Derby will be favourites to advance to the League Championship play-off final following their 2-1 victory at Brighton and Hove Albion on Thursday in the first leg of their semi-final at Falmer Stadium.
The hosts went ahead through Jesse Lingard in the 18th minute but Derby equalised 11 minutes later via Chris Martin's penalty. The Rams then went ahead—and took control of the semi-final—on Brighton goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak's own goal in first-half stoppage time.
The same two teams will meet again Sunday in the second leg at Derby's Pride Park, with the winner of the two-legged tie advancing to the final to face either Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers on May 24 at Wembley.
After the first leg, it's clearly advantage Derby. In 46 league games this season, Brighton scored only 55 goals, the seventh-lowest total in the Championship. Derby, on the other hand, led the league with 84.
Derby will be hoping to continue a fine run under manager Steve McClaren, whose arrival earlier this season reinvigorated the club following the dismissal of Nigel Clough. And if the Rams can reach the Premier League, the financial rewards figure to be immense. According to a 2013 Deloitte report cited by Reuters, promotion could be worth up to £120 million.
As retired footballer Fabrice Muamba noted on Twitter, McClaren's vast experience as a manager—which includes a league title with Twente in Holland—has been valuable to Derby:
Steven McClaren is doing a great job at Derby county. Being away from the English game proved to be beneficial to his managerial career.— fabrice muamba (@fmuamba) May 8, 2014
Brighton dominated the early exchanges and went ahead deservedly in the 18th minute. Inigo Calderon was the provider, bursting into the box on Brighton's right and pulling back for Lingard. The Manchester United loanee saw his initial shot blocked, but he made no mistake with the rebound, finishing past Lee Grant for a 1-0 Brighton lead.
It didn't last long. Derby earned a penalty in the 28th minute as Brighton's Matthew Upson clattered into Craig Forsyth in the box. Martin converted the spot-kick to pull the visitors level in the 29th minute.
Derby almost scored again two minutes later after hitting Brighton on the counter. Running onto a pass on the left side of the box, Johnny Russell played a dangerous cross toward the back post, where Jeff Hendrick was lurking. But the ball rolled just out of his range and the danger passed.
Brighton then had another chance four minutes later, but Leonardo Ulloa headed straight at Grant.
As the match neared half-time, Derby went ahead with a slice of luck. Martin struck the crossbar with a well-hit shot following Russell's layoff, but with the ball set to bounce away to safety, it instead rebounded off Kuszczak and into the net.
Leading 2-1 at the break, Derby nearly had another moments into the second half. Hendrick created the danger, cutting in from the right before crossing to the back post for Jamie Ward. The latter tried to squeeze the ball into the net from a tight angle, but Brighton cleared.
Brighton carved out a clear chance in the 61st minute only to be denied by Grant's fine goalkeeping. Andrea Orlandi crossed from the left for Ulloa, who directed his shot on target, but Grant pushed the ball onto the bar to keep Derby ahead.
The hosts kept pushing for the equaliser and came close twice in the 81st minute. First, Grant pushed away Lingard's low shot from distance. Then, he tipped over Ward's follow-up from the left.
In the end, Grant's saves made the difference as Derby held on for victory to take a slender advantage back home for the second leg.
|Kazenga LuaLua (for Buckley, 46')||N/A||6.3|
|Solly March (for Orlandi, 70')||N/A||6.2|
|Craig Mackail-Smith (for Lingard, 82')||N/A||6.0|
Ratings via WhoScored.com
|Simon Dawkins (for Russell, 66')||N/A||6.4|
|Conor Sammon (for Ward, 72')||N/A||6.0|
Ratings via WhoScored.com
McClaren: "We are indebted to our defending and our goalkeeper for keeping the result." #bhafc— Andy Naylor (@AndyNaylorArgus) May 8, 2014
McClaren: "Half a job done. Brighton are better away from home and this tie is far from over." #bhafc— Andy Naylor (@AndyNaylorArgus) May 8, 2014
The second leg is set for Sunday at Derby's Pride Park. Kick-off is scheduled at 7:45 p.m. BST.