Derby County’s 2019/20 Sky Bet Championship campaign resumed with an impressive 3-2 at Millwall on Saturday afternoon thanks to a superb hat-trick from youngster Louie Sibley.
After a three-month suspension of the season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Phillip Cocu’s side returned to action at The Den in the unfamiliar surroundings of a stadium with no supporters, with all matches instructed to be played behind-closed-doors under UK Government rules.
Matt Smith’s header had Millwall ahead inside the opening quarter of the game, but the Rams responded quickly and were back on level terms before the half-hour mark as Sibley blasted home to round off a slick passing move.
The 18-year-old then put Derby ahead with 19 minutes to go with a cool finish from inside the box to round off a fine attacking move.
He completed his hat-trick late on with another composed finish from inside the box to round off an impressive personal performance, while the Rams were made to sweat late on as substitute Jon Dadi Bodvarsson pulled a goal back to set up a grandstand finish.
But they held on to record a deserved victory in the capital.
Derby’s last competitive match ahead of today’s game was iin early March as they defeated Blackburn Rovers 3-0 at Pride Park Stadium.
From the side that started that day, Cocu made three changes to his starting line-up with skipper Wayne Rooney, forward Tom Lawrence and midfielder Duane Holmes coming into the side at the expense of Graeme Shinnie, Chris Martin and Jason Knight.
Derby’s bench, because of the temporary EFL rule which has seen the allocated number of substitutes increased from seven to nine, provided Cocu with plenty of options to call upon.
Millwall, managed by former Derby boss Gary Rowett, went into the game four places and three points ahead of the Rams in the table as the race for play-offs remains wide open. Their last match before the suspension of the season was, like Derby, also a 3-0 victory at Nottingham Forest.
Players and officials from both sides performed the act of ‘taking the knee’ ahead of the game getting underway, which is one of the symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement which has gathered momentum in recent days - as well as a minute's applause for the dedicated NHS workers.
The game started at a fairly low-key pace, with the sound of crowd noise playing through the public address system to provide some sort of familiarity for the players despite no supporters behind inside the ground, with the Rams keen to dominate possession in the middle of the park.
Rooney, in particular, was looking sharp early on and his customary cross-field passes to switch the play provided Derby with a useful attacking outlet to utilise early on with Jayden Bogle and Craig Forsyth offering width out wide from the full-back areas.
However, on the break and somewhat against the run of play, Millwall took the lead on the quarter-hour mark. The Lions won the ball in midfield and broke down the left at pace on the counterattack. Shane Ferguson whipped a deep cross to the far post and Smith rose highest above Forsyth to powerfully head the ball back across goal and beyond Hamer.
Derby didn’t let the blow of falling behind knock their confidence and they had two chances to equalise within a couple of minutes of the restart. Sibley had a shot from range pushed away by Bartosz Bialkowski in the home goal and free-kick from Waghorn, from 20 yards out, grazed the top of the crossbar on its way over.
By the 26th minute, the Rams were back on level terms through Sibley. The attacking midfielder received the ball inside the box, after good work between Max Bird and Bogle, and displayed neat footwork to create a shooting opportunity. With his right foot, and in the blink of an eye, he blasted the ball into the top corner from six yards out.
Hamer had to be alert just before the half-hour mark to prevent the hosts from retaking the lead as the on-loan Derby goalkeeper made a smart stop from Mahlon Romeo’s long-range strike, with fellow loanee Matt Clarke on hand to clear the danger.
Sibley almost had another before half-time as he once again showed neat skill inside the box to beat two defenders and fire a shot goalwards, but Bialkowski was equal to his stinging drive as he pushed the ball away.
Derby were growing in confidence as the minutes ticked away and they controlled the latter stages of the half, working the ball into some good attacking areas, but were unable to turn their superiority on the ball into clear-cut openings.
They were, however, grateful to not find themselves behind at the break had Hamer not made good reaction save to tip a strike from Ryan Leonard over the bar following another swift counter attack which saw him burst clear on goal.
Millwall started the second half strongly, forcing the Rams into defensive action on several occasions, with Clarke in particular displaying his defensive qualities with some impressive clearances under pressure.
Smith had a chance to add to his first-half strike shortly after the restart, but the striker’s goalscoring touch deserted him as he advanced in on goal from Romeo’s throw-in. His chipped effort, with Hamer advancing off his line, drifted over the crossbar.
Sibley, like Smith, had the opportunity to get his name on the scoresheet once again before the hour mark as Derby grew into the game but the midfielder blasted over with his right-foot from inside the box.
But, with 71 minutes on the clock, the youngster was able to find the back of the net once again. This time a neat lay-off from Waghorn gave the youngster the opportunity to inside the box and line up a low drive and angle the ball into the far corner past Bialkowski.
The latter stages were played out with a plethora of substitutions, which did have an effect on the pace of the game, but Derby continued to play their passing game and retain possession for long spells.
Sibley completed his hat-trick with a calm finish as the minutes ticked away to round off a superb individual showing by latching onto Forsyth’s pass inside the box and sliding the ball into the far corner. It was some performance by the Academy graduate on just, incredibly, his second-ever league start and he was at the heart of everything that was good about Derby all afternoon.
Bodvarsson's goal in the third minute of stoppage time forced Derby to hang on, scoring from close range via the underside of the crossbar, but they did it in impressive style to claim all three points in the capital and keep their push for the play-offs on track.
Millwall: Bialkowski, M Wallace (Skalak 81), Hutchinson (C), Cooper, J Wallace (Mahoney 81), Smith (Bodvarsson 74), Ferguson, Romeo, Molumby, Leonard (Bradshaw 74), Woods (Williams 86).
Substitutes: Steele, Muller, Brown, Mitchell.
Derby County: Hamer, Wisdom, Forsyth, Waghorn (Shinnie 76), Lawrence, Clarke, Holmes (Knight 62), Rooney (C) (Martin 85), Bogle (Davies 76), Sibley, Bird (Evans 85).
Substitutes: Roos, Jozefzoon, Lowe, Whittaker.
Booked: Waghorn, Sibley