19/03/2011 - 15.00
HOGAN Ephraim's second half solo effort was enough to settle a close encounter between Queens Park Rangers and Doncaster Rovers.
It was a win carved out by the Rangers engine room with sterling performances from Alejandro Faurlín and Shaun Derry in the heart of the R's midfield.
The league leaders were perhaps not at their creative best which owed much to the omission of playmaker Adel Taarabt, but nevertheless they had enough for mid-table Rovers.
Ephraim twisted and turned just moments after the break before drilling beyond Gary Woods in the home goal - a strike that shattered the malaise of what was a drab encounter.
While it was far from vintage from both sides, Rangers will undoubtedly and rightfully take confidence from a gritty and battling display that sees them extend their lead at the summit.
Eight games remain, Rangers remain ten points clear of Swansea City in third while the R's are now nine points clear of Norwich City in the runners-up spot.
Rangers were dealt a hammer-blow in the build up to the fixture with Adel Taarabt ruled out owing to a reported illness and Hogan Ephraim came in to replace the Moroccan playmaker.
Paddy Kenny therefore started behind the back four of Bradley Orr, Kaspars Gorkss, Fitz Hall and Clint Hill - Shaun Derry and Alejandro Faurlín linked up in the middle of the park.
Ephraim joined up with Tommy Smith and Wayne Routledge behind striker Heidar Helguson with Patrick Agyemang a surprise inclusion on the Rangers bench.
Doncaster started with Gary Woods behind a back four of Sam Hird, Shelton Martis, George Friend and Joseph Mills.
The midfield four comprised of James Coppinger, John Oster, Brian Stock and Simon Gillett with former QPR trialist Franck Moussa playing off James Hayter.
Kick Off: Doncaster Rovers v Queens Park Rangers
The weather was set fair over South Yorkshire as Queens Park Rangers travelled in their numbers to the Keepmoat Stadium. The league leaders were led to the field by club captain Fitz Hall in the absence of the talismanic Adel Taarabt.
Quite how his absence would have a bearing on Rangers performance and overall result would remain to be seen as Hogan Ephraim would look to fill some talented boots. The tentative opening stages of this encounter somewhat highlighted the omission of the Moroccan.
Both sides struggled to get the foot-hold on the fixture with the visitors closing down Doncaster at every opportunity. Indeed the hosts were evidently not going to be afforded the time to express their positive brand of passing play.
Shortly before the five minute mark Rangers nearly capitalised on some nervous defending when a succession of crosses failed to be cleared effectively. Tommy Smith then carved out a centre towards the stooping Heidar Helguson, who saw an effort crash back off the cross-bar.
The lack of opportunities was testament to QPR's defensive prowess with Shaun Derry in particular the driving force in both areas of the field. The Silver Fox pounced on loose balls and utilised the useful movement of Alejandro Faurlín to progress the play.
Paddy Kenny thwarted Rovers' first genuine opportunity of the encounter as John Oster's cross was cleared as far as Simon Gillett and the former Southampton midfielder struck an effort straight at the R's stopper.
Moments later Doncaster came closer still as James Coppinger got the better of Clint Hill following some nice interplay. His cross saw Franck Moussa slide in and clip a deflected effort off the left hand upright.
Despite the game proving somewhat of a stalemate thus far, Rangers were being afforded time and space on occasions and a deep cross from Bradley Orr fell to Helguson on the far post. His useful hold up play on the left saw him clip a cross back into the area.
Tommy Smith stole a yard on his marker to touch a deft effort goal-bound, only for Gary Woods to tip the ball around the post and away to safety. An opportunity for Rangers and a rare sighter in a fixture increasingly starved of quality and substance.
A speculative drive by Faurlín from distance was all that Rangers were able to offer midway through the first period as the clash continued to prove a war of attrition, not something generally associated with Doncaster Rovers.
Indeed Sean O'Driscoll seems to have forgone his previous footballing principles in favour of clawing together enough points to stay in the division. They were predominantly feeding the ball into the channels owing to a lack of a target man presence in the forward line.
Ephraim then thrashed wide after good work from Routledge, conversely up the other end Kaspars Gorkss had to be sharp to deny Brian Stock. The Rovers skipper had found some space to chance his arm but the Latvian international was able to snuff the effort out.
Stock was proving the key man for Rovers in the heart of midfield and his creativity was the overriding threat from a defensive perspective. His corner found Shelton Martis and the sizeable defender drew a smart save from Paddy Kenny.
The ex-West Bromwich Albion defender looped his header goal-bound only for Kenny to leap and tip the ball over the bar and away for a corner. Isolated incidents aside this was proving a hard-fought encounter where the first strike would prove crucial.
The two sides went into the break level-pegging in a fixture that was simmering if not proving too spectacular. Both sets of supporters hoped for more in the second period as at the break it was stale-mate for R's and Rovers.
Half Time: Doncaster Rovers 0-0 Queens Park Rangers
The impetus lie with Queens Park Rangers following the break, evidently Neil Warnock will have spurred them on at half time to take this game by the scruff of the neck and ensure they were the ones to settle this tight encounter.
It didn't take long for that advantage to manifest itself in a chance, and Rangers didn't disappoint their travelling faithful as they had the all-important lead in South Yorkshire. Derry and Routledge combined effectively for the latter to play a sublime reverse ball.
Hogan Ephraim was the target as he was allowed to coast inside of his marker before curling an effort beyond Woods and into the bottom left-hand corner. A hand from the Rovers 'keeper wasn't enough as Ephraim celebrated his start with a goal.
GOAL: Doncaster Rovers 0-1 Queens Park Rangers
Rangers nearly had a second five minutes later when an excellent cross to the far post saw Helguson close in on the target. He was denied by the linesman's flag as he delivered a powerful header inches wide of the right hand post.
The quality of the fixture was suffering through several factors, not least the performance of official Mr Gibbs. The referee seemed intent on stifling the game where unnecessary at times and this combined with three balls in the field of play after every stoppage made this a somewhat forgettable affair.
Woods was looking to distribute short, but the pressure from the Rangers front-line ensured that most efforts came down with snow on them. This frustrated sections of the home crowd whose side were not keeping possession or pressing Rangers as they'd hoped.
Their opening effort of the second period came shortly before the hour mark as Moussa - a pre-season trialist in QPR's draw against Plymouth Argyle - latched on to a deep cross from Coppinger before glancing wide of the post.
Goalscorer Ephraim was replaced by Ákos Buzsáky in a bid to maintain their hold on the fixture with Buzsáky perhaps the more natural ball player, if not yet up to full match fitness after returning from injury.
Bradley Orr was cautioned after bringing down a marauding Joseph Mills before Rovers' lone forward James Hayter - appearing in dire need of support - struck high and wide of the left-hand upright. With perennial goalscorer Dean Shiels warming the bench it begged the question as to why O'Driscoll wouldn't venture with two up front.
Shelton Martis' deep cross found its way to the danger-man Moussa once more, but once again he failed to truly test the under-worked Kenny as Rangers were able to clear with the minimum of fuss and issue.
Despite having the majority of the play on the counter-attack, Rangers were not providing the most entertaining of spectacles, being pressurised by the home side at every opportunity. Indeed when the chance did present itself that final touch was lacking to truly punish an uninspiring Rovers.
Substitute and Tottenham Hotspur loanee Ryan Mason attempted to take matters into his own hands, but lashed an effort high, wide and handsome upon his introduction. Veteran forward Jason Euell was then thrown on at the expense of the lacklustre Hayter.
The substitutions were breaking what was a rather monotonous sequence of play, as Rangers had become content with their advantage and looked to slow the clock down accordingly, while the uninventive nature of O'Driscoll's side also contributed to the dour nature of this fixture.
Helguson left the field to a rapturous reception to be replaced by Rob Hulse, this season's forgotten man in light of the latter's form. Hulse however appeared to show brief flurries of promise in his short spell on the field.
Doubtless buoyed by his hatrick in the reserves he attempted to out-fight an increasingly ponderous rearguard. It was play that was worthy Laurel and Hardy themselves as the ball dropped from height and Hulse and Martis watched the ball bounce around them.
Naturally the defenders began to sit a little deeper for the visitors as the final pieces of play forged themselves in the Rangers' half. Hall and Gorkss held firm to clear some speculative crosses, but only Euell carved out an effort of note that drifted wide of the post three minutes into injury time.
The final whistle was met with a great reception from the visiting support who knew that their side had genuinely fought hard in what was a testing encounter. Results elsewhere including a Norwich draw saw Rangers extend their lead over second place, but maintain their gap on third.
Hardly the most vintage of fixtures to attend but nevertheless it could prove to be as defining as some of the more exciting fixtures this season. A first victory at the Keepmoat, a victory in Doncaster for the first time in over 50 years, and QPR are now looking good bets for promotion.
Final Whistle: Doncaster Rovers 0-1 Queens Park Rangers
Gary Woods, Sam Hird, Shelton Martis, George Friend, Joseph Mills, James Coppinger, John Oster (Ryan Mason 67), Brian Stock, Simon Gillett (Mustapha Dumbuya 84), Franck Moussa, James Hayter (Jason Euell 75).
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Paddy Kenny, Bradley Orr, Kaspars Gorkss, Fitz Hall, Clint Hill, Alejandro Damián Faurlín, Shaun Derry, Wayne Routledge, Hogan Ephraim (Ákos Buzsáky 63), Tommy Smith, Heidar Helguson (Rob Hulse 80)
His partnership forged with Faurlín has proven the back-bone of the Rangers' set-up and could indeed be deemed one of the biggest successes of the campaign. All credit for another great display.