Brighton head into the final two games of the season knowing four points will be enough to guarantee automatic promotion. But this is far from a routine fixture for Chris Hughton’s men and they might be forced to take the scenic route towards the Promised Land by a Derby side coming into form ahead of the play-offs, striving for momentum and playing without any pressure.
The Seagulls are unbeaten in 12 matches - nine wins, three draws - since their horror show in front of the Sky cameras at Cardiff two months ago, when in sodden conditions they were soundly beaten 4-1. The response has been impressive but owes much to the fixture list, with only two games against top-six opposition, both of which were at home and both of which they failed to win.
That means in ten previous games against the top seven, Brighton have triumphed only once and their goal difference is -5. It’s a sample heavy on stalemates with seven finishing all-square but the draw isn’t really much use to them here. In fact, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to the dynamics of next weekend’s do-or-die encounter with Middlesbrough.
If the Seagulls want the draw onside at the Riverside, they simply have to force the issue and take maximum points from this game. If there’s no early breakthrough to settle the nerves, then increasingly the conditions might begin to suit Derby right up to the point where the hosts become desperate and play straight into their hands.
The Rams’ automatic promotion hopes have been dead in the water for a while now, so it’s easy to forget the esteem in which they were held prior to the unraveling of their relationship with Paul Clement. But it’s essentially the same expensively-assembled squad that was top of the table on Boxing Day and began to buckle under the pressure soon after - except now without the pressure.
We can only take Darren Wassall at face value and he’s making all the right noises about intensity and momentum and the importance of Derby marching towards the end-of-season knockout in tip-top condition, confident and unbeaten. The Rams are currently five without defeat and they’ve won eight of the last 13 since their season reached its nadir with a 1-0 home defeat to MK Dons.
Both teams possess significant goal threats - Brighton have scored 18 in their last six matches, Derby 14 - so we should expect the scoring to continue once the deadlock has been broken, but with anxiety likely to be consuming Albion, it might be an opportunity for Derby to send out a statement to the rest of their play-off rivals, if they really want to.
As well as taking the 19/4 available on Derby to win the game, which returns a full two points more than the price jotted down on my own tissue, correct score backers might also want to the snap up the 18/1 about Derby to win 2-1. By standard conversion, I make it no bigger than a 12/1 shot.
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