He also said he still expected Queen's Park Rangers to finish in the top half of the Premier League this season. Neither of those convictions looks particularly safe after Southampton outplayed QPR at Loftus Road to claim their first away win of the season and give further justification for their supporters' faith in manager Nigel Adkins. Goals form Rickie Lambert and Jason Puncheon put Southampton gave Southampton a two-goal lead in the firsts half and although Junior Hoilett netted for the hosts early in the second, the visitors deservedly went home with three points, their victory secured when Anton Ferdinand deflected a Morgan Scheiderlin cross into his own goal six minutes form time. QPR remain botom of the league, the only team without a win all campaign.
Both managers had assigned part of the blame for their early-season woes to the instability caused by injuries so they were relieved that for this crucial clash they were able to choose line-ups that were unchanged from their last outing. It was the first time Hughes has done that this season and only the second time for Adkins and it reflected both men's belief that their teams have been performing better in recent weeks than their league positions suggested. Adkins found far more sustenance for that conviction in the first half as his team made a vibrant and combative start, contrasting with the passive hosts.
Frequently Southampton have been caught out by being too open this season but here they were vigilant and tough, with Jack Cork marshalling midfield and the young fullbacks Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw being amongst the visitors making fine crunching tackles. That gave Southampton the platform on which to show their fluent attacking play. Adam Lallana and Gaston Ramirez combined slickly in the in the sixth minute before the midfielder fired just over. Lallana again came close to scoring in the ninth minute when he just failed to connect with a Jason Puncheon cross that rebounded back of the post.
That warning woke the home side up. Adel Taarabt, as ever, led their resurgence, dribbling past three defenders before forcing Paulo Gazzaniga into a solid save in the 15th minute. Southampton soon seized back the initiative and took the lead with a goal that typified the difference between the sides. Gaston Ramirez showed the wit and composure that QPR were lacking when he brought intelligence to a goalmouth scramble by laying the ball into the path of Jose Fonte, whose low drive was turned goalward by Puncheon. Jose Bosingwa cleared it off the line but Lambert showed greater determination than any of the defenders to head into the net from close range.
Even before that the 3,000 travelling fans had been chanting their support for Adkins and they had further cause for joy just before half-time when Clyne, again demonstrating Southampton's superior vigour, won the ball back of Armand Traoré outside the QPR box and passed to Puncheon, who rolled past Alejandro Faurlin and curled a low shot into the net from 18 yards.
Furious boos accompanied the home side on the way to the dressing room. Hughes had to do something and he chose to introduce Jamie Mackie for the second half in place of Faurlin and switch to 4-4-2. All Southampton had to do, meanwhile, was repeat their first-half display.
But there was to be no first clean sheet of the season for Saints. The resumption brought improvement from QPR, with Djibril Cissé going close in the 46th minute before Hoilett halved the deficit, heading a Taarabt cross into the net. The goal, and Gazzaniga's bungled attempt to cut out the cross, infused new belief into the home fans, transforming the atmosphere. Puncheon nearly punctured the new optimism straight away but Cesar saved his powerful shot form the edge of the box.
With play hurtling from end to end Adkins decided to tighten things up in the 61st minute and introduced midfielder Steven Davis for Ramirez. That did not put a halt to their attacking, however. On the contrary. They should have extended their lead in the 65th minute when Lambert nodded a Schneiderlin cross to Puncheon, who dragged his shot wide from eight yards.
One minute later Puncheon almost compensated for that but his 20-yard rocket flew inches wide. Taarabt presented Cissé with a chance to score against the run of play in the 72nd minute but the Frenchman's shanked wide in familiar fashion. Cesar then had to make a good blocks from Puncheon and Maya Yoshida But the goalkeeper was helpless in the 84th minute when Schneiderlin was given time to size up a cross and set a low one to the near post, where Ferdinand diverted it into his own goal. Such basic mistakes have been all too frequent from QPR this season. Next week they travel to Manchester United. With or without Hughes, is the question.
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image: © Tom Cuppens