Derby County are frustrated as Sheffield Wednesday recover to deny them victory for the second time this season
FIVE points separate Derby County and the Championship's play-off places with two-thirds of the season completed.
A top-10 finish was the realistic target back in the summer and still is but the nature of the division means nothing can be dismissed.
Even at this stage, around 14 clubs from clear leaders Cardiff City down cannot be totally ruled out of the race for a top-six finish.
Derby's impressive home form would need to continue and their points tally on the road would need to improve for them to muscle their way in and so there is plenty for them to do.
Should they fall short by a handful of points, however, they will look back on their two games against Sheffield Wednesday as missed opportunities.
Turn the clock back to the opening day of the season. They led Wednesday by two goals at Pride Park only to be pegged back. The Owls' equaliser came in the final minute.
Fast forward to the Saturday just gone. Derby again held a two-goal advantage over Wednesday, this time at Hillsborough, but the Owls again fought back for a 2-2 draw.
A return of two points from the two fixtures is deeply frustrating when the other four points were tucked in the bag, only to escape.
All seasons can be dissected into ifs, buts and maybes but the Rams have had opportunities to improve their poor away record. Games at Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough and Charlton spring to mind.
Sheffield Wednesday can be added to the list.
When Derby led by two goals with 48 minutes played on Saturday, the table made for extremely good reading. They were up to seventh and three points behind stumbling Middlesbrough, who look the most vulnerable of the teams currently occupying the top-six slots.
That is how tantalising the Championship can be.
But it can also bite back viciously, as we saw in the shape of Wednesday's revival.
When you cut away the disappointment of seeing a winning situation disappear, the fact remains that an away point is always welcome and Derby are now unbeaten in three League games and have lost only one of their last six.
This was the first of five games in 15 days this month, a schedule that will stretch a squad that remains light in numbers.
And the squad was tested only minutes before kick-off.
Derby had named an unchanged team for a fourth consecutive match but a knee problem forced Mark O'Brien to withdraw in the warm-up and Jake Buxton, initially named among the substitutes, started after nine weeks out with a knee injury.
His performance, given his recent spell on the sidelines, was remarkable but not a surprise because the defender's character and commitment have never been in question.
The late change did not disrupt Derby, who made a quick start.
Jamie Ward was denied inside the first minute by Chris Kirkland's fine one-handed save and the pace of the game was set. It was frenetic and competitive and the quality suffered on a drying, bobbly pitch.
Having said that, Derby's opening goal after 23 minutes oozed quality.
Will Hughes found Craig Bryson on the left. He popped a pass inside to Jeff Hendrick, who played a one-two with Ward on the edge of the area before side-footing his finish wide of Kirkland.
Hendrick's run of four goals in his last seven games has left him on six for the season. He deserves great credit for the way in which he has come back from his struggles earlier this season.
Wednesday boss Dave Jones made a tactical switch after half an hour when he sent on new loan signing Connor Wickham. The England Under-21 striker added a focal point to the Owls' attack but Derby's lead was intact at the break.
John Brayford made three excellent defensive headers in the first half as the Rams' defence stood firm and Adam Legzdins' one save of note saw him deal comfortably with Michail Antonio's strike from 20 yards.
Antonio wasted a good chance when he blazed his shot over in the first minute of the second half and Derby took advantage by doubling their lead.
Ward cleverly placed his body in front of Miguel Llera and the Wednesday defender barged clumsily into the striker. Referee Oliver Langford awarded a penalty and Ward dispatched it low to Kirkland's right to spark wild celebrations among the 3,000-plus Rams fans behind the goal.
The task was to maintain a two-goal cushion for 10 or 15 minutes to draw any sting from Wednesday and deflate the home support.
But Wednesday reduced the deficit three minutes later.
Legzdins and the defenders failed to deal with Danny Pugh's corner. The ball dropped in the six-yard box and Antonio prodded it in from close range.
An angry Legzdins claimed he was blocked off in his attempts to gather or punch the ball. In real time and without the assistance of replays, the goalkeeper appeared to get caught up in a crowd scene where contact, deliberate or not, is to be expected.
Keepers can get the decision in such situations but, at times, we also complain that they are over-protected and that they need to be stronger when crowded.
The goal was just what Wednesday needed. They had the wind in their sails and it was game on.
They levelled six minutes later.
Antonio curled in a centre that had "head me in" written all over it and Llera, still up following a long throw-in, did just that. He powered the ball past Legzdins from inside the six-yard box.
Would there be a winner? The crowd lapped up the action and the atmosphere was one that can only be created inside a traditional football theatre such as Hillsborough.
Kirkland beat out Ward's shot from the tightest of angles and Legzdins did likewise to deny Wickham.
Once Wednesday got level it would have been easy for the Derby players to wilt.
They did not and that was a positive to carry forward.
And a point on the road must also been seen as a positive.
Yes, they should have handled a two-goal lead better but Wednesday, strong and not afraid to be direct, are one of the form teams in the division. They have lost only one of their last 10.