Crystal Palace class was clear as Derby County suffer a second defeat in the capital
CRYSTAL Palace top the Championship and Derby County now know why.
Derby have competed commendably this season and probably deserve more points than the 23 they have collected.
Even in the defeats by Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Huddersfield Town, Peterborough United and Millwall they felt some injustice and their claim carried weight.
Saturday was different.
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Derby were beaten by a better, stronger and more confident side on the day. No complaints, no argument.
There are time when you have to hold your hands up and say you were second best.
This was one of those times.
Palace won 3-0 at Selhurst Park to stretch their unbeaten run to 14 matches.
The impressive sequence of results includes 11 victories and is all the more remarkable given that this is supposed to be a division in which any team can beat any other.
So, there is no shame in losing to Palace right now.
They thumped Ipswich Town by five goals in their previous home game and have also beaten Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bolton and Cardiff City. Three of those sides are in the top six.
Defeat hurts, of course, but there is little point in ranting and raving. Derby's players gave their all but on this occasion, it was not enough.
What should not be overlooked is the fact this was the first time Derby had suffered back-to-back defeats this season. Successive trips to London looked tough tasks and so it proved.
Defeat always sparks discussion over team selection and formation.
Derby went into the game at Millwall seven days earlier with a 4-4-2 shape and barely had a kick in the first half before they switched things around.
So it was understandable that they felt a need to tinker with the system going in against high-riding Palace.
They opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation. Michael Jacobs was brought in on the left side of midfield, which allowed Will Hughes to move to a central role where he is more comfortable and more effective.
He played alongside Jeff Hendrick, while Craig Bryson was asked to push on and support striker Conor Sammon. Top scorer Theo Robinson was left out.
Formations are easier to call after matches when hindsight is a beneficial tool. Managers and coaches have to decide on shape before and during games and that is less easy.
Derby's system spluttered and Palace were fairly comfortable throughout, their goalkeeper Julian Speroni a spectator for long periods.
With captain Mile Jedinak a shield in front of the back four, the home team found it far easier to pick up and nullify Bryson in his more forward position than they might have done had the Scot been making his trademark runs from deeper.
Sammon was isolated at times. The service to him can be much better but he also has to take greater care of the ball. He had another one of those games when it bounced off him too much and this makes it difficult to build attacks.
The combination of Paul Coutts and John Brayford on the right, potent when working, never got going and the main threat came from Jacobs on the left.
Hendrick, 20 and in only his second season of regular first-team football, is searching to find some form and so the responsibility to get Derby on the ball and set them playing rests on the 17-year-old shoulders of Hughes.
When he is in possession, it tends to be 50 or 60 yards from the opponents' goal. He is effective in that role but how much more damage could he do with his vision and cute passing if he were further forward?
Hughes had his most testing afternoon of the season as Palace, clearly aware of his growing reputation, eagerly snapped at his heels and denied him time.
He did, however, have the Rams' only serious attempt on goal two minutes from the end of normal time, when his shot from 20 yards was smartly tipped over by keeper Speroni.
By then, Derby were three down. They conceded the first from a 12th-minute corner.
Yannick Bolasie delivered, Adam Legzdins got caught under the flight of the ball and could only watch as Glenn Murray rose unmarked at the back post to head down and in.
Derby claimed players had been blocked off, notably Jake Buxton, but it was a poor way to fall behind and the signs were not good because Palace have won seven and drawn three of the 11 games in which they have taken the lead.
Many of the pre-match headlines had centred on the pace and threat of Palace's wide man, Wilfried Zaha.
In his programme notes, Ian Holloway described Zaha's form as "off-the-planet good" but the 20-year-old was upstaged by Murray, who was a constant thorn in the side of Buxton and Richard Keogh, making the 250th League appearance of his career. The pair have had better afternoons.
Derby never got to grips with Murray, especially in the air, and they had to work hard to prevent Palace from increasing their lead before half-time.
Hendrick was close to turning in an equaliser very much against the run of play, after Buxton headed down and there was greater purpose about Derby at the start of the second half.
Jacobs got at the right-back and just as Palace and their fans started to fret over their one-goal advantage, the Eagles doubled their lead after 58 minutes.
Murray was the target for Damien Delaney's ball into the box and the centre-forward rose above Buxton to head down perfectly for Andre Mortiz, who smashed his finish from 14 yards past Legzdins.
The Rams have scored only seven goals in nine games on the road and so the chances of rescuing the situation looked remote.
Confidence now oozed from Palace, as you would expect, and their third goal came eight minutes from time.
Murray, close to the touchline, turned away from Buxton and surged into the area where he shrugged off Roberts and cut inside Keogh to hammer the ball high past Legzdins for his 15th goal of the season.
It was Palace's day, no question, but Derby have had their days as we saw in the recent run of one defeat in eight, which lifted them to within a point of the top six.
The key to a defeat is how the team respond in the next game.