Derby County 1 Crystal Palace 0: Jones keeps up Rams charge

Cautious approach pays off again as Derby do minimum required
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The Independent Football

It is not pretty but it is effective. For the second consecutive week, Derby County won by the slenderest of margins while hanging on grimly for the points. "It was nerve-wracking," agreed their manager, Billy Davies. Five men in midfield and a lone striker who rarely looks like scoring is not the recipe for a glut of goals but at the moment it is, at least, serving the Rams very well. It is hard to grumble when in your last nine games, you have won 24 out of a possible 27 points, and Derby duly kept up the pressure on Birmingham City.

Last week, against Leeds, it was Giles Barnes who provided the winner. This time it was another midfielder, David Jones. With 22 minutes having passed and with the visitors playing well enough to pin Derby back inside their own half, Palace were then beaten by virtually the first - and almost only - shot on Julian Speroni's goal.

Davies' tactical choices in attack were hampered due to the absence of Steven Howard, who was suspended. The tall striker picked up his fifth yellow card of the season in the 1-0 win at Leeds last week so Davies chose Jon Stead as his lone ranger, with Arturo Lupoli lurking just behind him.

The Arsenal loanee was instrumental in the goal. Having drifted out to the left, Lupoli completely foxed the Palace right-back Matt Lawrence and crossed low and hard from the byline, finding Jones. The midfielder, who is on loan from Manchester United with Davies hoping to make it a permanent move, duly scored his first goal for the Rams. "He was immense," purred his manager.

Having been on the back foot for the opening phase, Derby very nearly had a two-goal lead six minutes later. This time Lupoli was in no mood to set anyone up, going for goal himself but the Italian, having jinked from his right to his left foot, set himself back on his right and curled a low shot that did not quite bend enough.

Derby's form has seen them nestle neatly in Birmingham City's slipstream, like an expert cyclist waiting for his chance to overtake. Just three points behind the leaders, their form is that of a team eager to pick up first place. On a beautiful East Midlands afternoon and with a crisp playing surface, Pride Park also felt like a Premiership venue-in-waiting.

Yet, like at the start of the first half, the Rams after the interval played a curious waiting game once more, against a side who had not won away from home for three months. For that, Davies preferred to give credit to the opposition rather than criticise his players, who stoutly protected Stephen Bywater's goal.

The former West Ham goalkeeper had kept Leeds out with a last-minute save last week and Davies did not look a happy man on the sidelines contemplating the need for such heroics once more. He did agree, however, that his players did not look sharp. "We looked leggy and Palace made us fight."

They also, finally, caused a fright. With the game deep into injury time, Palace finally created a chance. The header was by Darren Ward but from six yards out he directed it over the crossbar, Bywater remained untested and Derby can continue to dream of the Premiership.