Roberto Mancini offered a shrug on the final whistle and only disappointment mumbled through a rueful smile post-match but, on the night the champions sanctioned the sale of Mario Balotelli to Milan, there was something troubling that Manchester City could muster only a goalless draw against the Premier League's bottom team. An opportunity to cut the gap to Manchester United has been passed up. The title defence feels rather fraught once again.
The leaders can re-establish a seven-point advantage by beating Southampton on Wednesday, which would feel deflating given City had won their previous four matches to suggest they were building up a head of steam. Instead, they are back where they have been too often, peering over a gap that yawned this wide on Boxing Day when they last lost. It was certainly untimely to run aground on Queens Park Rangers' rugged defence on the day Balotelli finally flew the nest. Mancini will not be replacing his £17m compatriot before the cut-off and he admitted the striker may be missed over the remaining 14 games. If it was risky retaining Mario, it may be perilous letting him go.
It should be noted that the departing 22-year-old had managed only one league goal all season and was hardly guaranteed to have illuminated City's display in rain-swept west London. Rather, the visitors lacked Yaya Touré – or perhaps more specifically the rampaging, irrepressible Touré from their title-winning season – who might have driven QPR's midfield into retreat and prised the hosts open had he not been in South Africa with Ivory Coast. Yet this was still no time for Mancini's forward line to draw a blank. Presentable chances were created, despite the home side's impressive huff and puff. None was converted.
The lack of bite may ultimately prove costly. Júlio César thwarted them in eye-catching fashion here, the Brazilian goalkeeper's instinctive block from David Silva's close-range shot as the contest lurched into its closing moments confirmation he would not be beaten. Less forgivable was Joleon Lescott's volley over the bar after César's weak punch, or Pablo Zabaleta's thumped header against the woodwork from Silva's delivery.
Edin Dzeko was flung on to offer a focal point but Clint Hill and Ryan Nelsen were in no mood to be bypassed. The New Zealand defender departed through a guard of honour assembled by his team-mates with this likely to have been his final game in English football with a job as head coach at Toronto in Major League Soccer calling. He will be sorely missed.
It was QPR who blunted City here, their endeavour epitomised by those seasoned centre-halves, the frenetic energy of Stéphane Mbia and Shaun Derry's scuttling in central midfield. It was hard to equate this side's committed display with the shambolic surrender mustered by a second-string at home to MK Dons in the FA Cup on Saturday, though the reality that Harry Redknapp named Rob Green and Brian Murphy on the bench offered a reminder that reinforcements are needed if a four-match unbeaten league run is to be extended into a charge for survival. Nothing quite says "But look how stretched we are, Mr Chairman" quite as effectively as a trio of goalkeepers in an 18-man match-day squad.
Redknapp is waiting on positive news from the owner, Tony Fernandes, over Christopher Samba at Anzhi Makhachkala or Rolando at Porto, Peter Odemwingie at West Bromwich Albion or Peter Crouch at Stoke. Yun Suk-young, the South Korea left-back, should complete his move from Chunnam Dragons on Wednesday. "We could do with getting three or four more," said the manager. "We could get none. And none would leave us in trouble. We need a central defender, that's for sure. The chairman asked me a week ago whether I'd be interested if he could get me Samba. I've left it wholly in his hands. He's working on several options but we're short."
What they lack in quality they made up for here in effort. This is a more robust QPR side now than was the case recently and, having established some defensive solidity, they could probe at times on the counter. Nelsen's fine tackle on Lescott at a City corner sparked their best chance, Adel Taarabt sprinting the length of the pitch in possession to draw a fine save from Joe Hart. Löic Rémy, too, was slippery and will have more profitable evenings than this. Norwich City's visit on Saturday is significant and the recent run of encouraging draws must be converted into a sequence of wins.
Redknapp described this as a bonus point, wary that City can "rip teams to pieces, home or away", but the game to come is "massive". Their gap to safety is only four points. City's to glory could revert to seven on Wednesday night.