Aston Villa 1 QPR 3 - Report and pictures
Even though Villa can’t say they weren’t warned, this must still go down as comfortably their most stunning defeat of the season.
QPR arrived at Villa Park having won only twice on the road all season, while Villa had been beaten only once in the Championship on their home turf.
Yet it was the visitors who departed with three well-deserved points, while dealing the hosts a defeat which leaves them facing an uphill battle in the race for automatic promotion.
First-half goals from Ryan Manning and Jake Bidwell, coupled with substitute Luke Freeman’s late strike prior to James Chester’s late consolation, were enough to earn Ian Holloway’s men the victory on an evening every bit as nervy as boss Steve Bruce had warned it would be.
A Villa team who functioned so well in Saturday’s 4-1 win against Wolves were knocked off their stride by determined visitors, with too many key men were well below par.
Even more galling for Villa was that this serious slip-up occured on the same night Cardiff claimed a superb 3-1 win at Brentford to extend their advantage in second place to seven points.
With the Bluebirds still to visit Villa Park next month, the race is for the top two is far from run yet for Bruce’s men it is undoubtedly an uphill battle from here.
Bruce, who named an unchanged team, had been warning within half-an-hour of Saturday’s final whistle the importance of his players retaining focus for what promised to be a very different challenge to the one posed by Wolves.
Villa’s sluggish start will therefore have infuriated the manager, with the visitors being allowed to settle and find their rhythm.
Smith tested Villa keeper Sam Johnstone as early as the second minute with a low effort from outside the box which the keeper was forced to tip round the post. The striker should then have done better soon after with a header from a free-kick directed straight at Johnstone.
Even so the opener, when it arrived on 12 minutes, seemed to catch Villa cold.
The ball was worked out to the left wing and Bidwell, who delivered a whipped cross which Freeman, having escaped the attentions of Chester, glanced past Johnstone and into the net.
Villa looked to rally and almost found an equaliser when Albert Adomah cut in from the left and delivered a curling effort which a back-pedalling Smithies did well to tip round the post. From the resulting corner, John Terry was inches away from converting Mile Jedinak’s flick-on from a yard or so out.
But QPR continued to look dangerous and Villa were given another scare when Smith once more sent a header straight at Johnstone.
On 33 minutes, to the disbelief of the home crowd, the visitors’ lead was doubled. Good work down the right ended with Pawel Wszolek’s pull-back from the byline being missed by a host of players in the box until it eventually arrived at the feet Bidwell, who drove the ball past Johnstone with the aid of a deflection.
Now the pressure really was on the hosts. Hourihane saw a shot from the edge of the box blocked and then tumbled in vain while appealing for a spot-kick.
It too until the final seconds of the half for Villa to test Smithies. When Snodgrass crossed from the right, Grealish looked certain to score but the R’s keeper kept out the header with a superb one-handed save.
Villa needed a quick start after the break but struggled to find one and Bruce reacted by with a tactical change, switching to three at the back and introducing Keinan Davis to partner Lewis Grabban up front.
Yet Smithies remained untroubled, with a Snodgrass volley which crept inches wide of the post the only time he was forced to break sweat in the opening 20 minutes of the period.
Instead it was Johnstone who was called into action to deny Freeman with his legs as the R’s began to become a threat on the counter, with Eberechi Eze also shooting wide.
Bruce introduced Scott Hogan off the bench in a bid to find anything which might spark his side.
But for all their possession, Villa could not find a way past the resolute visiting backline and with nine minutes to go any hopes of a comeback were erased when Freeman was allowed to turn in the box before firing past Johnstone.
Villa’s night was not without some joy, Chester firing home following a short corner for his third goal in as many games.
It could well prove a crucial strike, should goal difference become a factor. Yet it was of slim comfort, on a night to forget.
Villa (4-1-4-1): Johnstone, Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Taylor (Davis 56), Jedinak, Snodgrass, Grealish, Hourihane (Bjarnason 81), Adomah, Grabban (Hogan 66) Subs not used: Bree, Lansbury, Onomah, Bunn (gk).
QPR: Smithies, Furlong, Onuoha ©, Lynch, Bidwell, Wszolek (Perch 72), Luongo, Scowen, Manning (Cousins 74), Eze (Freeman 78), Smith Subs not used: Washington, Baptiste, Osayi-Samuel.