Cameron Jerome continued his goal-scoring streak, firing home his fifth in four games for the only goal of the game to give Derby County a 1-0 victory over Fulham in the first leg of their Skybet Championship play-off semi-final at Pride Park.
The Cottagers bossed possession throughout the contest, but could only muster two shots on goal. The two teams now ready themselves for the second leg to be played at Craven Cottage on Monday.
Jerome heads Derby in front after Fulham waste early chances
A bright start by the Londoners, with midfielders Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen featuring prominently, set the tone for the first leg and suggested their final-day failure to clinch automatic promotion was not affecting them. The Cottagers were boosted by the return to fitness of loan left-back Matt Targett - allowing Ryan Sessegnon to push further forward.
The Dane was calling for a penalty with the game less than two minutes old when the ball appeared to bounce off Curtis Davies arm. Sessegnon blasted a shot high and wide two minutes later, but the travelling supporters had to wait another 22 minutes for the next opportunity, when Floyd Ayite headed wide.
Derby took the lead in the 34th minute as Jerome rose above Targett to power Craig Forsyth's pinpoint cross past Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli at the back post. The January signing has now scored in his last three playoff appearances, having netted in the semifinal second leg and final in Norwich City's 2015 triumph.
Fulham come up empty as Derby hold narrow advantage heading into second leg
The Londoners knew they needed a response and nearly got it as holding midfielder Kevin McDonald rattled the crossbar from the edge of the area. Ayite then ghosted past Forsyth to latch onto Johansen’s lofted pass, but the Togolese winger volleyed poorly over with the goal at his mercy
Cairney was next to try his luck but still the breakthrough would not come as the Scot’s rasping drive was beaten away by Rams keeper Scott Carson. Fulham manager Slava Jokanovic hauled off Sessegnon and Ayite for the last 14 minutes for Lucas Piazon and Neeskens Kebano, but it made no difference as Derby saw out the victory.
Rowett, Jokanovic speak after Rams' victory
Derby boss Gary Rowett cautioned "It is only half-time so we won't get carried away" and said "they give you a real conundrum, so as much as you want to press them up the pitch, you need to keep your shape".
He also conceded "We need to show a bit more quality than we showed. We looked like we could counter-attack every single time but we just lacked the quality of that first decision or first pass to get you on the way" while admitting "we had some really good opportunities on the break."
Jokanovic said "It's not a bad result but it is definitely not the result we deserved". He felt his side cannot be frustrated. We played all the football on the pitch and we dominated. They scored a fantastic goal. In the second half we created many things without scoring a goal".
He is also looking for the Cottagers to"be confident. We showed our quality and a great mentality too. We have to change the story and win the game on Monday". He also wants them "to be a bit more clinical. That is the plan. We showed we can play good football but we didn't score the goals."