Queen's Park Rangers nearly pulled off an unlikely Easter Monday resurrection last night, fighting back from 3-0 down at Fulham but not quite rescuing the crucial points they need.
After QPR started the game like relegation certainties, goals from Adel Taarabt and Loïc Rémy either side of half-time dragged them back into it. But they could not score a third, and so they are left seven points adrift of safety with seven games left.
It did not take a detailed study of the Premier League table beforehand to know what Rangers needed last night. This was their 31st game of the season and they began it seven points behind Aston Villa and Wigan and eight behind Sunderland. Wins were the only medicine. The QPR manager, Harry Redknapp, said before kick-off that he needed four wins from his last eight games – as many as they took from their first 30.
Rangers have won the least because they have scored the fewest, with just 26 league goals before last night. So Redknapp picked a team to get goals. Bobby Zamora led the line with Rémy and Andros Townsend either side of him. And Taarabt came in for his first start since February.
The logic was impeccable but the plan did not work. Rangers could not get the ball and, more importantly, could not defend either. Two disastrous errors from Christopher Samba allowed Dimitar Berbatov to roll Fulham into an early 2-0 lead.
First, after just eight minutes, the Bulgarian was shielding the ball from Samba on the edge of the box. He turned away and the defender tried to follow. Ashkan Dejagah darted into the box to take the ball, Samba was unaware, realised too late and clumsily brought him down. It was an obvious penalty and Berbatov scored it with the casual shrugging precision with which he did everything on another excellent night.
Fulham continued to dominate, with Bryan Ruiz twice going close. A second goal felt inevitable and it came after 22 minutes, requiring even less effort from Fulham than the first.
Samba exchanged passes with Jose Bosingwa on the edge of his own box but, with the ball back at his own feet, took too long to decide what to do. Damien Duff sensed this, and stole the ball, which broke to Berbatov and he stabbed it underneath Julio Cesar and in with the outside of his right boot.
If Fulham's first two goals were gifts their third was certainly earned. One of the best passing moves of the season, involving nearly their whole team, took them up the pitch and it climaxed with a Brede Hangeland back-heel to John Arne Riise, which led to a cross which Clint Hill turned into his own net.
That might have ended the game but Redknapp's plan was vindicated, albeit three goals too late, when Taarabt scored just before the break. Giorgios Karagounis misplaced a back pass which Zamora nodded to Taarabt, who burst forward and shot through Hangeland's legs into the far bottom corner. Momentum is a powerful thing, though, and despite everything Rangers started the second half positively, hoping to make up a margin which did not look too insurmountable. They started to push Fulham back and soon drew a crucial error.
Karagounis tripped Taarabt in the box just three minutes into the second half. It was another clear penalty, which Rémy stepped up to take. He made it too clear to Schwarzer, though, that he was aiming for his bottom-left corner and the kick was saved.
That might have floored other teams or players but Rémy, to his credit, made amends three minutes later with a very well-taken goal, his fourth for Rangers. Stéphane Mbia played a brisk forward pass to the Frenchman, lurking between Fulham's centre-backs. He spun on to it, shrugged off Philippe Senderos and finished into the near top corner before Schwarzer could reach him. Somehow Rangers were within one goal and when Schwarzer had to dive to repel Townsend's shot from distance, the implausible Rangers comeback appeared strangely likely.
Rangers played with impressive fluency for a team which could not get on the ball for the first 30 minutes. Schwarzer saved from Samba and Zamora's shots from the edge of the box while Rémy flashed a shot over after turning Hangeland.
When Steve Sidwell was sent off for a reckless late tackle on Armand Traoré, there was more space for a late Rangers push for a point. Rangers had all of the ball but could not create enough, and so left without what they came for.
Scorers. Fulham: Berbatov pen 8, 22, Hill og 41. QPR: Taarabt 45, Rémy 51
Substitutions: Fulham Emanuelson (Dejagah, 38). Queen's Park Rangers Onuoha (Hill, h-t), Hoilett (Taarabt, 75), Traoré (Mackie, 84).
Booked: Fulham Riether, Senderos. QPR Hill.
Sent off: Fulham Sidwell (79).
Man of the match Berbatov.
Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Fulham 48%. QPR 52%.
Attempts on target: Fulham 3. QPR 7.
Referee L Probert (Wiltshire).