A Chris Martin penalty and a Tomasz Kuszczak own goal cancelled out Jesse Lingard’s early goal to give the Rams an invaluable 2-1 lead going into the second leg of this Championship semi-final with all the goals coming in the first half.
After all the tension and hyperbole leading up to this important clash, both sides looked determined not to disappoint their fans, putting everything into a breathless first half full of drama.
The home side took an early lead through Manchester United loanee, Lingard who blasted into the centre of Lee Grant’s goal from close range after his initial shot was blocked.
After having to sustain swathes of pressure from the hosts, the Rams were then able to haul themselves back into the game as the momentum swung in their favour and they begun to see much more of the ball.
Just before the half hour mark, The Rams were presented with the perfect opportunity to equalise when veteran centre back, Matthew Upson sent Craig Forsyth sprawling in the Brighton box and in-form forward, Chris Martin tucked away the penalty to square the game.
And with only seconds of the first period remaining, Derby snatched the lead when a thumping effort from Rams’ top scorer, Martin clattered against the bar and onto Tomasz Kuszczak’s back; the Brighton ‘keeper powerless to stop prevent the own goal.
The second half was just as frantic as the first and was only without a goal thanks to some heroics from Grant, who made a number of breathtaking saves to maintain Derby’s one goal lead.
The first came from Ulloa’s close range volley, which bounced up off the turf and needed Grant to tip it onto his own crossbar, before it could be hacked away.
As Brighton threw everything bar the kitchen sink at their opponents, a low effort from Lingard then a bullet from LuaLua also required the shot stopper to be at his best, pulling off two great stops in quick succession to further frustrate the hosts.
Derby created little to shout about themselves in the second half, but defended bravely to retain an important one goal advantage going into the second leg at the iPro Stadium on Sunday.
A cagey start from both sides saw plenty of good passing with little end product, the best chance being a Derby free kick around 20 yards from goal after Inigo Calderon brought down Forsyth.
The Brighton defender picked up a booking for the challenge, but Craig Bryson’s cross from the set piece was too deep and went straight into touch.
Roughly a minute later, Calderon was again at the centre of the action when he hit the floor in the box under a challenge, but his penalty appeals were waved away by referee, Roger East.
Almost immediately, Calderon spearheaded another Brighton attack and Derby skipper, Richard Keogh did well to deal with his teasing right wing cross, heading it clear for a corner.
Derby were enduring wave after wave of attack from the hosts and in the 19th minute, that pressure was telling as on-loan striker, Lingard was able to break the deadlock, smashing home from close range after some desperate Rams defending.
Derby had the opportunity to level straight away when they won a free kick on the right wing and although Bryson’s delivery looked dangerous, Keogh couldn’t turn it in at the back post.
Derby were feeling their way back into the game and were presented a glorious opportunity to restore parity in the 28th minute when some superb Derby passing saw left back, Craig Forsyth charge into the box before being chopped down by former England defender, Upson.
Rams’ in form striker, Martin stepped up to take the spot kick and duly dispatched it beyond Kuszczak to level the tie.
The visitors could have gone ahead moments later when they broke forward again and Jamie Ward played a great ball into the area and Johnny Russell’s cross-cum-shot flashed across the six yard box and into touch.
At the other end, a Brighton cross found the head of Ulloa via a deflection, but the Seagulls’ top scorer was denied by a great low save from Grant to keep the score at 1-1.
It was then Derby’s turn to push forward, firstly through a Russell cross that required some last ditch defending and then through a Craig Bryson shot that he blasted over from close range under pressure from Seagulls’ skipper, Gordon Greer.
The Rams’ pressure continued to mount and they took the lead in first half stoppage when Russell laid the ball off for Martin who hit it first time, his effort smashing off the bar, onto the back of Kuzczak and into the Brighton net, sending Derby in a goal to the good at half time.
That late goal seemed to lift the visitors and some of the travelling fans thought the lead had been doubled in the opening minutes of the second half, but Ward’s shot from an acute angle had only hit the side netting.
Ten minutes into the half, Brighton begun to control the play and started to look dangerous, firstly though a long range drive from half time sub, Kazenga LuaLua, but his effort was way off target.
Brighton came forward again and the ball came to Calderon who tried his luck from the edge of the area, but his effort was also high, wide and not very handsome.
In the 61st minute, Ulloa came agonisingly close to an equaliser when from Andrea Orlandi’s corner, he volleyed the ball into the ground, but as it looped goalwards, Lee Grant produced an incredible save to tip it onto the crossbar.
Brighton were pressing higher and higher up the pitch looking to get back into the game, and almost found a way to do so when substitute Solly March put a low cross into the six yard box, which could have gone anywhere, but Grant pounced on it to quell the danger.
The hosts continued to pile on the pressure and were coming forward again and again, but Derby were defending well and Stephen Ward’s whipped cross was mopped up easily by Bryson.
Conor Sammon, on for Ward, had only been on the pitch a matter of minutes when he was booked for bringing down the impressive March in a position of some peril, but the delivery from the subsequent free kick was poor, sailing over everyone in the box and out for a goal kick.
The Seagulls’ wouldn’t let up, pouring forward in droves and Grant had to make two remarkable saves to retain the Rams’ lead, first from Lingard’s low strike and then tipping over a superb effort from LuaLua.
Derby had to endure relentless attacks from a determined Brighton side, but defended impressively and were ultimately able to hold on to their advantage at the halfway point of this Championship play-off semi-final.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Kuszczak, Calderon, Greer, Upson, Ward, Andrews, Forster-Caskey, Lingard (Mackail-Smith 82), Orlandi (March 70), Ulloa, Buckley (LuaLua 45).
Subs not used: Brezovan (GK), Chicksen, Dunk, Ince.
Derby County: Grant, Wisdom, Keogh (C), Buxton, Forsyth, Thorne, Bryson (Hughes 92), Hendrick, Russell (Dawkins 66), Ward (Sammon 72), Martin.
Subs not used: Legzdins, Whitbread, Eustace, Bamford.