DERBY County head into the international break unbeaten in a week after they went toe-to-toe with a quality Brighton side and came away with a goalless draw, writes TOM SLOAN.
While on the face of it a 0-0 draw at home does not seem a particularly great result, put into the context of a frantic week and Saturday's point carries far greater weight.
The Rams managed to beat rivals Nottingham Forest 1-0 eight days ago in a frantic local derby at the City Ground before travelling up to Middlesbrough on Wednesday and escaping with a late 2-2 draw against a side many fancy to be in the play-offs.
So on Saturday Nigel Clough's men - minus injured goalkeeper Frank Fielding - were understandably fatigued and did not scale the heights seen already this season.
They had to hang on at times as Gus Poyet's tricky visitors twice hit the woodwork and had the lion's share of the goalmouth action.
But Derby did enough to hang on and take their fifth point from three games - an excellent return from three difficult matches.
Now, the players jet off to Miami for some warm weather training before returning against Blackburn Rovers a week on Saturday.
They will hope to have injured duo Jamie Ward and Gareth Roberts back from their hamstring injuries, as well as Fielding, who has a sore groin.
Clough now faces a difficult decision on his goalkeepers.
Adam Legzdins, deputising for Fielding, did not put a foot wrong all afternoon, pulling off one superb save to keep Derby in it.
Fielding has always been seen as the club's No1, but had a poor game at Middlesbrough before his injury.
Legzdins, who cut his teeth with Burton Albion, was faultless against Brighton, as he has been every time Clough has called upon him.
It would be harsh on the 25-year-old for him to be dropped.
Meanwhile, Ward's running and creativity - not to mention goals - were missed on Saturday, with Theo Robinson doing his best but unable to spark Derby into life in the same way.
And James O'Connor did not look comfortable for one minute at left-back in the way he did at centre-half at the start of the season.
A right-back by trade, who can also operate in the centre, the summer signing does not look right on the left. Roberts' cool head and presence are needed.
But on a brighter note, Will Hughes, who went off at half-time with a sore knee, seems to grow in confidence by the game - especially when used in the centre.
The 17-year-old is already looking the best prospect at the club since Tom Huddlestone and rarely gives the ball away.
With Michael Jacobs knocking on the door for a start on the left wing, Jeff Hendrick needs to improve or could find Hughes moving permanently from the left to take his place.
Up front, Conor Sammon continues to display a willingness to work harder than anybody but just needs a goal to keep the fans quiet and give his self confidence a boost. With his approach to the game, it will surely come.
Clough made three changes to his starting line-up on Saturday, with Fielding replaced by Legzdins, O’Connor coming in for Roberts and Nathan Tyson dropping to the bench to allow for Sammon’s return.
Brighton, with the excellent Liam Bridcutt pulling the strings from midfield, dominated the early stages.
Andrea Orlandi had a volley deflected over by Hendrick on eight minutes before Legzdins showed good hands to hold Moreno David Lopez’s free kick on 17 minutes.
Paul Coutts fired wide for Derby on 21 minutes in the hosts’ only effort at goal in the first half.
Orlandi shot over shortly afterwards under pressure from Richard Keogh before the Rams skipper was fortunate to escape conceding a penalty.
Substitute Stephen Dobbie’s low shot was blocked by the grounded defender and he seemed to use his arm to stop the ball. Brighton could not believe it when referee Andy Woolmer ignored their pleas for a spot kick.
On 43 minutes, Dobbie inexplicably fired wide from very close range as Derby were again exposed by a ball from Ashley Barnes.
Jacobs replaced Hughes at the break and immediately looked very bright, having a shot blocked by the combative Adam El-Abd seconds after the restart.
Legzdins then made a cracking save from Bridcutt’s deflected shot, touching the ball onto the bar.
Brighton’s best move of the match on 51 minutes saw Bruno Saltor’s cross touched back by Dobbie for David Lopez to fire high and wide in space on the edge of the area.
The visitors should have taken the lead on 72 minutes when a header from Al-Abd was pushed onto the bar by Legzdins, with substitute Dean Hammond firing the rebound just wide with the whole goal to aim at. It was a bad miss.
The Rams began to come more into the game and John Brayford, quiet in the first half but rapidly improving in the second, charged forward and cut in before forcing Tomasz Kuszczak to dive full-length to push away his left-footed piledriver.
Seconds later, Craig Bryson crashed a right-footed effort from the corner of the box which Kuszczak again did well to parry.
Derby continued to press for a goal but were unable to create too many openings against an organised Brighton defence and headed off for Miami with a hard-earned point against a side who will again be a major threat this season.