Derby County emerged victorious in their first post-lockdown game against Millwall in a clash for a crucial three points as both teams have their sights firmly locked onto obtaining a play off spot.
Despite an early opener for Millwall through their towering striker Matt Smith, the Rams rallied impressively largely due to their academy product Louie Sibley who scored a splendid hat trick and put Derby ahead.
Millwall kept battling and made sure Derby had to fight for the ninety minutes to earn the points, Conor Mahoney's goal in stoppage time would have kept Derby fans on the edge of their sofas as fans were only available to watch the game from their own homes.
Smith and Sibley pick up from where they left off
With there being plenty of time to discuss the implications of lockdown, many questioned whether players who had hit a good run of form prior to the season halting would be able to restore it once football restarted.
Smith was the first player to put these doubts to bed, scoring a hat-trick versus Nottingham Forest in his last appearance on 06/03/2020, the striker capitalised on a swift counter-attacking move by The Lions as Shane Ferguson whipped in a lovely cross from the left-hand touchline for Smith to outmuscle Craig Forsyth and plant his header past Ben Hamer.
It was a disappointing start for Derby who began on the front foot, although their lack of match fitness was evidenced by the spaces they were leaving for Millwall to counter in the opening phases. Needless to say, the opener flicked a switch as Derby started to improve.
After forcing Millwall goalkeeper Bartosz Białkowski into a save just minutes earlier, Sibley, who scored the opener in Derby's 3-0 win against Blackburn Rovers in their last game pre-lockdown got Derby back into the game. A slick passing move by Derby culminating with Sibley sending two Millwall defenders the wrong way and holding off Ryan Woods to fire past the Polish goalkeeper levelled the score.
Derby reaping the rewards for Cocu's blend of experience and youth
The announcement that Wayne Rooney would be joining Derby came all the way back in August but he was unable to appear until January. The addition of Rooney could not come soon enough for Dutch coach Phillip Cocu who had found life as Derby manager very difficult in the opening months.
Since his arrival Derby's upturn in form has been unavoidable, the leadership the former England captain offers as well as his vision and undoubted technical ability have lifted the Rams on and off the pitch. His arrival has also coincided with the rise to prominence of promising youngsters such as Max Bird and Sibley who are now flourishing in this new-look Derby team.
This was particularly the case for Sibley, who continually tormented the Millwall defence with his jinking runs guided by his quick feet and expert use of body feints. His second and third goals both resulted from lovely passing moves as they carved Millwall open with ease as Sibley was the grateful recipient of two sumptious lay offs to gracefully shoot past Białkowski as Derby opened up what looked to be a comfortable two goal cushion.
In spite of defeat plenty of positives for Millwall to take
At 3-1 down, Millwall could have simply thrown in the towel in awe of the breakthrough performance they had witnessed at the hands of Sibley. Instead they embodied the spirit that manager Gary Rowett has cultivated in this Millwall side that have only lost seven league games since taking charge in October 2019.
Despite the sparsity of their attacks, when The Lions did go forwards they attacked with purpose and verve, as the game opened up in the final quarter their efforts were rewarded when Mahoney volleyed past Hamer to reduce the deficit to one goal.
Millwall pressed for an equaliser in the final couple of minutes but only had a half chance when Brighton and Hove Albion loanee Jason Molumby struck a venomous effort from distance only for the goal-bound shot to be blocked.
As the final whistle blew, signs of relief were apparent on and off the field as Derby now have three wins in a row and are building an unlikely late surge towards the play-off places, if Sibley can consistently perform like this the Rams will be dark horses to snatch sixth spot.
Man of the Match
Louie Sibley - a sensational performance from the teenager which will have unquestionably caught the attention from football fans far and wide.
Who's up next?
Millwall visit Oakwell to face Championship stragglers Barnsley next Saturday at 13:00 whilst Derby host Reading at the same time.
Millwall 2 - Derby County 3 (Matt Smith 15', Conor Mahoney 90') (Louis Sibley 26', 71', 90')
Millwall: Bialkowski, Romeo, Hutchinson, Cooper, M. Wallace (Mahoney 81'), J. Wallace (Skalak 81'), Molumby, Woods (Williams 86'), Ferguson, Leonard (Bradshaw 74'), Smith (Böðvarsson 74')
Unused substitutes: Steele, Brown, Mitchell, Muller
Derby County: Hamer, Bogle (Davies 76'), Wisdom, M. Clarke, Forsyth, Rooney (Martin 85'), Bird (Evans 85'), Holmes (Knight 62'), Sibley, Lawrence, Waghorn (Shinnie 76')
Unused substitutes: Josefzoon, Roos, Lowe, Whittaker