There are no hard and fast rules regarding form and momentum in the play-offs, you judge each team on its own merits, and though you normally wouldn’t be inclined to read too much into the outcome of dead-rubber fixtures on the final day, here it somehow seems relevant. Hull were 5-1 winners against Rotherham, Derby went down limply at home to Ipswich.
Both teams fielded what they considered to be their strongest starting 11, but whereas Steve Bruce was able to withdraw Mo Diame, Robert Snodgrass and Abel Hernandez to standing ovations against the Millers, Darren Wassall was left harrowed by a double leg break suffered by midfield orchestrator George Thorne.
The injury occurred in the dying moments of a game in which the Rams had toiled for the best part of an hour, unable to summon up a worthwhile response to David McGoldrick’s first-half penalty. The spot-kick itself had been awarded for a rash tackle by Richard Keogh as he tried to correct an individual error. Keogh was then booked soon afterwards and had to be substituted for his own benefit at half-time.
All of which fuels the argument that Derby are the weakest of the quartet in this division. Wassall is a first-time manager and though he has, in patches, been able to get a tune out of this expensively-assembled squad, it has never been sustained enough to believe the Rams will step up to the mark when it really matters.
So Hull have their template. What Ipswich did at the iPro last Saturday is essentially what Bruce will be aiming to replicate this weekend. A clean sheet will be the priority because - the Rotherham win aside - clean sheets have accompanied all of their best work this term. Of the 11 wins recorded against top-half opposition, all but one has been based on a shut-out.
That’s a slightly misleading statistic insomuch that the Tigers have taken only one point from five away games against the rest of the top six, losing four of them to nil. And Derby will no doubt take comfort from the fact they boast a 6-0 aggregate from their two meetings with the Yorkshire club, including a 4-0 success on this pitch 38 days ago.
But sometimes the trick is not to follow the numbers blindly, rather skirt around the edges to understand what might have happened had fate conspired differently. Against the three teams who finished above Hull, they lost all three away games 1-0. In five home games against the rest of the top six, Derby have fallen behind four times, conceding the opening goal in three.
If Derby concede the first goal in this meeting, giving the Tigers something to hold on to, they might have a job on their hands trying to salvage anything from the 90 minutes - or indeed the whole tie. Take the 9/4 on Hull to win the game and split a point between the Hull 1-0 and Hull 2-0 correct score options at 15/2 and 15/1 respectively.
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