Derby left banking on their Palace appointment

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The Independent Online
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At least now, Jim Smith mused, the Derby players know exactly what they have to do. Beat Crystal Palace next Sunday and a Premiership place is theirs. On the evidence of a match which was as miserable as sin but seldom as interesting, they might have trouble beating Buckingham Palace.

The promotion favourites of six weeks ago are floundering like a royal marriage. On this occasion, when Derby should have won at the death but could easily have become Birmingham's first away victims since November, they gained only their 13th point out of 30. Injuries and suspensions have taken a toll, as has a pitch that is part bog and part beach, but they are also beset by self-doubt.

In that respect, while the visit of the team one point and a single goal behind may be a beast of a fixture, it also has a certain simple beauty to it from Derby's standpoint. They can focus all their energies on Palace as a one-off occasion, a cup-tie even, secure in the knowledge that they last lost at the Baseball Ground in September and that their pacy top scorer, Dean Sturridge, will be back from a one-match ban.

"Palace will be as nervous as we will," Smith said hopefully. "We've still got a super chance because we're at home to the only team that could do us. If we don't beat them, we don't deserve to go up."

For the Derby manager, the alternative to automatic promotion in his first full season may be too awful to contemplate. Smith finished third in the old Second Division with two of his myriad employers, Newcastle and Portsmouth, only to see them lose in the play-offs.

With the injury to Darryl Powell, his most dynamic midfielder, and the suspension of Marco Gabbiadini, a former Palace striker, Smith may wish this week that he had 42 professionals like Birmingham. Barry Fry is said to hold team talks at the NEC, though the stability forced on him by last month's transfer deadline appears to have enhanced performances.

Fry said he hoped Derby would go up, for the sake of Smith, a genuinely popular figure among rival managers, and to reward the investment of their chairman, Lionel Pickering. However, he described their football as "very nervous". Predicting a "fantastic game" against Palace, he warned: "If Derby get the jitters they may have to do it the hard way, via the play-offs."

Paul Simpson's goal, deftly tucked away after a probing pass by Paul Trollope, should have brought Derby's confidence flooding back. Instead, as the tension lifted, so did the intensity of the covering and concentration, allowing Birmingham's outstanding young captain, Gary Breen, to become a Fry in the ointment with a header from a well-executed set-piece.

Seconds after Jonathan Hunt's shot was deflected on to the Derby bar by Russell Hoult, Smith sent on Matt Carbon. The sight of the rookie defender, whose hairstyle is similar to Jason Lee's, set the Birmingham fans singing that he had "a pineapple on his head". Carbon had the ball on his head deep in stoppage time, as Gabbiadini's effort came off the woodwork, but his finishing was the kind which gives fruit a bad name.

According to football's unconventional wisdom, a Derby winner then might have confused their approach to the Palace match, tempting them to settle for a draw. Smith's own logic will be telling him that they are simply going to have to play better - to the form which earned them a 12-point lead during the winter - to end a five-year exile from the top flight.