FOOTBALL: Strupar has to sit and wait

Leicester City 0 Derby County 1
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The Independent Online
ONE HAD to feel sympathy for the row of Belgian journalists. As a dreadful East Midlands derby was played out beneath them, they huddled in the chilly heights of Leicester City's main stand, watching the sorry sight with bewilderment. With their spirits soon as numb as their fingers, the man they had come to write about sat on the bench.

As the ink began to freeze in their biros, Derby County's Croatian-born Belgium international, Branko Strupar, finally took to the field with a dozen minutes remaining. His single contribution was a shot which bobbled slowly across the hard ground and drifted harmlessly wide. Almost in formation, six middle-aged Belgian men picked up their pens. And that was as good as it got.

Derby signed Strupar on Thursday for pounds 3m from Racing Club Genk, his salary - reported to be pounds 14,000 a week - is roughly four times that of his previous contract. Not a bad bit of business for a man who will be 30 in the spring. Strupar has scored four times in five appearances for his adopted country after being overlooked by Croatia, including a goal against England in the recent friendly at the Stadium of Light.

Derby's spirits will have been lifted as much by the arrival of Strupar, who has scored 120 times in just over five seasons, as by this scrappy win.

As was widely expected, Leicester were plain and uninspired after last week's draining extra-time victory in the Worthington Cup against Leeds United. Darren Eadie, a pounds 3m signing from Norwich City, was another debutant renewing an England Under-21 partnership with Emile Heskey. While he had the best chance of the first half, a header wide from an accurate cross by the left wing-back, Stefan Oakes, and he appeared keen and nimble, it was not enough to lift his team.

Estimates for the distance from which Daryl Powell scored Derby's fortuitous winner ranged from 25 to 45 yards as his looping left-footed punt confused Tim Flowers in the Leicester goal. A Christmas gift, then, which fails to take Derby out of the bottom three.

"We've done pretty well in the games that we've lost," Jim Smith noted afterwards. "We needed some luck and we got it today." Which is more than can be said for the unfortunate Belgians.

Goal: Powell (69) 0-1.

Leicester City (3-5-2) Flowers; Walsh, Elliot, Taggart; Impey, Savage, Izzet, Oakes, Zagorakis; Heskey, Eadie (Cottee, 72). Substitutes not used: Gunnlaugsson, Gilchrist, Campbell, Arphexad (gk).

Derby County (3-5-2) Poom; Laursen, Prior (Schnoor, 87), Elliot; Dorigo, Johnson, Burley, Powell, Delap; Burton, Robinson (Strupar, 78). Subs titutes not used: Christie, Kinkladze, Hoult (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill). Bookings: Leicester: Izzet, Zagorakis. Derby: Johnson, Delap, Prior, Burley.

Man of the match: Oakes.

Attendance: 18,851.

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