When asked at the start of the season how he thought Adel Taarabt would fare in the Premier League, Harry Redknapp ventured the opinion that the player whom he let go to Queens Park Rangers for around £1m in 2010 would start the campaign in scorching form before fizzling out. It turns out Redknapp was unwittingly forecasting Tottenham's season.
Taarabt, considered full of flair but flaky when at White Hart Lane, scored the only goal of this intense game from a fine long-range free-kick to increase Rangers' chance of avoiding relegation and jeopardise Tottenham's hopes of reaching the Champions League. A red card for a second bookable offence 13 minutes from time tarnished Taarabt's day but did not bring any joy to Redknapp as QPR clung on for three precious points.
Newcastle United's victory earlier in the day meant Tottenham tumbled out of the top four for the first time since November and they started as if determined to climb straight back into it, with Kyle Walker making inroads down the right in the first minute before Benoît Assou-Ekotto lashed a 20-yard shot over the bar.
The question was whether Tottenham would be able to sustain such menace: Redknapp's team had looked jaded in the weeks before this game, collecting a solitary win from their previous eight outings, and they were depleted by injuries, with Jermain Defoe the only fit striker and the creaking veterans Ledley King and William Gallas having to continue in the centre of defence. QPR, invigorated by three straight home victories, soon wrestled the initiative from the visitors, mainly through superior dynamism and cohesion.
Jamie Mackie demonstrated this in the third minute, when, through strength of will as much as any trickery, he dispossessed Luka Modric wide on the right and dashed past Gareth Bale and Assou-Ekotto before shooting wide from the edge of the area. Samba Diakité embarked on a similar run moments later, and also concluded it with a wayward shot. The side fighting relegation were giving as good as they got against the Champions League aspirants.
With both sides deploying five across midfield, space was rare in the centre, yet Gareth Bale spent most of his time there and exerted little influence in an area where Diakité was the outstanding operator until the exhausted Malian was substituted in the second half.
Bale did have a clear chance in the 19th minute, however, when a corner from Rafael Van der Vaart landed on his head six yards from goal. Paddy Kenny tipped the Welshman's shot over. Van der Vaart played the next corner short to Modric and then took a return pass before shooting from distance. Again the keeper saved.
In the 23rd minute, Taarabt showed how to beat a goalkeeper from long range. He curled a 25-yard free-kick over the wall and into the bottom corner, though it would not have got there if Brad Friedel had shifted across his goal quicker. "It wasn't a great free-kick but somehow it found its way in," sighed Redknapp, who has not completely revised his assessment of the player, "He played against us at Tottenham this year and he was useless. But he's always had bags of ability and at the moment he's playing fantastic and that's to the credit of Mark [Hughes], who has got him working hard."
Defoe missed a glaring chance to equalise on the half-hour mark, nodding over from six yards after Kenny had parried a Van Der Vaart shot. Defoe, like Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha, has perpetrated similar misses too often during Spurs' hapless streak, a fact that may have been noted by the two leading candidates to take charge of England this summer, as Stuart Pearce was watching from the stands above Redknapp's dugout.
Redknapp made a substitution at half-time in a bid to repair the muddled tactics of the first period, with Aaron Lennon replacing Sandro. But it was QPR who created the first chance of the second half, Diakité battling his way into the box before stabbing a shot into the side-netting. Tottenham were having plenty of the ball but struggling to find a way through their solid, compact and diligent hosts, who remained dangerous on the counter-attack.
That changed in the 77th minute when Taarabt became the eighth QPR player to be sent off this season, receiving a second yellow card for kicking the ball away after Spurs were awarded a free-kick. Only Sunderland have ever received more red cards in the Premier League. The 10 men held on to their lead valiantly, Kenny sealing victory with late saves from Giovani dos Santos and Van der Vaart. QPR are now three points clear of the relegation zone and will be confident of getting a win in their one remaining home game – against Stoke City – but may also need points from their remaining away matches, against Chelsea and Manchester City.