Derby County began their 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship campaign with an entertaining 1-1 draw against newly relegated side Sunderland on Friday night.
There was an immense sense of excitement from the beginning from both sides at the Stadium of Light and, as you would expect, it was the host team who made the most of that with a succession of early chances.
Against the run of play, though, on 11 minutes, Gary Rowett’s side managed to break the deadlock. Johnny Russell did all the hard work, cutting in from the left side and although his shoot from a tight angle was blocked, Bradley Johnson was there to follow up the rebound to score the first goal of the new EFL season.
Sunderland continued to put the Rams under pressure after going behind and Scott Carson’s outstanding save of Lee Cattermole’s volley prevented the hosts from equalising on 25 minutes.
The hosts did finally equalise minutes before half-time after a penalty was awarded for an adjudged handball inside the area from Jacob Butterfield. Lewis Grabban stepped up and put the chance away with no hesitation – narrowly beating Carson with a cool finish into the bottom right corner.
Sunderland returned from the break with a similar attacking intent and the Rams were left biting their nails just before the hour mark after Grabban fancied his chances again and smashed the crossbar from long-range.
As time wore on, Derby grew into things and a game-defining chance fell to the feet of Chris Martin thanks to a poke from Matej Vydra. The chance, however, took a bobble and was blasted well over.
Sunderland: Steele, Jones, Cattermole (C), Vaughan, Grabban, Galloway, Ndong, Browning, McGeady, Kone, Honeyman
Substitutes not used: Khazri, O’Shea, Matthews, Gibson, Ruiter, Gooch, Asoro
Derby County: Carson, Wisdom, Keogh, Davies, Forsyth, Huddlestone, Johnson, Butterfield, Weimann (Vydra, 66), Russell (Bryson, 89), Martin (Nugent, 78)
Substitutes not used: Mitchell, Baird, Pearce, Bennett
After taking the lead, the pressure was on for the hosts to hit back as early as possible.
Intensity from the Black Cats increased significantly and on 25 minutes a shortly-cleared ball landed at the feet of Cattermole, the Sunderland captain, on the edge of the box.
The volley by Cattermole looked sure to be a goal but an outstanding diving save from Carson, the Rams’ player of the year last season, kept Derby in the lead.
Over the course of the match there were two or three players that stood out.
Johnny Russell looked dangerous, was a constant menace and played a huge role in breaking the deadlock, whereas, at the other end of the pitch Curtis Davies looked a calm and assured influence – both on and off the ball.
For us, though, captain Richard Keogh was the stand-out candidate thanks to his near-faultless display in the heart of an impressive defensive performance. He literally got his head on everything!
The Rams claimed a point from what were an impressive side and it leaves them in joint second-place behind local rivals Nottingham Forest, who defeated Millwall 1-0 at the City Ground.
With the rest of the Sky Bet Championship fixtures due to be played over the course of Saturday and Sunday, we will have a clearer indication of the Rams’ position on Monday.
Of course, there are still 45 games to go!
Next up, the Rams face a trip to Blundell Park against last season’s second round opponent’s Grimsby Town ahead of their opening fixture in the Carabao Cup.
Derby faced the Mariners at the same stage of the competition last season, edging the meeting 1-0 at Pride Park Stadium thanks to Richard Keogh’s second half header.
Look out for a preview show on RamsTV on Monday.