At the start of the season, any straw poll for the teams winning promotion from the Championship would have seen a lot of action for the two sides contesting tonight’s match. Now, as we enter the closing stretch with just over a quarter of the season to go, they’re both still in the mix – but with varying levels of realism as to their chances. Hosts Derby sit in 13th place and are nine points off the play-off spots. After 33 games, they have won 11, lost 11 and, as the maths geeks will have figured out, also drawn 11; that’s practically a dictionary definition of “middling”.
Their visitors tonight, Fulham, could have been in the top two ahead of this game, had they won by a decent margin against Barnsley last weekend at Craven Cottage. Instead, they picked the worst possible time to slump to a miserable defeat against the division’s bottom side, losing 3-0 and remaining in third spot. The Cottagers are well-placed for a play-off spot, but they would want to go up automatically, given how much space there is for things to go wrong in the knock-out matches. They’ll be hoping to inflict a rare home defeat on the Rams this evening.
Premier League class on show
One of the major reasons that these sides were considered among the likely candidates for promotion was the preponderance of Premier League players in their squads. Fulham were in the top flight as recently as last season, and have kept much of the team that they had then. Derby, meanwhile, have been ready to invest in players who have experience at the top end of the game, although Andre Wisdom and Tom Huddlestone have spent much of the season out injured, while record signing Krzystian Bielik is also on the sidelines. They have, however, picked up Wayne Rooney as a player-coach, and he’s still got a Premier League brain even if his knees are more Championship.
As far as quality goes, then, this should be a contest that showcases two sides who can play with the best, and both teams should be able to impose themselves in an attacking and defensive sense. While a bet on Both Teams To Score offers limited value, you can back them both to score in the second half – as the intensity steps up – and get very decent odds of 11/5 from Paddy Power. With Alex Mitrovic on one side, and Wayne Rooney on the other, the chances of goals being plucked as defenders tire seem to be quite high.
Star power to count for both sides
Derby absolutely need to start winning more games if they are to have anything to play for beyond the next month of the season. This match doesn’t offer an easy way to do that, but the reason they have spent what it takes to get a name coach like Phillip Cocu, or a legend of the game like Rooney, is that these people can show their experience and their class when it counts. This is a huge match for Derby, and if those big names don’t deliver on occasions like this, then there really needs to be a rethink on how things are done down Wyvern Way.
Equally, Fulham have a pretty major imperative to take as many points as possible with the weekends being ticked off the calendar. This means winning, or at least drawing, games like this, and they’ll need to be ready for a big clash. This is the kind of occasion that should bring the best from Rooney and Mitrovic alike. William Hill have a boosted price of 9/1 on both men scoring in the game – and with the former likely to start in a more advanced role tonight there’s every chance of them both getting on the scoresheet.
Form book seems to have the answers
The simple truth about the Championship – and much of English football in general this season – is that there has been a flattening of what previously was considered to be the elite level. West Brom and Leeds were, going into Christmas, the standout leaders in the division. Despite both experiencing fairly atrocious runs through the winter stage of the season, they remain first and second, but it’s far from impossible that they could spill out of the top six between now and May. Nobody is emerging as an obvious contender to take the rest of the season in hand and snatch promotion. If the form book points to any result in this match, it’s a draw – because both sides are as likely to snatch one from the jaws of victory as they are to solidly win the game.
It’s also a result that wouldn’t sink either side – though Derby can’t keep postponing that kick for the finish line much longer. With the cup competitions a mere memory for both sides, March will very much be the time to turn their attentions to winning all the remaining games and securing promotion: but here, we’d take Betsson’s price of 47/20 on the draw and go with that.
Bets of the Day
Draw (Betsson, 47/20); Mitrovic and Rooney both score (William Hill, 9/1 from 6/1); BTTS in second half (Paddy Power, 11/5)