Derby County set a club record for home consecutive clean sheets as Darren Bent’s second half penalty proved to be enough in a tense 1-0 win over Birmingham City.
The 32-year-old tucked away his spot kick, sending Tomasz Kuszczak the wrong way, after Richard Keogh had been hauled down in the penalty area by opposing captain Michael Morrison.
Nail biting from start to the end, Steve McClaren’s side had to work hard to keep Gianfranco Zola’s side at bay as the Rams claimed a seventh successive shut out on home soil to lift themselves to within a point of the coveted Sky Bet Championship top six.
Chances were at a premium throughout this game and that was the case in the opening stages as the visitors started strongly at Pride Park Stadium.
Seeing plenty of the ball, they still very rarely threatened to breach Scott Carson’s goal and after 15 minutes, McClaren’s men began to work their way back on top of the contest and saw more of the possession as a result.
Bent’s glancing header was the only real notable opportunity during this period, but on 28 minutes, Lukas Jutkiewicz should have done better in a clear shooting opportunity, just left of centre, but he screwed his effort wide.
With the first-half entering is dying stages, the action began to open up at both ends of the pitch and just after the half-an-hour mark it was Derby who very nearly made the most of it.
After regaining possession towards the left side of the pitch, Johnny Russell was able to get on the end of an impressive through ball and he immediately delivered it into the box where Bent was lurking eagerly, but Kuszczak raced off his line to get the ball out of danger.
Goalless at the interval, Derby were a far more imposing outfit in the second 45 minutes and began the second half strongly.
As play resumed, the hosts showed their intent to take the lead almost immediately and a succession of chances with Will Hughes, Russell and Bent at the forefront it was only the final ball which prevented McClaren’s side from gaining any reward.
On 55 minutes, Bent was presented with a golden opportunity to take the lead after Shotton’s backwards header was seized upon. Unfortunately for the Derby forward, Kuszczak was quick off his line once again and this allowed him to push the ball out the way of any immediate danger.
Keen to continue the attack, Tom Ince was quickest to the loose ball and after weaving his way into the box, he launched a powerful, low driven shot in the stomach of the grateful Birmingham City ‘keeper, who had retreated back to his goalline.
With tensions rising and the nerves of both sides beginning to show, a foul committed on Keogh in the Birmingham City box by Morrison, the visitors’ captain, saw the Rams awarded a penalty in the 63rd minute.
Confidently, Bent, a former Aston Villa forward, stepped up to the spot and converted by sending Kuszczak the wrong way in a calm and collected manor to give his side the advantage in what was a closely contested encounter.
With momentum behind them, Derby continued in the same vein – playing with freedom in the hope to extend their lead and in the 71st minute they very nearly did after audacious play between Hughes and Russell saw their attacking phase concluded by the latter player’s shot over the crossbar.
The 79th minute was marked with another attacking opportunity and once again it was Hughes who lead the proceedings. After pressing forward with the ball, he laid it off to Ince on his right and his deflected shot fell to Russell who was at close range.
As the game approached its finale, Birmingham made the Rams fight for their victory and piled late pressure on the Derby goal in a desperate attempt to find a late equaliser, but excellent game management saw the Rams keep intact both their lead and clean sheet as the referee called time on what marked as a vital three points and a club record of seven clean sheets in front of a sell-out home crowd.
Derby County: Carson, Baird, Keogh (C), Pearce, Olsson (Anya, 9), Johnson, Butterfield, Hughes, Ince, Bent (Vydra, 76), Russell (Camara, 81)
Substitutes not used: Mitchell, Bryson, Shackell, Weimann
Birmingham City: Kuszczak, Grounds, Shotton, Kieftenbeld (Fabbrini,68), Gleeson, Jutkiewicz, Maghoma (Adams, 62), Stewart, Spector, Davis, Morrison (C)
Substitutes not used: Legzdins, Robinson, Tesche, Brown, Dacres-Cogley
Attendance: 32,616 (3,119 away supporters)