At first glance Pavel Pogrebnyak can appear a brute of a forward, all muscular presence and awkward upper body strength to batter opponents mercilessly into submission. Yet Queens Park Rangers, a club so craving a victory over top-flight opposition, have now twice fallen victim to his incongruously delicate touch.
The home side were still coming to terms with surrendering a lead late on here when Jay Tabb and Noel Hunt combined in the penalty area and the Russian back-heeled the Irishman's skewed pass subtly, almost casually, beyond Júlio César. It was a cute conversion, the Brazilian aghast and on his knees as the ball dribbled inside the post. The home fans' misery was sustained even after Pogrebnyak's thumped penalty was saved in stoppage time. Perhaps he should have clipped that nonchalantly, too.
The miss did not matter with a home tie against Arsenal secured in the fourth round, an occasion the former Zenit St Petersburg and Stuttgart striker will relish. Pogrebnyak has looked the part in English football since arriving initially with Fulham in January and the 28-year-old Muscovite has already celebrated a winner at Loftus Road after scoring here for the Cottagers back in February. Here was another to cherish.
"It was a terrific finish," acknowledged Brian McDermott after a sequence of three defeats to Premier League teams had been halted and his own side looked more like that which had sprinted to promotion last term. "In the last two games, against Spurs and West Brom, we haven't performed to our level, so we needed to rediscover our 'identity'. We needed to strip the team back to what we're about. Our tempo's been slow, we haven't created chances, but we did that tonight."
Their comeback was startling. QPR had been the more urgent and creative side for long periods, chiselling out two leads amid their profligacy only to surrender each as sloppiness gripped before the home support's celebrations could even recede. Junior Hoilett's opener had been brilliantly crafted, the Canadian scuttling away from Adrian Mariappa and Sam Cummings before fizzing his finish across Alex McCarthy and into the far corner. Djibril Cissé's second was just as spectacular, the Frenchman collecting 20 yards out, fluffing an attempt to pass wide right and, instead, thrashing a shot from distance that flew beyond McCarthy.
Had some of the other good opportunities been taken – McCarthy blocked well from Jamie Mackie and Cissé – QPR might still have forced their way into the fourth round for the second time in 16 years. Yet Kaspars Gorkss, back at the club for whom he had played 124 times, powered home a fine header to secure an equaliser within two minutes of Hoilett's first Rangers goal. Nicky Shorey's glorious late free-kick, arced from 25 yards to clip the bar and bounce in with César flummoxed, was plucked from a tie QPR felt they had already won. "We thought we'd done enough," said Mark Hughes. He was horribly wrong.
His own side will continue to struggle while they remain this prone to implosion, even if he could point to new personnel settling into a makeshift back-line here, the imposing Stéphane Mbia ending his debut by flooring Pogrebnyak for the penalty. Yet their chief regret may be to be denied the fillip their campaign desperately needs. The winning goal rather summed up the chaos that can flare in their back-line. "We're conceding poor goals," added Hughes. "There was too much space and too many errors to allow the lad to back-heel a finish in the six-yard box." The finish was still sublime, with the Royals resplendent.
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