Derby County took on Chelsea on Tuesday night at the iPro Stadium in Derby, a game that culminated in a thrilling second half, and a bit of a flattering result for the Premier League leaders. The match ended 3-1 on the night to the Blues, but it was not the ‘David vs. Goliath’ kind of match that usually tends to befall fixtures between clubs from the Championship and the Premier League respectively. Rather, it was one of the more ‘Mourinho’ victories for Chelsea; winning, but winning without dazzling the fans. It’s true that winning ugly has been uncharacteristic from Chelsea of late, but I think that it more so speaks to the job that Steve McClaren has done with Derby County, in turning the Rams into a team worthy of Premier League opposition, and perhaps even a promotion berth for 2015.
Whatever fight Derby did put up for the Premier League favourites, it was no match in the end for the usual suspects for Chelsea this season. Players like Cesc Fàbregas excelled on his return to the first team squad after missing the 2-0 victory over Hull on December 13th. The Spaniard was instrumental in the first goal, feeding Eden Hazard with a quick, precise pass that he’s known for to have the Belgian slot home past keeper Lee Grant. Fàbregas and his ability to find passes that cut through the heart of opposition defences has been paramount to Chelsea’s success this season, and he’s proving game in and game to be one of Chelsea’s most important players.
So too is Eden Hazard, who latched onto a horribly misplaced pass by Rams captain Richard Keogh that allowed him to play the one-two with Fàbregas. The mistake was a bit of a forced error on the part of Keogh, as he was far too slow releasing the ball, which allowed Hazard and Didier Drogba to close in on him and give the ball away. Errors of that magnitude are not likely to go unpunished playing Premier League opposition, and Hazard made that fact painstakingly clear.
Still, though, Derby did not go down with a whimper. Rather they showed their fans that they could compete with the Premier League, and maybe deserve to be on the way to the top flight come next May. Of course, Derby’s last stint in the Premier League ended dreadfully for the Rams, setting the record for the lowest number of points in a single season with eleven and thus quickly dropping back down to the Championship. This time around, Derby look revamped, and much more organized under the leadership of former England boss Steve McClaren.
McClaren has worked wonders at the iPro, bringing in talents like Jordon Ibe on loan from Liverpool, and sitting Derby comfortably in playoff contention at third place in the league. Jordon Ibe has had a very promising start to his Derby career, and has great potential, at only nineteen years old, to follow in the footsteps of Raheem Sterling and represent both parent club Liverpool and England at the national level in his future. He danced around Jon Obi Mikel and César Azpilicueta, with some neat footwork, to get his cross in, forcing a similar giveaway to that of Keogh, from Branislav Ivanović. That loss of possession saw Johnny Russell pick up the ball, and lay it off for a cool finish from Craig Bryson to put the heat on Chelsea and close the gap to 2-1.
All the pressure kept up during the second half from Derby was null and void once the Rams had the life taken out of their game with a red card being shown to Jake Buxton. Referees are rarely praised for their exceptional calls but always criticized for those that seem off. Jonathan Moss seemed a bit too eager to show Buxton red, after what seemed, in my opinion, a very 50/50 tussle with Loïc Rémy.
Was it a foul? Maybe. Was it red card worthy? Not even close. Rémy is faster that Buxton, but there was no way that he was going to reach the ball before having it picked up by Grant. The only thing the red card accomplished was that it nullified all of the good work that Derby had been doing to mount a comeback. Chelsea quickly put the game to rest with André Schürrle striking a Rémy rebound into goal for a third.
There are plenty of positives to take away from both teams on the night. Chelsea proved that they could still win without necessarily playing at the best of their abilities, while Derby showed some very promising signs that promotion to the Premier League is a very real possibility.
At the end of the day, though, Chelsea is the team that has their ticket booked for the semi-finals. The Blues are still in contention for four trophies and, while Newcastle disproved all notions of potential invincibility, there does not look like much will stand in the way of Chelsea going a fair distance in each of their available competitions this season.