Despite a spirited second-half display, the Rams tasted defeat for the first time in 2013, as a clinical Brighton and Hove Albion sealed a 2-1 victory at the American Express Community Stadium.
First-half goals from Ashley Barnes and Andrea Orlandi put the Seagulls into a healthy lead before the break, although Jeff Hendrick’s third goal in three games caused Brighton a large dose of concern in the final quarter.
It was the worst possible start for the Rams, as with just 81 seconds gone, the returning Inigo Calderon freed his compatriot David Lopez down the right. The midfielder was in acres of space, where he took his time before rolling the ball across the six-yard box, leaving Barnes with the simplest of tap-ins.
It was a real shock to the system to the Rams, but to their credit they almost forced an immediate response when Conor Sammon charged down Gordon Greer’s attempted clearance prior to slipping the ball to Ben Davies, but the midfielder’s subsequent strike was blocked on its way to goal.
Derby had to remain patient as Gus Poyet’s men dominated possession in the opening period, although Sammon thought he had escaped the clutches of Adam El-Abd in the 24th minute, only for the Egyptian international to get back in time and thwart the former Kilmarnock forward.
However, just as the Rams were beginning to get a foothold in the game, Brighton broke forward in a swift counter-attacking move before landing an almighty sucker punch.
Once again Lopez and Calderon where heavily involved, with the latter providing the final ammunition when he picked out Orlandi’s clever run with a teasing cross from the right, and the former Swansea City midfielder got ahead of the defender to send a thumping header into the roof of the net.
With one minute to go in the first-half, Jamie Ward was introduced in place of Will Hughes who was suffering with a back injury following an aerial collision.
The second half was barely a minute old when the Seagulls had a golden opportunity to put the game beyond any doubt as an unmarked Calderon connected with Orlandi’s left-wing corner, only to flash his header wide of Adam Legzdins
’ far post.
Then the returning Ward found a pocket of space on the edge of the penalty area, and with the smallest of back-lift, he sent a 20-yard strike narrowly over the crossbar, as the Rams searched for a way back into the game.
But Derby’s endeavor was almost undone when Will Buckley raced clear after nicking the ball off the toes of Richard Keogh. The midfielder squared for an onrushing Barnes, but thankfully, Gareth Roberts got a vital touch to divert the ball away from the striker and wide for a corner.
Barnes broke clear of the Rams’ reargaurd on 63 minutes and played in Buckley, whose blocked shot fell to Orlandi, but his subsequent toe poke was thwarted by a fine double save from Legzdins and then an intervention from Mark on the goal line to make completely sure.
The Seagulls were left to rue their flurry of missed opportunities as Derby clawed their way back into the game when a seemingly unmarked Hendrick turned in substitute Ward’s low free-kick on 70 minutes.
Jacobs sent a long-range effort narrowly over the crossbar whilst Keogh’s glancing header almost brought the Rams level, but despite a nervy final four minutes of extra time for the hosts, Derby could not quite find a way past Tomasz Kuszczak.
Derby County: Legzdins; Freeman (Jacobs 61), Keogh, O'Brien (Robinson 86), Roberts; Brayford, Coutts, Hendrick, Hughes (Ward 44), Davies; Sammon.
Subs Not Used: Fielding, O'Connor, Tyson, Bennett.
Brighton: Kuszczak, Calderon Greer, El-Abd, Bridge; Bridcutt, Hammond, Lopez (Crofts 87); Orlandi (Dicker 76), Buckley (LuaLua 76), Barnes.
Subs Not Used: Ankergren, Dunk, Vicente, Hoskins.
Attendance: 25,464 (Including 1,173 visiting supporters).