THREE meetings this season and three defeats. Derby County will be glad to see the back of East Midlands rivals Leicester City who appear to be heading for promotion.
The difference between the teams in two previous clashes this season – one in the League, the other in the Capital One Cup – had been wafer thin.
Not this time. On this occasion there was a significant gap between the sides.
Leicester stormed to a 4-1 victory at the King Power Stadium last night and moved seven points clear at the top of the Championship.
Derby struggled against the power and pace of their hosts, and in many other departments as well.
Speedy Lloyd Dyer was a constant menace and it is hard to believe strikers David Nugent and Jamie Vardy have played better as a pair.
Nugent scored twice and Vardy once after Ritchie de Laet had put the Foxes ahead.
A de Laet own goal provided a glimmer of hope for Derby but there can be no complaints. They were beaten by a better side on the night as Leicester showed why they are top dogs in the division.
Leicester also hit the woodwork twice and the end result was Derby’s biggest defeat of the season.
The Rams have tightened up defensively under head coach Steve McClaren but they were opened up time and again. It could have been six or seven.
A reality check? It would be easy to say that after such a painful night – and McClaren said pre-match that this game would provide an indication of where they are at present.
Where they are is still well-placed in the top six which is beyond most expectations at the start of the season – but this was a third consecutive defeat since the turn of the year following an unbeaten run of nine matches.
Craig Bryson’s return to the side after injury was not a surprise. The midfielder has been a key figure this season and his 11 goals is his best-ever return.
John Eustace was the player to drop out, surprising and unlucky on him because his presence as a shield in front of the back four has been key to Derby’s climb up the table. He had started the previous 10 matches.
Jeff Hendrick filled the ‘Eustace’ role. “It might be a bit unfortunate on John, but with Jeff Hendrick fit we felt we needed legs and energy in midfield for the game,” said first-team coach Paul Simpson.
New loan signing Patrick Bamford was among the substitutes.
Leicester juggled their resources in the FA Cup defeat by Stoke City and did so again to face Derby. The Foxes made five changes.
Derby went in search of a first victory on the ground in 10 attempts. Their previous win at Leicester was in February 2002 when they won a Premiership fixture 3-0 with goals from Georgi Kinkladze, Branko Strupar and Lee Morris.
Hendrick settled quickly, Bryson’s hunger to run beyond the ball was evident, as was striker Chris Martin’s value to the team in linking play.
The tempo was high – which suits Derby – but Leicester threatened first.
Dyer and Nugent combined down the left before Dyer’s angled drive was parried by Lee Grant. The ball fell into the path of Matty James who steered his effort wide.
Dyer, pacey and direct, started to ask questions of Andre Wisdom and the right side of Derby’s defence. When Danny Drinkwater drifted into that area of the pitch he drilled an excellent low centre into the box. Vardy cleverly left it and Grant was relieved to see the ball roll inches beyond the far post.
James, keen to make up for his earlier miss, went close with a rising drive and Grant had to be alert to keep out Nugent’s volley.
You sensed a goal was coming, and it arrived for the home side after 25 minutes – and from an unlikely source.
Right back de Laet stormed forward and played a neat one-two with Nugent before he thumped a left-foot shot low past Grant from a central position on the edge of the area. Fine move, fine goal, but his route was made easier by the lack of a challenge in midfield.
Dyer continued to torment. In again with defenders trailing, his low drive was blocked by Grant at his near post and Leicester were now in full flow.
Strikers Vardy and Nugent displayed good understanding. Vardy flicked the ball to Nugent who was denied by Grant and Vardy latched onto the loose ball but from a tight angle his effort glanced off the face of the bar.
Liam Moore’s header from a James’ corner came back off the bar and Derby just about kept their heads above water despite wave after wave of attacks threatening to sink them.
The half time whistle was music to their ears.
They would have been delighted and thankful to go in only one down because Leicester could have been out of sight. They were quicker, stronger and superior first half. The fact the Rams still had hope was very much down to Grant.
Going forward, little had been seen of Derby. They had been constantly driven back as they were in the opening minutes of the second half when Leicester doubled their lead.
Failure to deal with a goal kick resulted in the ball dropping to Nugent. His shot struck Buxton and the ball ricocheted back off Nugent and past Grant. Fortuitous, may be, but nobody could say a two-goal lead was undeserved.
Simon Dawkins and Jamie Ward, anonymous in the wide areas, were replaced by Bamford, who made his debut, and Mason Bennett. The two substitutes were involved as Derby pulled a goal back 10 minutes into the half.
Bennett’s ball into the area fell to Bamford whose shot was deflected behind by Paul Konchesky. Hughes delivered the set piece and Buxton’s downward header came off de Laet, the ball squeezing into the corner of the net for an own goal.
Hopes of an unlikely comeback raised, but it was false hope as Leicester scored twice in five minutes to end the game as a contest.
Craig Forsyth’s rash, unnecessary challenge on Vardy brought the Foxes a penalty which Nugent converted with great confidence. Nugent and Vardy then combined for the latter to smash his low finish past Grant. The ball flashed into the net off a pitch glistening from the rain.
Derby kept going, that is never in doubt with this team, but it was Leicester who went close again. Substitute Chris Wood’s shot fizzed narrowly wide and Bryson produced a timely tackle to prevent Dyer grabbing a goal his performance merited.
These were the two form teams in the Championship going into the game. Leicester are now the form side with this fifth consecutive league win.