Football: Italians fail to finish the job

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The Independent Online
Derby County 0

Wimbledon 0

Attendance: 25,747

EVEN BACKED by their new status of Premiership pace setters, Wimbledon cannot avoid controversy. The usual complaint is that the paupers are denied the same protection as the princes, but the referee Jeff Winter rightly ruled out an injury-time header to preserve their early burst with a barely deserved point.

The Derby manager, Jim Smith, was typically honest enough to admit that there had been a push as Paulo Wanchope beat the goalkeeper, Neil Sullivan, to glance into an empty goal. "Jacob Laursen said it was a definite push on the centre-half by Wanchope. I was hoping the referee would have had a bit more romance in his soul," grinned Smith.

There was little romance about the game. It had seemed destined for a scrappy stalemate until Derby's two Italians, Stefano Eranio and Francesco Baiano, came on as substitutes in the second half. By then Wimbledon, who created the better openings of the first half, had run out of ideas and settled for a point. Three Wimbledon players were booked for time- wasting to provide an indication of their lack of adventure.

Again Smith provided an honest assessment. "The Italians have been injured. If it had been anybody else apart from Wimbledon they would have started the game. But we needed to win the battle and then bring them on. It nearly did it for us, but not quite."

The duo added invention to the ideas of Dean Sturridge and Wanchope. Baiano crossed for Igor Stimac to power a header on to the bar in the closing minutes and his own deft curler drifted agonisingly wide. An Eranio volley bobbled into the arms of Sullivan as Derby's momentum escalated with Wimbleton pinned on the back foot.

But that is no novelty to a sturdy Wimbledon defence. The manager Joe Kinnear was keen to point out that his own settled back four possessed the second-best record away from home last season, even eclipsing the more celebrated foursome of champions Arsenal. He stressed: "Our defence was magnificent again. We were on the rack. We didn't see enough of the ball and didn't play anywhere near as well as we did last week. It wasn't the best of games to look at but it was a valuable point."

Wimbledon were impotent in the second half but, through Robbie Earle, created the best chance of the game in the first. With a trademark stealthy surge into a crowded area, the Jamaican again escaped attention only to misdirect his header. From another Earle diving effort, on top of two chances for Efan Ekoku, the visitors might have sneaked an interval lead.

By that stage Derby's hackles were already rising. Sturridge ended prostrate after wriggling around Andy Roberts in the Wimbledon penalty box. Mr Winter ruled that Sturridge had dived, and produced a yellow card. The strongest appeal came from the Derby captain Stimac, who was fortunate to escape with a yellow card after barging into the referee.

"The defender actually stopped him getting on the ball. Through the World Cup, diving has to be sorted out. The way out is to give a yellow card. To be fair to Dean Sturridge, we've actually told him to dive a little bit more," was another blunt assessment from Smith.