Smith applies final touch as Wigan fail to spot Derby threat

Wigan Athletic 1 - Derby County 2

Wigan will not finish 2004 where they have spent much of it, on top of the Championship, thanks to a second-half display from their visitors which showed why Derby County have become realistic play-off contenders.

Tommy Smith's glancing header was the late winner for the Rams, but they had given warning throughout the afternoon that they were capable of escaping from the JJB Stadium with the points. Their manager, George Burley, has said all season that his squad is good enough for the top half of the table, but not for the top six. This sort of form threatens to prove him wrong.

"I don't think they're getting carried away," said Burley of the travelling supporters who celebrated this win so jubilantly after seeing their side come so close to relegation last season. "It's been a difficult time for the club and they are enjoying it now. This was one to savour.

"The second half was a magnificent performance. We took the game to Wigan and created numerous chances."

Paul Jewell gave Derbycredit but said his own side is "lacking a bit of mental strength". "We're not horrible enough to play against at the moment," he added.

Wigan began the game knowing that Ipswich - who beat them last Tuesday to go top - were losing at Millwall and that victory would take them clear once more. For much of the first half they looked capable of seizing their opportunity. David Graham and Lee McCulloch were both close with headers and Jason Roberts had a penalty appeal turned down before putting Wigan ahead.

One of the characteristics of Jewell's side this season is his use of extra strikers in midfield. It works just fine when they can deliver a through-ball as well as Graham did to send Roberts running clear on goal.

The striker had not scored in open play sinceOctober 16, but he kept his nerve, took his time and picked his moment to slide it past Lee Camp.

Wigan should have been further ahead from a similar move three minutes later, Roberts this time putting the ball through for Nathan Ellington, who could not get his shot away cleanly and saw Jimmy Bullard's follow-up trickle wide.

Without making any immediate changes in personnel, Derby came out with a completely different attitude after the interval, typified by the willingness of their wide men, Morten Bisgaard and Marco Reich, to take on defenders.

That produced a line of supply for Grzegorz Rasiak, the Polish international striker, who thus became a real handful for the Wigan defence. He might look ungainly, but he has been a highly effective addition for Derby and one reason why they have been climbing the table.

Leighton Baines had to head one effort from Rasiak off the line before the Pole's persistence brought him the equaliser. John Filan had to make an acrobatic dive to keep out his first attempt, but then could not adjust to save his follow-up.

From that moment, Derby looked the more likely winners, although Roberts and Ellington both went close for Wigan.

The more composed side clinched it nine minutes from time when Bisgaard skipped past Baines and floated a cross which Smith flicked past Filan.

Wigan had their chances after that, notably when Roberts hit the angle of bar and post, but Derby deserved their best result of a rapidly improving season.

Goals: Roberts (27) 1-0; Rasiak (64) 1-1; Smith (82) 1-2.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Eaden, Breckin, M Jackson, Baines; Graham (Teale, 64), Bullard, Mahon, McCulloch; Roberts, Ellington. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Thome, Flynn, Wright.

Derby County (4-4-2): Camp; Kenna, Hubblestone, Johnson, R Jackson; Bisgaard, Idiakez, Taylor, Reich (Kaku, 88); Peschisolido (Smith, 78), Rasiak. Substitutes not used: Grant (gk), Mills, Tudgay.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Northumberland).

Booked: Wigan: Breckin.

Man of the match: Rasiak.

Attendance: 12,420.