Rafael's exquisite strike helped Manchester United stay on course for the Barclays Premier League title today as embattled QPR's survival hopes took another blow.
With a 15-point lead before Manchester City play Chelsea today, United, one of the Hollies’ local teams, are clearly heading for their 20th number one (more than the Beatles), while Queens Park Rangers seem increasingly certain to drop out of the top 20.
If there was a surprise, it was that Harry Redknapp’s side remained in contention for so long, not submitting until the evergreen Ryan Giggs added a second goal to the one that Rafael had smashed into the home side’s net midway through the first half. Giggs, on his 999th senior game for club and country, had a hand in that one too and was outstanding throughout.
Rangers followers of long standing may just remember him scoring an almost identical one at the same end in 1994, when United won 3-2. “I think it was 30 years ago,” Sir Alex Ferguson joked, adding of yesterday’s fine finish low into the far corner of the net: “It was crucial timing because when you’re only one-nil up with about 12 minutes to go, anything can happen. Ryan’s goal put it to bed.”
Both men are too long in the tooth to start talking about another title, Ferguson contenting himself with: “We’re in a better position than we were yesterday. The only way we can approach it is to win the next game and then the next and see where it takes us.”
In between those assignments comes the second leg of the Champions’ League tie against Real Madrid and if there was anything to concern Ferguson yesterday it would have been the injury to Robin van Persie, who with 19 League goals has as many as the whole QPR squad put together.
In the build-up to the opening goal, the Dutchman collided with a cameraman stationed behind the goal in a dangerous-looking pit. But Ferguson, in relaxed mood, said: “It’s a sore hip and will be a little tender for a few days.”
United made full use of the four strikers at their disposal, a luxury which rivals City no longer have since Mario Balotelli left. In contrast, and as the statistics show, Rangers are woefully short of goals, having failed to score one at home in five League games since Boxing Day. Redknapp is therefore putting his faith in Bobby Zamora and the expensively acquired Loic Remy, who yesterday just about managed 90 minutes between them.
“We don’t score any goals because we haven’t had any forwards,” Redknapp said. “But with 11 games to go I can see those two doing some damage. I still feel we’ll get out of it, I really do.” He has also forgiven Jose Bosingwa, a surprise inclusion for the first time since refusing to be a substitute against Fulham before Christmas: “He made a mistake but we can’t keep paying his wages for two and a half years and not play him any more.”
It was the opposing right-back, the energetic Rafael, who became the dominant figure in the first half, before Giggs took over the show. Rangers, unable to play his twin brother Fabio because he is on loan from United, were struggling to make any impression. On the only occasion they did, Christopher Samba met Esteban Granero’s corner with a firm header that may just have been creeping inside the post before the Brazilian full-back nodded it off the line.
At that point, the visitors were already ahead through a stunning goal. Giggs started the move by snapping up possession and sending Van Persie to the byline for an angled shot that Julio Cesar pushed away beyond the penalty area. Rafael was following up and, unlike so many players, kept his head down to send the ball arrowing into the top corner of the net, giving his compatriot not a hope of saving.
Van Persie needed a long period of treatment and resumed for a quarter of an hour – forcing Cesar to a smart save from a volley off Rafael’s cross – but was in clear discomfort and eventually made way for Danny Welbeck.
Zamora’s replacement, Remy, did at least demand David de Gea’s only save, but it took brave blocks by Clint Hill and another substitute, Jermaine Jenas, to prevent further damage at the other end before Giggs finally inflicted it.
After a sudden counter-attack initially seemed to have broken down with Wayne Rooney’s wayward pass, Welbeck’s determination kept the move alive. He found Nani, who slipped Giggs through for the calmest of finishes, with Rangers wrongly claiming offside.
Behind the goal, where almost 4,000 United followers were singing hymns to Giggs and Michael Carrick, one banner read “AAA rating”. They are in considerably better shape than the UK economy and in no danger of being downgraded, whatever ideas Roberto Mancini may have.
QPR ((4-4-1-1): Julio Cesar; Bosingwa, Samba, Hill, Traore; Townsend (Hoilett, 72), Granero (Jenas, h-t), Mbia, Mackie; Taarabt; Zamora (Remy, 61).
Manchester Utd (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Giggs, Young (Valencia, 67); Van Persie (Welbeck, 41), Hernandez (Rooney, 61).
Referee: Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match: Giggs (Man Utd)
Match rating: 6/10