesy of Steven Fletcher’s 11th goal of the season – despite failing to shine in the opening stages.

Both managers had favoured a 4-4-2 formation in a game they’d targeted for a win. O’Neill kept faith in the Fletcher-Danny Graham strike-force – but it was QPR who were very much on top in the opening stages.

Left-winger Junior Hoilett posed the first threat four minutes into the game when he drove a low shot from the left of goal just wide of Simon Mignolet’s far post.

Five minutes later, he cut inside to fire a swerving shot wide of the goal frame and, on the quarter-hour, curled in an in-swinging low centre which Bobby Zamora almost capitalised on.

Yet it was the Black Cats who drew first blood when their first convincing move of the game bore fruit.

O’Neill had bemoaned Sunderland conceding from their own dead-ball in the previous game against Fulham, but the same fate befell QPR after Titus Bramble cleared a free-kick which Mignolet had unconvincingly punched away.

The ball was worked forward and Fletcher fed Sessegnon with a clever back-heel which allowed the African to carry the ball forward and jink into the area from the right.

He dribbled past two opponents before lofting a cross to the far post where Adam Johnson fired goalwards from a narrow angle and Fletcher turned the ball just inside the near post from five yards out.

A true bottom-of-the-table side might have had their spirit broken after their bright start but QPR’s January transfer-window strengthened side simply raised their game.

They were going nowhere though until a huge stroke of good fortune put them right back in the game on the half-hour.

Winger Andros Townsend’s speculative shot from outside the box was presenting no danger until it deflected wickedly off John O’Shea’s boot into the grateful path of Loic Remy, who lifted a shot over the advancing Mignolet for his third goal in four games.

Having conceded unluckily, Sunderland had to be glad not to go behind before the break, with Stephane Mbia and Remy (twice) having decent chances.

After half-time, it looked as though it might be a different story as Sunderland started brightly and Johnson drove a rising shot across the face and narrowly wide in the 47th minute.

This was the moment where you thought Sunderland might assert themselves. Take charge.

But, instead, the game became scrappier and scrappiers as two struggling sides battled for advantage.

O’Neill brought on Danny Rose for Graham, pushing Jack Colback into midfield and moving Seb Larsson out to the right wing, but the switch yielded little.

With open play so uninspiring, if another goal was to come, you sensed it would be from a set-piece from either side.

Instead it was a moment of magic.

Jose Bosingwa’s 70th-minute free-kick into the box was only half-cleared by another Mignolet punch before Fletcher’s header dropped to Townsend, 22 yards out, who waited for it to sit up before striking it on the half-volley.

The England Under-21 winger had been trying his luck from range all game, but this one came off in spectacular fashion – a sweet left-foot shot which arced up and over a crowded penalty area and scorched into the top right-hand corner of Mignolet’s goal.

For a Sunderland side which has struggled to come back from going behind all season, it always looked like being too much of an ask that they might equalise for a second week in a row.

So it proved.

The game ended with QPR on top and if any side was going to score in the dying stages it was the home team.

Man-mountain centre-half Christopher Samba, who along with Clint Hill gave Sunderland’s attackers little encouragement, was able to get forward and head over the bar.

And then, on the stroke of full-time, QPR got their third – ex-Magpie Jermaine Jenas applying the final cruel cut when he lashed home another 22-yard volley which swerved and dipped and flashed past Mignolet.

That brought yet another unwanted statistic – Jenas’s first Premier League goal since 2009.

In fact, all three of QPR’S goals were courtesy of their January work – new signings Remy and Jenas and on-loan Spurs man Townsend.

But if you thought that was as bad as it could get, matters could have been made worse had substitute Jamie Mackie managed to squeeze the ball past Mignolet in a one-on-one in time added on.

It was a reminder that as bad as things get, they can always get worse.

Not a pleasant thought with unpredictable Norwich awaiting and three horribly challenging games lying just beyond that.