Derby bemoan Delap lapses

Arsenal falter at the summit as Smith's battlers leapfrog managerless Bradford at the bottom
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So, the Premiership is too predictable is it? It certainly didn't seem so in squally N5 yesterday. On paper, Arsenal should easily have won; inreality, on the rain-lashed turf, Derby quite plausibly could have done.

So, the Premiership is too predictable is it? It certainly didn't seem so in squally N5 yesterday. On paper, Arsenal should easily have won; inreality, on the rain-lashed turf, Derby quite plausibly could have done.

The visiting fans greeted the final whistle as though their side had indeed prevailed. It is easy to understand their glee at a third consecutive clean sheet, an improbable point and - after news from Bradford - elevation from bottom place.

However, but for some nervously wasteful finishing - in particular from their willing and versatile labourer Rory Delap - they really could have hit the jackpot against an Arsenal side whose creative fluidity was occasionally thrilling, but only intermittent.

Still, Derby haven't won a Premiership match since April, but manager Jim Smith's decision to recruit Colin Todd to his administration seems to be paying off. This was the second match under the influence of the one-time Baseball Ground legend, and all of a suddenthe "goals against" column is redundant.

Monday night's home game was a grim (if necessary) example of goallessness. Yesterday, by contrast, Derby displayed a degree of cohesion, solidity and self-belief which hints at possible salvation.

Realism demands, of course, that once one problem is solved another soon presents itself. So perhaps Messrs Smith and Todd may now prioritise the "goals for" column that, with greater assurance, could have been markedly boosted here.

Poor Delap, a genuine and talented ball player, will have nightmares about at least one of three opportunities that might have afforded him a hat-trick. Presented with the ball on the edge of Arsenal'ssix-yard box and with John Lukic planted in glorious isolation on his line, Delap snatched at his shot and watched in horror as the ball skipped off the top of the crossbar and into the North Bank.

By then, Delap had already had an unchallenged header knocked off the line by Martin Keown. The opportunity came about when Lukic pursued Malcolm Christie out of his penalty area; Christie pivoted on the loose ball and crossed perfectly towards the thinly defended goal; but Delap's luck was out. Finally, towards the end of a second half in which Arsenal were more dominant, Delap failed to get over an awkward angled volley and suffered the derision of the home fans at the clock end.

Nor were those the only occasions when Derby sniffed glory. Christie pounced on an error by an uncertain Keown, but ended his goal-bound scamper with a wayward shot.

Furthermore, County were specially unfortunate when Lee Morris (a substitute for Christie), who had a clear run at the target, was pulled back by the referee for a barelyperceptible nudge on Keown.

However, despite being denied the absolute jackpot, Derby were clearly infused both by the outcome and their team performance. Todd said: "We've taken a lot from that. I could see the confidence coming back. It's a great boost for everyone at the club to be off the bottom of the table."

Nor was the Arsenal manager Arsÿne Wenger about to dispute that his team's undistinguished performance might have been more stringently punished. Though, having humbly admitted that "we were lucky to be 0-0 at 70 minutes", he was within his rights to claim that, at the death,Arsenal might have stolen it.

Disregarding the Worthington Cup (that they effectively do), Arsenal went into the game with a perfect record at Highbury. But, despite depriving himself of the "host post-Donetsk tiredness" excuse by making seven changes from the team who played in the Ukraine on Tuesday, Wenger has to confess that "Derby deserved their point ... maybe more. They were more fluent than us."

At half-time the shock scoreline at Old Trafford wasinterpreted by Arsenal fans as confirmation that they had gone temporarily to the top of the league. While Wenger claims that he is more concerned with his own team's poor display than Manchester United's eventual win, he won't like the two-point gap that has appeared as a result.

Arsenal, as always, had their moments and were denied, at either end of the match, by Mart Poom's splendid top corner tip-overs from Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman was a particularly visible creative influence.

However, in general, the Gunners were much more staccato than usual and, despite a late rally, would have been flattered by anything more than a point.

Failure to score against Donetsk and Derby inside the same week is hardly sparkling stuff. Even so, Derby are entitled to consider that it might have been a whole lot worse.

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