Mark Hughes remained sanguine. He will be the last man at Loftus Road to start panicking, but the good news is that for now the players appear to be in his corner. The passing was calm and measured, the body language encouraging.
This was not the performance of a team propping up the table, but then QPR are by no means the worst team in the league. All that remains is to prove it.
“It’s not falling for us at the moment, but we’ve gone up against most of the top 10 and competed,” Hughes said. “There will be a period when results go for us. We showed today that our football is good, but we haven’t been able to take that final step. It’s really frustrating.”
Once again, they were struck by the curse of the promising half-hour. Against West Ham United, it came early in the second half. Here, as against Tottenham Hotspur last month, it was at the start. A sparkling opening, illuminated by the nimble Junior Hoilett, gave way to a soft equaliser. Even Steven Pienaar’s dismissal after an hour failed to tilt the game in QPR’s favour.
Everton ultimately held on with a degree of comfort. “It shows the spirit we’ve got,” said Phil Jagielka, who had an excellent game. “We’ve dug in. Once we went down to 10 men we did a very good job and limited them to very few chances.” David Moyes’s side remain fourth after this performance, a dogged rearguard in driving rain.
They might even have pinched the points on the counter-attack, or if referee Jonathan Moss had spotted Stephane Mbia’s foul on Nikica Jelavic in the penalty area. But after the same man had harshly despatched Pienaar for a second bookable offence, Everton would have taken a point.
They would certainly have taken a point after two minutes, when QPR stormed into a surprise lead. An Everton corner was cleared to Hoilett, who shrugged off Phil Neville to retain the ball and wind his way over the halfway line. Adel Taarabt made the decoy run to his left, but Hoilett only had eyes for goal. His shot
was heading comfortably for Tim Howard, before nicking the heels of the covering Leighton Baines and looping in.
Such luck that can kick-start a season. For much of the first half QPR played with freedom and brio as they attempted to build on it. But gradually the visitors got a foothold in the game, with Jelavic seeing a free-kick saved.
The set-piece looked Everton’s likeliest source of a goal. So it proved when Everton benefited from good fortune. Pienaar’s free-kick was headed towards goal by an unmarked Sylvain Distin. The ball evaded the diving Júlio César, kissed the post, ricocheted back off Cesar’s leg and into the bottom corner.
There were further chances at both ends. Moss waved away Jelavic’s penalty appeals. Jagielka saw a header hit the crossbar. The England defender then produced an excellent diving block to deny Ji-Sung Park at close range.
On the hour, though, the tenor of the match shifted once again. Pienaar chased down Jose Bosingwa, who darted clear. As Bosingwa pulled his foot back to cross, there was the faintest of touches on his heel.
Having received an earlier yellow card for a late slide on Hoilett, Pienaar would play no further part. “Rubbish,” Moyes said of the decision, adding an assessment of the official. “He had a poor game all day.”
All frills were abandoned in anticipation of a late QPR assault. Jelavic came off for Johnny Heitinga. Hoilett went closest to winning the game 10 minutes from time, with a delightful shimmy followed by a curling shot from 20 yards that was matched in its brilliance only by Howard’s fingertip save.
“The sending-off actually helped them,” Hughes said. “They were able to get two banks of four in and get people behind the ball to block our efforts to open them up.”
Unless his own side can match Everton’s defensive resolve, the Premier League table will continue to make for painful reading.