Derby County vs Fulham preview: Revitalised Rams to undergo thorough assessment of their playoff credentials
Fulham v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: Aleksandar Mitrovic (C) of Fulham scores his sides second goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Fulham and Derby County at Craven Cottage on November 26, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

After a turbulent six months to say the least, Philip Cocu's Derby County finally seem to be showing some semblance of a fully-functioning football club.

Although a narrow midweek defeat at Bristol City and a frustrating draw at home to Huddersfield Town forced them to check their momentum slightly, the Rams remain unbeaten at home since mid-December and have just two defeats in their past 13 in all competitions. Murmurings of a late playoff surge have even begun to materialise, with a win tomorrow leaving them just six points short of sixth.

Yet pulling the strings in a withdrawn role in midfield is the small matter of Wayne Rooney, whose contributions to the revitalisation can not be overstated. The likes of Kevin McDonald, Josh Onomah and Tom Cairney will no doubt have their work cut out in midfield on Friday as Fulham look to steer their promotion campaign back on course after an unceremonious 3-0 defeat at home to Barnsley ended their six-match unbeaten run last weekend.

They can, however, take solace from the precedents. Goals from Cairney, Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Bobby Decordova-Reid helped dispatch Derby at Craven Cottage back in November, while the playoff semi-final defeat in 2018 was a bitter pill to swallow for Derby fans after Cameron Jerome's bullet header had given them the upper hand over Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in the first leg at Pride Park.

Team news

In his pre-math press conference, Cocu confirmed that midfielder Duane Holmes would be out for "several weeks" following an injury to the lower leg against HuddersfieldHis zest and vibrancy in the midfield will be sorely missed by Cocu, so he will be thankful he at least has right-back Andre Wisdom to call upon come Friday after his fitness was cast into doubt when he began to feel some tightness in his hamstring on Saturday.

Tom Huddlestone (calf) and Krystian Bielik (knee) remain sidelined.

For the visitors, both Harrison Reed (calf) and Maxime Le Marchand (back) are making good progress, but Friday's clash is likely to be a game too soon for them. Alfie Mawson and Terence Kongolo are also ruled out.

Fulham must smother Rooney

Despite boasting one goal contribution every two matches so far at Derby, Rooney is certainly not the player he once was - or, at least, he doesn't have the legs he once had.

The withdrawn quarterback role of the ageing Rooney stands in stark contrast to the stocky boy that buzzed endlessly across the forward line at Old Trafford.

It is no surprise, then, that it has been in the high-tempo, tightly-packed contests where Rooney has struggled to get a foothold.

The 3-2 defeat against Luton Town was adorned with a goal from the five-time Premier League winner, but it was also a game in which Rooney struggled to orchestrate Derby's possession as he normally does, with Luton's aggression and robust tackling preventing him from picking his preferred passes in the midfield.

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11 days later, though, and Swansea City were on their knees - with Rooney very much at the heart of things. He prospered in an open, end-to-end game that left him with acres of space in midfield. Derby prevailed with an emphatic 3-2 away win - their first since the opening gameweek of the season.

If Fulham make the same mistake and leave him room to conjure up his magic in the midfield, then be sure they will pay the price.

Loss of Holmes may prove costly

At just 5'6, Duane Holmes does not offer much of a tangible presence, but his influence on the pitch has not gone unnoticed this season.

The American found regular game-time hard to come by in his first season at Pride Park, but Holmes has been arguably the stand-out performer for the Rams this season, with his dynamism and agility serving as the perfect foil for his partner in crime, Wayne Rooney. 

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Whether coming in off the right-hand side, spearheading the forward line as a number 10 or dropping deeper into a holding role at the base of midfield, the wily, versatile operator has proved to be an instrumental component wherever he plays.

Goal contributions have been sporadic, but - if Cocu fails to find an adequate solution to the injury - then his absence will no doubt be felt.

The managers have their say

Cocu did not hold back his disgust in his pre-match press conference with the Derby County media when the topic of ex-Derby midfielder Craig Ramage's disparaging comments on the club's "young black lads" came up, who Ramage felt needed "bringing down a peg or two".

"It's just unacceptable that we have to talk about it and explain it. For me it's so unbelievable," responded a sombre Cocu. "Colour of your skin, race - we have to have respect for each person regardless of their culture and background."

He does, however, feel as though the incident has strengthened the bonds within the dressing room: "It unifies our group, our team, the staff and everybody who works here because I think we're well known as a family club."

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While Scott Parker will be thankful he hasn't had atrocities of that manner to contend with heading into Friday's fixture, the Barnsley debacle remains fresh in the minds of all those in attendance at a windswept Craven Cottage. Yet he has full faith in his players to respond to the defeat, and has called for perspective and rationality as they plot their response. 

"The most important thing when you're sitting where we are in the league and you've come off a run like we've come off is not to be knee-jerk, is to not be overreactive, is to be very rational in your thinking," declared Parker in his pre-match press conference with the Fulham media.

"We've had many of these moments during the season where we've had bad results and I think we've reacted well from them.”