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Mitchell's Verdict: Derby County 1 AFC Bournemouth 0
ULTIMATELY, it’s the hope that kills you.
Cherries supporters travelling in the backs of cars looking at this fixture on paper would have been shooting for hope at best. Realistically, expectation wouldn’t have entered the equation.
Since Steve McClaren took over, Derby County have been in imperious form, particularly at home where the Rams have now secured nine wins from 11 Championship outings.
But once the players cross that white line and the action unfolds, the rhyme and reason of the form book swiftly goes out of the window – a point proved beyond reasonable doubt during the first 45 minutes at Pride Park.
Much like the near-perfect performances at Reading and Sheffield Wednesday in December, Cherries soaked up some early pressure with their former County custodian Lee Camp having precious little to do.
Even without midfield platform Eunan O’Kane through injury, Eddie Howe’s men set about their supposedly illustrious opponents without fear and could have had the match sewn up by half-time.
The difference on this occasion? Bad finishing and bad luck combined to leave Cherries vulnerable to the type of sucker punch those in-form teams always seem to dig out from somewhere.
One controversial call and the bud of hope which had blossomed into expectation was mercilessly trampled into the mud.
When captain Tommy Elphick was punished for a seemingly legitimate challenge on Will Hughes with five minutes to go, Derby’s top scorer Chris Martin took his opportunity to land the knock-out blow with a dipping drive from 20 yards which oozed Premier League class.
Quite rightly, Cherries were incensed, but how they could have benefitted from such impeccable marksmanship.
After the visitors spent the first 15 minutes silencing the crowd, maligned striker Tokelo Rantie buzzed around to great effect, keeping Derby’s defenders busy and creating openings for the visitors to implement their effective away-day game plan.
The South Africa international teed up Matt Ritchie to strike the base of Lee Grant’s near post in Cherries’ first meaningful attack before Rantie’s single, yet telling touch, in a one-two handed strike partner Lewis Grabban the game’s golden opportunity, only for Cherries’ top scorer to inexplicably place his shot high and wide from 12 yards.
Rantie remained full of running and forced worried centre-half Richard Keogh to unwittingly chip his own keeper under pressure from Cherries’ pacy presence with the ball bouncing agonisingly past the far post.
Grabban, possibly with that earlier miss preying on his mind, chose to shoot straight at Grant after leaving two Derby defenders in his wake, despite Rantie being handily placed.
It was hard to tell what the punch-drunk home side were more perplexed about at half-time – the fact they had been carved open so often or that somehow they were still level when Cherries should have been out of sight.
Either way, County boss McClaren’s double change at half-time spoke volumes for what he had witnessed and, from his point of view, had the desired effect.
Connor Sammon’s presence immediately gave Cherries something to think about with fellow frontman Chris Martin afforded more room to manoeuvre.
That, coupled with Simon Dawkins’ trickery, added a new-found purpose and productivity for the Rams.
But while Cherries were unable to repeat their dominant first-half showing after the interval, their efforts in keeping out Derby were just as valiant.
After imposing himself on the first half, Harry Arter was tigerish in the tackle after the interval, breaking up play as Cherries got forced deeper, while Steve Cook was back to his best in a near-faultless defensive display.
The ex-Brighton man helped to ensure the ball squirmed away from Sammon in front of goal after Hendrick and Dawkins had opened up Cherries down the left just after the hour mark.
More crucially, Cook calmly stuck out a foot to deflect Johnny Russell’s close-range finish off the goal line from Martin’s low centre after Dawkins had caught Francis in possession.
Despite being under pressure, it was all going to plan until the match-defining moment that got everyone talking.
But while the heightened anticipation resulted in much more hurt on the day, this was a marker for where Cherries want to be – competing with the Championship’s very best.
Amid the frustration and anger it would be easy to forget the positives from this strong showing, and while it might kick you in the shins from time to time, hope springs eternal.
Star man - Harry Arter
Such a tight call between Arter and Steve Cook for the accolade but the midfield man edges it for his flexibility during a tough test at Pride Park.
Instrumental in getting Cherries on the front foot, Arter brought discipline and bite to the middle of the park once Derby took control after the interval.
Well-timed tackles in his own penalty area and the ability to shrug off one or two meaty challenges while keeping a cool head displayed a mature side to Arter’s game.
Cook’s series of blocks and perfectly-timed interceptions saw him stand out. Neither man deserved to be on the losing side.
Cherries (4-4-2): Camp 7, Francis 7, Elphick 7.5, Cook 8, Harte 6.5, Ritchie 6.5 (Fraser, 70), Arter 8, Surman 6.5, Pugh 6.5 (MacDonald, 75), Rantie 7 (Kermorgant, 58), Grabban 6.5.
Unused subs: Smith, Coulibaly, Pitman, Allsop (g/k).
Booked: Camp, Elphick, Francis, Arter.
Derby (4-1-2-3): Grant, Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Eustace (Dawkins, h-t), Hendrick, Hughes, Russell, Bamford (Sammon, h-t), Martin.
Unused subs: O’Brien, Bailey, Thorne, Whitbread, Legzdins (g/k).
Booked: Buxton, Forsyth.
Referee: Mark Heywood (Cheshire).
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