Derby County stage revival but lack the cutting edge to complete comeback
DERBY County's spirited last half-hour of the game made Brighton sweat and had the home fans pleading for the final whistle – but the late show was not enough to save the Rams from a sixth defeat in eight away games.
They were never out of the contest on a soggy day on the south coast, nor for an hour did you feel they had enough in their locker to claw back the two goals conceded in the opening 25 minutes.
Given that Derby have scored only 12 goals in 14 games on their travels and Brighton boast the second-best defensive record in the Championship, a comeback was always going to be a tough ask.
Derby had plenty of the ball, as in many previous away games.
The possession was around 60-40 in their favour and it is rare to see Brighton play second fiddle when it comes to keeping the ball.
But what really matters is what a team do with the ball.
Too often Derby's final pass or cross let them down.
The quality of their set-pieces also dipped below standard.
Jeff Hendrick's third goal in as many games boosted hope and saw Brighton nervously retreat into their shell but for all Derby's pressing in the closing stages, they failed to work the goalkeeper.
Tomasz Kuszczak's one save of note came deep into added time when he collected a misplaced header from team-mate Adam El-Abd under his bar.
Brighton held on for a 2-1 victory and a deserved win because they were the better side for an hour and fashioned two or three excellent chances on the break early in the second half.
A third Brighton goal – and there should have been one – would have made the Rams' finale irrelevant.
The Seagulls' home form has been patchy. They had won only four of 13 League games at the Amex Stadium going into Saturday's fixture, despite dominating most of the matches.
Derby went in with a five-man midfield, understandable given the strength of the opposition. In the absence of the energetic Craig Bryson, right-back John Brayford was asked to play in central midfield, where one of his tasks was to close down Liam Bridcutt, who orchestrates Brighton's play.
The move saw Kieron Freeman come in for only his second start at right-back and Michael Jacobs made way.
Derby lost more than they gained by switching Brayford.
He will compete and give his all wherever he plays and did so – but what he provides from right-back is a key component in Derby's play, as he showed when he went back to his usual position after an hour.
The way Derby set up meant they needed to stay in the game as long as possible.
Going a goal down inside two minutes damaged the plan.
Inigo Calderon found David Lopez in plenty of space, something that should simply not happen so early in a game. He had time to curl in a low centre for Ashley Barnes to tap in from close range.
There were shades of the first-minute goal Derby conceded at Huddersfield in September. The Rams felt Barnes might have been offside, although that was difficult to see from our angle in the Press seats.
What was clear was that Brighton's right side of Will Buckley and Calderon caused the Rams problems all through the first half.
Brighton have not lost a League game in which they have taken the lead and they doubled their advantage in the 25th minute.
Calderon whipped in an inviting centre from the right and Andrea Orlandi got across Freeman to bury a header past Adam Legzdins from 10 yards.
Legzdins had little else to do in the 45 minutes other than to pick the ball out of the net twice.
It was another soft goal to concede but Derby believed the referee should have blown for a foul on Richard Keogh in the build-up.
It is safe to say Nigel Clough was not happy with the match officials and it was easy to see why when Gordon Greer dumped Derby striker Conor Sammon right in front of the dugouts without any form of punishment.
Derby knocked the ball around neatly and driving runs from Paul Coutts and Hendrick carried some promise but Will Hughes was forced off a minute before the break after being clattered in the back by Dean Hammond.
Jamie Ward came on and provided a spark but Brighton could have been out of sight in the 15 minutes or so after half-time.
Derby's urge was to push on and find a way back. It was a risk they had to take and Brighton created chances on the break.
Calderon headed wide before Gareth Roberts got a vital touch to Buckley's testing centre with Barnes ready to apply the finish.
Legzdins then denied Buckley and when Brighton sliced through again, the goalkeeper saved brilliantly from Orlandi, whose second attempt rolled towards the net and Coutts cleared off the line.
Freeman had a tough afternoon. On a booking, he was replaced just after the hour and substitute Jacobs played off Sammon. Ward was on the left and Brayford back on the right side of the defence.
Derby reduced the deficit with 20 minutes to go.
Their first goal in five matches against Brighton came after Hendrick was brought down by Bridcutt. The Brighton player was not one of the six booked but should have been on a totting-up process.
Ward drilled the free kick in hard and low and Hendrick diverted the ball past Kuszczak from six yards.
Suddenly, Brighton did not look so assured.
The home support, no longer chanting "ole, ole" as the did at times in the first half, shifted nervously in their seats, one eye on the action, the other on the clock.
Seeing a swing in momentum in games at this level is no surprise – it tends to happen most weekends – but Derby could not find a moment of quality in the final third or, indeed, a lucky break to capitalise fully.
Similar "nearly" and "if only" stories have unfolded in other away games – notably against CharltonAthletic, Millwall, Peterborough United and Wolverhampton Wanderers – and Derby's points' haul on the road – 12 from a possible 42 – continues to drag them backwards after they have taken a forward stride.