SUNDERLAND’S miserable winless run extended to six games after they were pegged from behind by basement boys QPR.
While Wigan’s FA Cup exertions ensured the gap with the relegation zone remained at six points, a fourth defeat in five left Sunderland facing the very real prospect of being thrust back into the dogfight.
Steven Fletcher’s 11th goal of the season – against the run of play – had given the Black Cats a first half lead, yet they were pegged back 10 minutes later when Loic Remy pounced on a fortuitous deflection off John O’Shea.
QPR had been the better side in the opening half, yet after the break, the encounter became increasingly scrappy until the unmarked Andros Townsend looped a stunning 25-yard volley into the top corner with 20 minutes to go.
Sunderland’s response was tame and Jermaine Jenas sealed QPR’s victory in the last minute with another long-range volley.
The Black Cats were unchanged for a third successive game, as Martin O’Neill resisted the temptation to throw fit-again Danny Rose straight back into the starting line-up.
Rose was included among the substitutes, where there was no place for James McClean, who missed out through illness.
QPR boss Harry Redknapp made four changes from the side which won at Southampton, including relegating last week’s match-winner Jay Bothroyd to the bench, with Bobby Zamora preferred.
Fabio, Andros Townsend and back-up keeper Rob Green were the other inclusions, with Julio Cesar, Armand Traore and Esteban Granero the players to miss out.
Junior Hoilett gave Sunderland an early scare in the fourth minute when he burst past Craig Gardner down the left-hand channel of the area and directed a low left-footed shot across the face which skimmed inches wide of the far post.
But against the run of play, it was the Black Cats who broke the deadlock in the 20th minute when they hit QPR on the break from a free-kick punted into the Sunderland area.
Alfred N’Diaye found Steven Fletcher on halfway and the striker helped it on to Stephane Sessegnon down the right with a back-heel.
Sessegnon twisted and turned as he entered the penalty area and lifted a cross to the far post which picked out Adam Johnson.
The England winger drove in a cross-come-shot which was diverted into the net from six yards out by Fletcher.
Danny Graham had a chance to double the advantage in the 27th minute when Seb Larsson whipped in a cross from the right, which saw Christopher Samba slip as he tried to head clear.
Graham just couldn’t readjust after seeing Samba fall to the turf and sent a looping header harmlessly high and wide from eight yards.
But QPR were level on the half-hour mark after a hefty slice of fortune.
Townsend drifted inside from the left and unleashed a left-footed shot from 25 yards which deflected off the heel of John O’Shea, straight into the path of Loic Remy, the wrong side of the Sunderland back-line.
Remy kept his cool and clipped the ball coolly beyond Simon Mignolet into the far corner.
Three minutes later, Remy helped on Townsend’s cross from the left with a glancing header which Mignolet managed to gather low to his right.
The French striker immediately went close again when he directed Zamora’s knock-down over the top with a volley from eight yards out.
Stephane Mbia tried his luck from 25 yards in the 38th minute with a powerful right-footed effort straight at Mignolet, which the Sunderland keeper could only gather at the second attempt.
HALF-TIME QPR 1 Sunderland 1
Johnson let fly with a powerful right-footed shot from 20 yards within two minutes of the restart, but it fizzed a couple of yards wide.
Sunderland made their first change in the 57th minute with Rose coming on for Graham – a change that saw Jack Colback move into midfield, Larsson switch to the right and Sessegnon drop into the hole behind Fletcher.
But with the game becoming increasingly scrappy, QPR again found a goal out of nothing as they took the lead in the 70th minute.
Sunderland failed to clear their lines from a free-kick punted into their area and when Fletcher could only head as far as Townsend, unmarked 25 yards out, the on-loan Spurs winger controlled on his chest and unleashed a volley which looped beyond Mignolet into the far corner.
Townsend went close to a second in the 81st minute when he curled a right-footed free-kick into the side netting from 25 yards out, to the left of goal.
But the victory was secured in the last minute when Shaun Wright-Phillips’ low ball in from the right was only cleared as far as fellow substitute Jermaine Jenas, 25 yards out.
The former Newcastle United man unleashed a first-time volley which rocketed into the bottom corner.
QPR almost added a fourth moments later, when Jamie Mackie pounced on Bramble’s weak backward header, but he was thwarted by Mignolet, who had raced off his line.
FULL-TIME QPR 3 Sunderland 1
QPR: Green, Bosingwa, Samba, Hill, Fabio, Townsend, Park, Mbia, Hoilett (Wright-Phillips 78), Zamora (Mackie 73), Remy (Jenas 81). Subs not used: Murphy, Wright-Phillips, Onuoha, Bothroyd.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Gardner, Bramble, O’Shea, Colback (Bardsley 81), Sessegnon, Larsson, N’Diaye (Vaughan 77), Johnson, Fletcher, Graham (Rose 57). Subs not used: Kilgallon, Mangane, Cuellar, Westwood. Booked: N’Diaye (60), Gardner (72)
* Don’t miss the Football Echo, out tomorrow morning, for all the reaction and our big-match verdict, plus Chris Young looks at a busy summer as Sunderland have to boost squad numbers.