PATRICK BAMFORD's second half goal proved enough as Derby County fell to a narrow 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough in the battle of the promotion hopefuls at the iPro Stadium.
The on-loan Chelsea forward scored four minutes after the hour mark from close range, whilst Middlesbrough showed at the other end why they boasted the record of the Championship’s meanest defence.
Time and again, Derby were met a red brick wall as Middlesbrough frustrated the home side for long periods of the contest and limited them to very little as their winless streak extended to five games.
Backed by an electric crowd, the encounter battled out between two sides began at a relentless pace.
Loose balls, tackles, blocks and surges forward were met by a roar of support but both defences remained unmoved for large periods of the first 45 minutes.
Cyrus Christie’s dangerous delivery from the right narrowly evaded the outstretched Jamie Ward at the far post, whilst the visitors had their best opportunity as Boro broke at pace.
From a central position, the ball was sprayed to the feet of Albert Adomah who saw low drive parried away by Lee Grant, before last-gasp defending, on two separate occasions, saw the ball eventually cleared for a corner.
Jamie Hanson, on his home debut, sent a speculative effort over the top of Dimi Konstantopoulos’ crossbar, but with five minutes remaining the foot of the post came to the Rams’ rescue.
A long punt up field from Konstantopoulos was half cleared by Grant to as far as Jelle Vossen, who controlled before lifting the ball over Derby’s ‘keeper and towards goal.
Arching, the ball looked destined to bounce into the underside of the roof of the net, but cracked the foot of post, before Derby regrouped to clear the danger.
The second half continued in the same vein with the first 15 minutes of the second half being built up of a number of thunderous challenges.
Hanson was at the heart of it with three dedicated clean tackles in the space of 30 seconds, but both defences remained rock solid and unmoved.
With the hour mark closing in, Johnny Russell swivelled and hit a half volley well wide of Konstantopoulos’ goal, whilst Patrick Bamford connected with a Adomah effort and turned it wide moments later.
Three minutes later and Boro did take the lead to inflict a killer blow on Derby.
Wasteful in possession, Aitor Karanka’s side broke at pace and the ball was played through to Bamford, who finished past Grant at his near post.
Steve McClaren went for the jugular by introducing Jesse Lingard, Jeff Hendrick and Kwame Thomas, but still with every chance the side tried to fashion it was met by a red brick wall as every Boro man threw their bodies on their line to protect their precious advantage.
With seven minutes remaining, and with Derby camping themselves in the Boro half, Hendrick flashed the ball across the area.
The ball deflected into the path of Lingard who leathered his time cross shot narrowly wide of goal.
Lingard was proving to be a big threat on the left as Derby continued to search for a late equaliser.
The on-loan Manchester United, from the left, cut inside on to his favoured right foot and delivered a ball on to the head of Russell, but the Scot’s connection flew straight into the arms of Konstantopoulos.
Five minutes of added time was flashed and that, like everything else, was met by the 12th men right behind the Rams, but the with only minutes remaining Bamford raced clear after the ball bounced over the head of Keogh.
The forward latched on to it, but as he closed in on goal, Derby’s Captain recovered to flick the Bamford’s shot for a corner.
Barring one quick break forward from the host’s Boro saw out the remaining minutes of the contest and the full time whistle soon sounded and what greeted it was a picture of what this fixture meant for both sides.
Derby’s players, who had chased, harried, fought, pushed all evening, fell to the ground, whilst Middlesbrough were left celebrating a result that lifted them to the top of the Sky Bet Championship.
Derby County: Grant, Christie (Thomas, 76), Keogh (C), Albentosa, Forsyth; Hanson (Hendrick, 70), Bryson, Hughes; Ince, Ward (Lingard, 70), Russell
Substitutes not used: Roos (GK), Dawkins, Shotton, Warnock
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos, Kalas, Woodgate (C), Gibson, Friend, Leadbitter, Clayton, Adomah, Bamford, Tomlin (Reach, 86), Vossen (Forshaw, 80)
Substitutes not used: Ripley, Nsue, Omeruo, Whitehead, Kike