Some games feel as though they are designed to make a point. Derby will be ecstatic at a win that consolidates their spot at the top of the Championship, but by the end this seemed not so much a contest as a parable on why you have to take your chances. For half an hour, Southampton's superiority was almost embarrassing.
There is a line in the Oliver Stone film JFK in which Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney, rails against those who "dance between the raindrops" without ever getting wet. That was Derby yesterday. Their recent surge to the top of the Championship has been rooted in the reliability of their defending - yesterday's was their sixth 1-0 win in their last eight games - but that their goal survived to half-time intact strained credibility.
George Burley, the South-ampton manager, had spoken of the "influence" he hoped Marek Saganowski, his new signing from Troyes, would have, but he could hardly have imagined just how central a figure he would be in the opening minutes of his debut. All that was missing was a goal, but he could hardly have gone closer.
He had already gone close twice when he glanced a header against the post from a right-wing Rudi Skacel delivery after 11 minutes. John Viafara also struck a post before half-time, Gzregorz Rasiak slid a shot just wide and Inigo Idiakez had a corner cleared off the line by Mo Camara. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and somehow missing.
"We lost it because we didn't take numerous clear-cut oppor-tunities we had in the first half," Burley said. "Maybe that was a bit of luck, maybe poor finishing. You know if you don't get a goal against a team like Derby, things can go against you."
Credit, then, to Billy Davies, the Derby manager, for being able to check Southampton's momentum. Seven minutes before half-time, he brought on Gary Teale for Robert Malcolm, pushed Craig Fagan forward and abandoned the 4-5-1 with which his side had started the game for a 4-4-2. For Southampton, that meant the writing was on the wall.
"We knew they would come out and start very well," Davies said. "We contributed to what they were achieving in that first 30 minutes, which was very disappointing, Tactically we got it wrong and that's my decision, but tactically I got it right when I made the change; that was an excellent switch. We tried to get into certain positions, get certain men against certain men. We were confused, never got the balance right. Once we changed it we looked more like ourselves. Teale took it higher up the park and we started to play."
Stephen Pearson should have put Derby ahead after 71 minutes, heading over from six yards, but the winner did arrive with seven minutes remaining. Giles Barnes crossed from the left, Kelvin Davis saved at the feet of David Jones, but as the ball popped loose, Howard worked it out from under his feet to lash into the roof of the net. Three stolen points perhaps, but the sermon against profligacy was clear enough.Reuse content