If Derby County are to keep alive even the suggestion that they might make a charge for the playoffs, then tonight’s meeting with Stoke is where they badly need to start showing that they merit a place. Their most recent outing, which took them to Luton Town on Tuesday night, had its highs (Wayne Rooney scoring his first goal for the Rams) and its lows (they lost to the Championship’s worst side). However, with the playoff race having an exceptionally long tail – Middlesbrough, in 17th place, are just 12 points behind – a consistent good run for the East Midlands side could generate results.
The bad news for Derby fans is that they come up against Stoke City this evening. A couple of months ago that would have been excellent news but, under Michael Hughes, the Potters are a much-improved side. From bottom spot, they’re now five points outside the drop zone, and they haven’t lost in four league matches; that’s better than any side in the division with the exception of Nottingham Forest. A recent away win at West Brom also showed that, even on the road, Stoke can pick up points against the best sides in the division. So Philipp Cocu’s underachieving Rams certainly shouldn’t be complacent regarding tonight’s opponents.
Derby’s investment needs to pay off
The Pride Park side used to be Premier League regulars, so much so that there is still a feeling around the club that they belong a division higher. Hence paying out for a boss with the name recognition of Cocu, whose past roles include the manager’s jobs at PSV and Fenerbahce. Hence picking up Wayne Rooney to take on a player-coach role, and instantly making him club captain. There are certainly questions to be asked over whether this is the way to end a 12-year stint outside the top division, but so far Rooney has performed well and, up until the Luton debacle, the Rams were on a decent tear, having won three and drawn one of the previous four games.
The arrival of the former England captain has made Derby a stronger attacking force, and Cocu’s decision to deploy Rooney in a deep midfield role seems to be paying off, allowing the player to get on the ball earlier and carry it forward with the trademark aggression that plays such a part in his game. While it does mean that they miss out on his productivity in the opposition area, he showed against Luton that he’s still capable of digging out a long-range strike – and with odds of 5/2 (Paddy Power) against him scoring this evening, he’s certainly worth a look.
Potters look like a different side
He’s got Shamrock Rovers into the Europa League group stages, and Northern Ireland into the last 16 of Euro 2016. Perhaps the most impressive step in Michael O’Neill’s managerial journey. Though, will be if he manages to take on Stoke City, who have looked like a complete basket case since their relegation in 2018, and make them look like an organised, fully-functional side. So far, the signs are good. Stoke have kept clean sheets in their last three games, and since O’Neill’s arrival, only Leeds and Brentford have found the net more often.
This makes them a particularly dangerous opponent, as they currently occupy 20th place in the Championship and should, to all intents and purposes, be atrocious. Teams are still underestimating them, and if Cocu makes that mistake then Derby are likely to become another victim of Hughes’ unassuming revolution. With that said, kinetic attacker Tyrese Campbell is set to miss this game through injury, hampering Stoke’s goalscoring potential, so this is liable to be a low scoring game. We’d back fewer than 2.5 total goals in the encounter, which can be had for 11/20 at Unibet.
Hard to pick a winner
Although Derby are technically underperforming – you’d hope a club with their wage bill would at least be knocking on the door of the playoffs – they have put up a much more decent show since the turn of the year. They knocked Crystal Palace out of the FA Cup and have been decent in the league with the exception of Tuesday night’s mess. Ordinarily, you’d back them to win this one.
However, Stoke come into the match as favourites with most bookies – thanks, no doubt, to their exceptional recent form. We’d argue that the best bet would instead be to back the draw. Betsson are giving 41/20 on that, making it their least likely outcome, but this seems to underestimate the fact that both sides are doing more good than bad on the pitch in recent games. You can make a case for either team to win the day, but it’s finely-balanced enough that those cases are less than totally convincing. The draw, however, is entirely credible. We’d back that.
Bets of the Day
Draw (Betsson, 41/20); Fewer than 2.5 goals (Unibet, 11/20); Rooney to score (Paddy Power, 5/2)