PETER CROUCH made a triumphant return to Loftus Road to give Stoke City’s survival hopes a massive boost as they secured their second away win of the Barclays Premier League campaign at the expense of Queens Park Rangers.
The England striker pounced to fire City into a 42nd minute lead and was then upended by Clint Hill for the penalty in the closing stages which sealed the Potters’ triumph, giving them their first victory since mid-February in the Premier League.
It lifted Tony Pulis’ side to 37 points and means they now have vital breathing space in their bid to stay well clear of the bottom three.
Crouch will have had some mixed feelings, as a boyhood Rangers supporter and former player of the Loftus Road club, because the result virtually makes it certain now that Harry Redknapp’s men will be relegated to the Championship.
Having been recalled by Tony Pulis to the starting line-up, he was on hand to tuck home Cameron Jerome’s cross and the significance of the timing was that Paul Ware was 42 years old when he lost his battle against cancer this week.
City had to soak plenty of Rangers pressure, but gained vital respite when Walters fired home a twice-taken penalty after Crouch had been impeded by Hill as he tried to latch onto a rebound after Robert Huth had hit the post.
Pulis had made three changes to the side beaten by champions-elect Manchester United six days earlier with Crouch lining up against his former club, while the other significant return was that of Wilson following a hamstring strain.
In brilliant sunshine, both sides made a bright start to the game with Townsend trying his luck from long range on a couple of occasions, while at the other end Jerome was released into the box by Adam’s pass but couldn’t get in a telling shot.
Jerome was then presented with another chance as he met Shotton’s cross from the right with a glancing header, but didn’t make enough contact to trouble Green and it carried through to Walters at the far post for his cross to be blocked.
Rangers responded with a swift counter attack that resulted in them being awarded a free kick some 25 yards out and Taarabt’s curling effort was only a fraction too high as Begovic frantically dived to his right but could not get a hand to it.
The Potters had the chance to catch Rangers on the counter attack when Nzonzi won possession just outside his own box and burst forward with three players in support, but he chose Shawcross as his option and his cross was charged down.
There was plenty of encouragement at the openings which City were creating as Crouch had a shot from the edge of the box after being set up by Jerome.
The Potters were somewhat fortunate not to find themselves behind when right wing corner delivered by Taarabt found Remy unmarked in the box, but his goalbound header couldn’t find its way through the crowded six yard box.
City were looking to every available opportunity to release Jerome, as his pace posed problems for Samba and Hill, but at the other end a slip by Huth allowed Remy to fire a low shot goalbound, but Begovic grasped it diving to his left.
Although the Potters had got into some promising positions, the first time they tried a shot at goal it almost brought a reward as Walters tried an ambitious long range effort which Green fumbled even though it was straight at him.
Crouch had seen enough to encourage him to try his luck with a dipping volley from the edge of the box when the ball sat up nicely for him and once again Green looked uneasy as he turned it round for a corner by his left upright.
However, the corner saw Rangers mount a swift counter attack which led to them earning another free kick in a dangerous position and Begovic had to be at his best diving to his right to push away Taarabt’s curling effort over the wall.
Moments later, City had to defend another free kick right on the edge of the box after Whelan was adjudged to have fouled Remy, but Taarabt chose to go for power on this occasion and the wall did its job in blocking his full-blooded drive.
That determined defending was rewarded when City took the lead three minutes before the interval when Crouch got his name on the scoresheet.
It owed much to the determined work of Wilson who won possession in his own half and then delivered the pass from which Jerome slid in the low cross which was neatly tucked past Green by the incoming England striker.
Rangers were forced to make a change at half time as Townsend could not continue due to a hamstring injury which he picked up right at the end of the first period and so Mackie was brought on to replace him.
It was City who did the early pressing and from a corner on the left, Shawcross found the ball at his feet in an excellent position, but lifted his shot high over the bar much to Adam’s frustration who was right behind him.
The Potters had a chance to catch Rangers on the break as Adam ventured forward with Jerome to his left, but the Scottish international elected to go it alone and was eventually crowded out, much to the striker’s frustration.
Begovic then had to make a smart save to deny Remy after he had weaved his way into an excellent position, but in the build-up, Taarabt had sustained what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder which forced him to go off.
There was another anxious moment when City failed to clear a corner drilled in from the left and Mbia lashed a shot goalbound, but a linesman’s flag ruled that Remy was in an offside position as Begovic made a reflex save.
City then suffered a setback as Wilson limped off with a recurrence of his hamstring injury after producing an excellent tackle to halt Remy in his tracks when the Frenchman burst from his own half into a menacing position.
Wilkinson took his place and was immediately forced into some desperate defending along with his team-mates as Rangers pressed for an equaliser.
But the Potters gained some respite with a couple of promising moves, one of which saw Adam volley past the far post after Walters had flicked on an Nzonzi cross.
City made their second change of the afternoon when Whitehead was sent on in place of Adam, but they were being pegged back once again.
However, they gained the cushion of a two-goal lead when they were awarded a penalty for a foul on Crouch in a goalmouth melee.
Huth thought he had grabbed the second when his firm header from Whelan’s free kick rattled against the upright, but Crouch was impeded as he tried to follow up and apply the finishing touch, leaving referee Foy pointing to the spot.
Walters blasted the spot kick past Green, but was then forced to take the penalty a second time for encroachment in the area, but he kept his nerve to slot the retaken kick wide of the ‘keeper to his right to spark wild celebrations behind the goal.
That took any sting out of Rangers in the closing stages and City played out time with their supporters chanting “We are staying up.”