Two first half goals were enough to give Derby a 2-1 win over Barnsley in this Sky Bet Championship fixture that was crucial for both sides.
Efforts from Jeff Hendrick and Johnny Russell were enough to edge a hotly contested encounter, despite a late consolation from Barnsley’s Nick Proschwitz.
Derby controlled the game for long periods and it looked like it would be a comfortable afternoon for the hosts, but the Barnsley sub’s 80th minute strike made for a tense last few minutes.
A breathless end to the match saw a Russell penalty saved and Proschwitz miss a free kick, but ultimately, the tie finished 2-1 with Derby securing their sixth win in eight.
Burnley’s win at Wigan means the Rams can no longer win automatic promotion, but the result at the iPro Stadium means Derby just need one more point to clinch third.
Derby County made light work of the first half, seeing far more of the ball than their opponents and creating numerous opportunities to score.
The visitors struggled to contend with Derby’s passing game, with the Rams passing in neat triangles in Barnsley’s half and testing their defenders to the full.
Derby looked more likely to break the deadlock and that proved to be the case in the 34th minute when Hendrick smashed in a shot from 25 yards that made a spectator of Barnsley ‘keeper, Luke Steele.
And just before half time, Russell made it two when his shot from the edge of the box deflected off Craig Bryson and looped into the far corner.
After the second half, Derby started slowly as Barnsley pressed high up the pitch in an attempt to haul themselves back into the tie.
But Derby soon found their passing groove again and looked like the most likely to get the next goal.
Barnsley had other ideas though and a goal from Proschwitz against the run of play made the Rams’ sweat during the last closing minutes, the pressure obviously not getting to Luke Steele who saved Russell’s penalty just moments after the Tykes had halved the deficit.
Derby defended well though and kept the visitors goal tally to just one, earning maximum points and building momentum going into the all important play-offs.
The first chance of the game fell to Derby when Russell whipped in a great low cross to Bryson, but the midfielder’s shot was blocked well.
Bryson then had another chance to score as he took aim from just inside the area, but his shot hit the side netting.
Moments later, Ward found himself in space just outside the area and tried his luck, but his 20 yard effort was easily saved by Steele.
Some neat build up play around the box almost unlocked the door for Derby when Hendrick played a great one-two with Martin and the Irishman curled his shot just outside the left post.
Barnsley carved out their first opportunity just after quarter of an hour when a deep cross found Jean Yves Mvoto at the back post but he was always stretching to reach it and his tame volley was easily blocked.
Derby then broke and when the ball came to Bryson, he lifted the ball to Martin whose close-range header flew over.
At the other end, ex-Ram, Cywka charged into the box and looked to fire in at Grant’s near post but his shot was charged down and blocked for a corner.
Barely a minute later Yves Mvoto again looked to shoot, but his powerful drive was well off target.
Derby again displayed some superb passing prowess around Barnsley’s 18 yard box and Russell Ward should have scored after a one-two with Ward sent him clear, but his low shot rolled wide.
In the 34th minute, Craig Bryson laid the ball off to Hendrick, who looked up and thumped an effort past Steele from 25 yards to break the open the scoring.
And with just three minutes of the first half remaining, Derby doubled their advantage when Russell’s shot from the edge of the box took a huge deflection and looped up over the despairing Barnsley ‘keeper.
After the break, Barnsley looked to get out of the blocks quickly and Grant had to be at his best to tip over Thomas Kennedy’s curling free kick.
There was a controversial moment just past the hour mark after Steele took a heavy touch outside his area and Martin looked to steal it from him, but after both men took a tumble, the linesman signalled a Barnsley foul.
The Rams had started the second half slowly, but their passing began to click again and in the 68th minute, substitute Simon Dawkins found himself with a sight of goal, but his right-footed effort was deflected agonisingly wide.
Three minutes later, more quality passing let in Chris Martin who’s shot from outside the box was high and wide.
Derby had begun to find their rhythm and next, it was the turn of Forsyth to try his luck, but after a mazey run into the area, he blazed over from around 12 yards.
The hosts had taken the game by the scruff of the neck again, creating chance after chance, and a Bryson free kick almost made it three, but his dipping effort flew just wide.
With just ten minutes to go, Barnsley gave themselves a lifeline when substitute Proschwitz received the ball 12 yards from goal and slid the ball past Grant and into the bottom corner.
Derby had the chance to restore their two goal advantage almost instantly when Sammon muscled his way into the box before being brought down in the box, but Johnny Russell’s penalty was well saved.
From the goal kick, Russell picked up the ball and almost made amends straight away, but his chipped shot bounced narrowly wide.
Subsitute, Simon Dawkins could have scored barely two minutes later when he had a one-on-one with Steele, but the Tykes’ ‘keeper saved well.
Barnsley were pushing for an equaliser and won a free kick in a great position with only minutes to go, but Proschwitz’s effort was well over.
The visitors continued to press for a second, but Derby defended well and saw the game out to record a well-earned victory and a vital three points.
Derby County: Grant, Wisdom, Keogh (C), Buxton, Forsyth, Thorne (Eustace 63), Hendrick, Bryson, Russell, Ward (Dawkins 66), Martin (Sammon 79).
Subs: Legzdins, Whitbread, Hughes, Bamford.
Barnsley: Steele, Nyatanga, Kennedy, M'voto, Cranie, Cywka (Noble-Lazarus 68), Jennings, McCourt (Mellis 45), Lawrence (Proschwitz 72), Dawson, O'Grady.
Subs not used: Turner, Woods, Frimpong, Hassell.