In the 'olden days' (basically before this season) if Brighton were unbeaten in MONTHS, playing at home to a team losing week on week, with all and sundry predicting a routine home win, the battle-weary Albion faithful knew exactly what to expect. Things are different right now. Never, in the 33 seasons I've been religiously rolling up, have the words 'routine', 'home' and 'win' shared a sentence with regularity, except perhaps in the Scunthorpe Observer or the Bury Examiner, dissecting our away travails.
Last time out I churlishly opined that the victory over Leeds was so comfortable, it lacked excitement. This one wasn't QUITE as much of a stroll - Rangers did at least threaten for a spell of the first half - but it was certainly no nail-biter, as the Albion duly banked the three points required, to top the table at the season's halfway mark.
Chris Hughton tinkered a little with his line-up - handing starts to Solly March and Ollie Norwood, whose late contributions away at Birmingham so dramatically swung the game the right way. The rest of the side picks itself. Scanning the QPR line-up threw up few obvious threats - their side a shadow of that illegally bankrolled to promotion so recently. Massimo Luongo probably the only name of note.
The contest started quietly, and ambled along pretty gently - the Albion content to knock it about - while Rangers knocked it long to a (tall but) skinny kid, who was never, ever going to get any change from the uncompromising Shane Duffy. As the 30,000+ crowd drifted from low buzz to contented murmur, from nowhere, Sam Baldock lit up the match. Fed by Dale Stephens, he left Nedum Onouha for dead with clever feet, before rifling into the top corner, from 25 yards. Stunning strike, to settle any nerves. There are still those who stubbornly refuse to be convinced by Baldock, but he is in fine, fine form. His tireless running now paired with a decent return in the G column - the dissenters should note that no club's second ranked striker in the division now has more strikes to their name. Truly deserving of that number nine shirt.
Rather than cave in, the opposition did rally from here - the game becoming scrappy for 15 minutes - the Albion less composed in possession than the season's norm. The Hoops had a couple of passable opportunities too - David Stockdale beating away Luongo's angled drive with his fist, before reacting well to block Sylla's clever near post effort with his foot. Not that the action was one-way - Glenn Murray spurned a presentable opening - nodding wide from six yards, after Duffy headed a corner back across goal.
Another - probably the only other at this stage - Albion regular, who remains open to question from some quarters, is left back Gaeten Bong. The Cameroonian is not quite as gifted a footballer as many of his team-mates - not quite as calm on the ball, nor as composed under pressure. He's a far better player than his detractors would suggest though - a successful defence is a unit, and no back five would come close to the miserly stats this one can boast, with a genuine weak link. Bong gets his share of assists and when called upon to defend gets it spot on, more often than not. And called upon here, he was - as Luongo's burst from midfield took him past Duffy and Lewis Dunk, and into the box, it was the covering Bong's perfectly executed sliding tackle that saved the day.
Either side of the interval, Anthony Knockaert fired 20-yard free kicks at goal - the first tantalizingly close, the second less so. Solly March, on his first start in a year, was starting to enjoy himself, too. A run into the box, a Vicente-like drop of the shoulder flooring Perch, before Smithies blocked the well struck shot. The first half QPR threat had ebbed away by now - on the one rare occasion a Rangers forward strayed into the attacking half, a thunderous Duffy challenge, put him back in his place.
Five minutes into the half and the game was up - Knockaert danced into the box, shaped to shoot, then rolled the ball into the path of Stephens. Luongo launched himself anticipating a first time shot - instead upending the Albion man, who'd taken a touch. Leading marksman Glenn Murray gladly accepted responsibility, and duly collected his 15th of the season, from twelve yards.
Minutes later any remaining Hoops belief had gone, as they found themselves a man down. Onouha found himself the wrong side of Baldock as he raced onto a superb Norwood through ball, and was responsible for what could most accurately be termed a 'coming-together'. Once referee Mr. Stroud had judged it an infringement, the red card was all but mandatory. On another, luckier, day Onouha might have got away with one, so his manager's angst at the call is understandable - though his claim that it was a 'turning-point' in a game the Albion were cruising to victory in, is laughable. Recent evidence suggests it was over from the first goal.
March departed to an appreciative ovation - the direct running of Jamie Murphy, an equally threatening replacement to tired defenders - before from the opposite wing, Anthony Knockaert sealed the points. Clever play from Murray fed the Frenchman, who ran into the box, at his man. I remarked to my lad "He'll cut back onto his left and shoot", just as he, well, cut back onto his left, and shot - low and hard, but close to Smithies, who formed an arch under his arm and hip, for the ball to roll through.
With the game over as a contest, and further challenges coming thick and fast, the tireless front pair were afforded a rest - Tomer Hemed and Jiri Skalak given twenty minutes to run off some Christmas pudding (Israeli / Czech festive alternatives are available). Rangers had one last chance to cheer up their fans - Stockdale pulling off a superb diving save from Sylla's header, before the Albion saw out the game by frankly, taking the piss out of their beleaguered opponents.
A *insert ridiculously high number / I lost count* pass move, accompanied by 28,000 "olé"s, ticked off a couple of minutes, before Knockaert over-egged things with an audacious rabona cross.
Smithies did well to rush out and deny the Frenchman late on, before Mr. Stroud brought proceedings to a close. 'Knocky' was announced as the sponsors' man of the match, though called over by the Sky reporter to hand their award to Glenn Murray. Stephens or Baldock would take mine - both excellent.
As Albion folk returned to their festivities, basking in the glory of topping the table, and revelling in the 'most successful team of 2016' stats, those that matter turn their attentions to the next hurdle. 3 days and we go again. Bring it on.