The key questions beforehand had concerned how much either side would have left in the tank after their Cup exertions in midweek. Chelsea signalled some weariness by moving Gianfranco Zola to the substitutes bench to allow Gianluca Vialli a start. Derby were without the suspended Paul Trollope and were also unable to recall defender Paul McGrath, despite resting him on Wednesday.
The other factor in play was Derby's infamous pitch. Never the most hospitable of surfaces, often resembling a Florida swamp, it looked yesterday, despite the drying wind, as though the bulldozers had already moved in to the Baseball ground prior to the summer demolition.
Indeed, for many supporters the pre-match entertainment could have consisted of a "Spot The Grass" competition for the middle of the pitch. To cap it all the players had a chilly, swirling wind to add to their worries.
Chelsea had a mild disruption even before the kick-off as Eddie Newton, listed as a starter, failed to appear being replaced by Paul Hughes from the bench with the Blues now left with four substitutes. Nevertheless Chelsea settled well to their pass-and-move football and the first discomfort was felt by Derby when their captain Igor Stimac was booked in the third minute after pulling down Roberto di Matteo. Scott Minto's free-kick, however, was driven well wide.
Derby soon fought back, winning possession in midfield with some abrasive tackling, and went close when a corner fell at the far post to Christian Dailly whose left-foot shot was turned aside by Frode Grodas with Frank Leboeuf completing the clearance.
Duly warned, Chelsea responded by taking the lead on 16 minutes when both Mark Hughes and Paul Hughes combined to set up Minto whose left-footed shot from 20 yards zipped in off Russell Hoult's right post.
The tetchy undercurrent to the game continued with Chelsea accusing Aljosa Asanovic of elbowing Steve Clark in the face, but although referee Alan Wilkie took no action there, he was soon adding di Matteo's name to his book.
In among the niggles Dean Sturridge fashioned Derby's clearest chance by beating Leboeuf on the right and pulling back the ball for the inrushing Gary Rowett who blasted wastefully over from 10 yards. Derby exerted considerable pressure but could not get an equaliser before the interval.
But within five minutes of the restart Derby were level. Asanovic threaded a ball through Paul Sturridge whose low cross was met by both Ward and Minto, with the Derby centre- forward being given the credit poking the ball past Grodas.
Chelsea struck back three minutes later when Frank Sinclair was left unmarked for the free-kick and his header back across goal allowed Leboeuf to drive home through a crowd of players. Chelsea nearly increased their lead when Jacob Laursen sliced against his own post and, as the game exploded with incidents, Derby scored next.
Ward crossed to Sturridge whose first-time shot was brilliantly saved by Grodas. But from the following corner Darryl Powell's shot was blocked on the goal-line by Leboeuf's hand and, after the Frenchman had been dismissed, the Croatian Asanovic tucked home the penalty to bring Derby level. Ruud Gullit immediately brought himself on for Vialli but then had to be substituted because of a leg injury.
Ten-man Chelsea clung on as Ward missed from two yards. But the pounds 1m striker made up for it in the last minute.