Phillip Cocu has made it clear that Derby County’s final two matches of the 2019/20 Sky Bet Championship campaign remain as important as ever.
Derby’s 2-1 defeat at Cardiff City in midweek, as well as their recent losses to West Bromwich Albion and Brentford, ended their hopes of a top six finish after a fine run of form in the second half of the season.
Cocu’s side put mixed first half of the campaign, for various reasons, behind them to add consistency to both their results and performances following the halfway stage in December.
The team’s form, including a run of five successive wins and eye-catching displays either side of the three-month suspension of the season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, propelled the Rams into the play-off race.
While a top-six spot is now beyond them, a top-half finish remains very much within reach with two fixtures remaining.
Derby will conclude their season at home to already-promoted Leeds United on Sunday (2pm kick-off) and then at Birmingham City on Wednesday (7:30pm kick-off).
Cocu has stressed he does not want his side to switch off and relax in the coming days and instead wants them to rise to the challenge as they seek to end the campaign in a positive manner.
After coming so far as a side in recent months, Cocu wants his players to continue to showcase their qualities as preparations and thoughts begin to turn towards the 2020/21 season.
Leeds’ automatic promotion was secured on Friday evening after West Bromwich Albion were beaten 2-1 at Huddersfield Town - and then the title on Saturday after Brentford lost 1-0 at Stoke City on Saturday - and the Dutchman says the Elland Road outfit are worthy of top spot in the table.
He admits his side face a tough test against Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit - and he wants to see bravery and focus in Derby’s performance on Sunday afternoon.
Speaking to RamsTV, Cocu said: “It is a challenge for us on Sunday against Leeds United because they are top of the table and champions of the Championship.
“We want to put on a good performance against a very strong side. Leeds deserve to be where they are in the table; they have good structure in the team, quality players, can dominate in their performance and defend well.
“It will be a tough game, but we want to end the season well and we will push to get good results in these last two matches.
“We always use our saying ‘never give up’. The play-offs may not be within reach, but it doesn’t mean we can switch off and relax at all.”
He added: “We must step up and be focussed against a top team in Leeds.
“We must show no fear and have bravery to play, and also know what we can and can’t do in certain stages of the game.”
Cocu made it clear after the defeat at Cardiff that Derby’s downfall in recent weeks has been mistakes, as individuals and as a team, costing them goals and at key stages in games.
The Rams’ boss wants his players to show in the remaining games of the season that they can learn from those mistakes moving forward.
No matter what the situation, Cocu believes every match is an opportunity to learn more about his side.
He said: “The most important thing for me, as well as continuing with how we play, is that we learn from our mistakes and be more solid in our decision-making when we build-up or defend a set-play.
“We cannot keep making the same mistakes. They are part of football, but to do it three games in a row is too much.”
He added: “You always learn something about your players in each situation and it is something I am aware of for the next two games.
“We are looking towards next season and decisions need to be made. For the players, these are two big matches.”