Derby County vs Nottingham Forest preview: Play-off positions at stake in the latest instalment of the East Midlands derby
NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25: Martyn Waghorn of Derby County is pulled away by Tendayi Darikwa of Nottingham Forest at the end of the match during the Sky Bet Championship match between Nottingham Forest and Derby County at City Ground on February 25, 2019 in Nottingham, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

If there was ever a game that yearned for fans, it's this one.

When Derby County host Nottingham Forest on Saturday, an empty Pride Park will feel wholly unsatisfactory - no matter what the hosts do to address the void.

After all, this should have been an East Midlands derby for the ages. Two teams in blistering form, big-name players, contrasting methodologies and one common goal, promotion.

Last year, it was Forest flailing in Derby's slipstream in the race for a play-off place, but after a turgid start to the campaign it was the Rams who had the ground to make up this time around.

And they’ve done just that, undergoing quite the resurgence since the new year. With Wayne Rooney involved and just one point separating them from the play-offs, you can't discount them now, not in their current form.

Unsurprisingly, the former Champions League winner has had an inspiring impact at the base of midfield since arriving in January, not only in stretching matches with his range of passing and technical prowess but by elevating the performances of those around him. Derby top the Championship table for 2020, and have won their three matches post-lockdown.

Forest's last match on the road was a tepid stalemate at Hillsborough, though this was to be expected somewhat after thee months twiddling their thumbs and less than three weeks of contact training to acclimatise. 

It left the Reds winless in seven, but they would shake off the malaise swiftly, with successive victories over Bristol City and Huddersfield Town kicking off Sabri Lamouchi's second year at the City Ground in style.

The wins solidified their playoff position and a victory on Saturday - to transform a seven point gap into a 10 point rift between them and seventh placed Derby  - would all but confirm it with just five games to go. 

Team news

Samba Sow was eased back into action against Bristol City on Wednesday and is likely to make his full return at Pride Park following a long-term knee injury.

Joe Lolley, meanwhile, could miss out after what appeared to be an ankle problem forced him off at half-time against the Robins. Matty Cash and Ryan Yates also suffered heavy blows that day.

As for Derby, Jayden Bogle's fitness will be assessed after a knee injury saw him withdrawn early against Preston North End on Wednesday. Tom Lawrence will serve the second of his three-match suspension, while Andre Wisdom remains unavailable following an "unprovoked assault and robbery" in Liverpool at the weekend.

Midfield battle will be key

If there were any lingering doubts about the aptitude of an ageing Rooney in the Championship, it's likely they evaporated after his sublime free-kick in the 1-0 win over Preston on Wednesday. 

The goal joined Louie Sibley's hat-trick at The Den on the list of individual flourishes that have propelled Derby County up the Championship and into playoff contention. Rooney - and the precocious youngsters that partner him in midfield - have showcased their quality on myriad occasions and Forest must heed the warnings.

Lamouchi's blueprint for away matches this season has involved a low, compact block out of possession, but - in order to stifle the influence of Derby's dangermen - the Reds must exercise their physicality more and restrict the space that Rooney and co have to operate in.

Samba Sow, if fit, will be key to this. The Malian destroyer is a fan favourite at the City Ground for his industry and power in the middle of the park, and a nightmare for opposition midfielders. He and Ben Watson will have to harry, harass and - most importantly - avoid giving brainless free-kicks away on the edge of the penalty area.

How an empty Pride Park could impact the contest

As the days count down and the appetite for the 'big one' sharpens, Forest and Derby are usually as divided as ever.

This year, however, both sets of fans will be able to unite with one great sadness: the fact that a potentially historic derby match will be played out at a sterile Pride Park with nobody in attendance. Lamouchi admitted "it will not be the same", while Philip Cocu - a somehwat cerebral figure - said his side "will miss the fans".

Derby, as the home side, will feel the full impact, especially when taking into account Forest's turgid record at Pride Park. The Reds have prevailed in each of the last three East Midlands derbies but have only won twice on Derby's turf in the new millenium.

Cocu's side also boast the second best home record in the division this season, but, in the dialled-down atmoshpere of an empty ground, does home advantage still apply?

Not as much was the manager's verdict when he spoke to Derbyshire Live earlier this week:

"The atmosphere of the fans has some influence during the game. It can be an influence on your opponent, on your own team, on the referees, especially in such a big game."

It's probably still too early to say in the Championship, but statistics from the Bundesliga suggested the effects of venue variation were neutralised, with the percentage of home victories (compared to draws or losses at home) plummeting by 10%. Fewer shots were taken, fewer goals were scored and less dribbles were attempted.

That said, neither side has been particularly phased by the 'ghost games', taking maximum points in home matches against Reading, Huddersfield, and Bristol.

There's a strong case to say that it's actually enhanced Forest's system, particularly at home. In a sell-out City Ground, there's pressure on the players to play on the front foot, often causing them to abandon their structure in the process.

That onus is alleviated in empty stadiums, where - much like a training match - tactics and organisation transcend the intangibles that make the difference on a matchday. It's the grit and character, though, that Lamouchi believes will come to the fore on Saturday.

"We have never won a game easily,” the head coach told Nottinghamshire Live.

"We know where we will play on Saturday and we will face a team with confidence - they have got three wins in a row. It is important for us to go there and try to suffer less than we did against Bristol City, and try to disturb them.

"We are talking about personality and about the experience."

His counterpart is also wary of the dogged qualities that make Forest so hard to beat.

"Many teams have the same feeling I think, when they play Forest,” Cocu told Rams TV.

“They give you the feeling that you’re playing well against them, that you’re in the game and at any moment they can score a goal and it’s really extremely hard to beat them when they go up one nil. [They have] very good organisation, very good defence and still dangerous in the counter-attack.”