Under the lights at Craven Cottage, the Rams survived wave after wave of Fulham attacks and at times relied on a heroic performance from goalkeeper Kelle Roos — but they got what they came for and left the hosts frustrated that they couldn't capitalise on their dominance.
Story of the game
Fulham manager Marco Silva made four alterations to the side that beat Barnsley convincingly last time out, one of them pretty routine as Tosin Adarabioyo returned to the starting line-up in place of Michael Hector having served a one-match suspension in the last match.
The other three, however, were surprises: goalkeeper Marek Rodak, captain Tom Cairney and the league's leading goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic all dropped out of the matchday squad without explanation, their places filled by Paulo Gazzaniga, Jean Michael Seri and Rodrigo Muniz respectively.
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney was forced into two changes ahead of the visit to Craven Cottage, with the injured Lee Buchanan and Sam Baldock replaced by Craig Forsyth and Nathan Byrne in a move which saw club top scorer Tom Lawrence deployed as the lone striker.
Would Fulham extend their seven-game winning run without three of their key players, and against a Derby side buoyed by victory over another promotion-chasing outfit in Bournemouth last time out? This was much more than 1st against 24th — both sides had a real battle on their hands this evening.
Early on, a superb one-two between Antonee Robinson and Harrison Reed eventually saw the former set up Fabio Carvalho on the edge of the box, but the forward dragged his effort just wide of the far post with Roos at full-stretch.
Just moments later, a mix-up between Roos and Byrne nearly allowed Neeskens Kebano a free hit at an open goal, but the Derby goalkeeper managed to control the ball in the nick of time and avert the danger.
Predictably, there was one clear winner in the battle for possession here, but for all that Fulham were controlling the ball, Derby were managing the match well in that they were resiliently resisting their hosts' attempts to break them down.
And they knew that if they held out long enough they'd get chances on the break — as they did on the 15-minute mark.
Curtis Davies nicked the ball away from Seri in the middle of the pitch before driving forward and threading a ball through to Lawrence. The forward darted into the box and feinted his way past Tim Ream, but his eventual effort was saved well at the near-post by Gazzaniga.
Fulham kept knocking on the door, but after several failed attempts to get the ball into the Derby box, Seri decided to take matters into his own hands. He let rip with a vicious shot from 30 yards which clattered the underside of the bar and deflected off Roos to go behind for a corner — fine margins prevented the hosts from taking the lead there, and the midfielder's effort was met by raucous applause from the home crowd.
Derby's biggest attacking threats came through Lawrence and Festy Ebosele making runs down the right side of the pitch — with 20 on the clock, the latter picked the ball up on the touchline and skipped effortlessly past Robinson before dashing into the box and crossing into the middle, but Adarabioyo made a crucial intervention to clear the ball with Forsyth lurking behind him.
Straight up the other end, Fulham had another chance from range as Muniz received possession in the middle and turned neatly, but his eventual effort was not quite as threatening as Seri's earlier, clearing the goal by a long way.
Muniz might not be Mitrovic, but the Brazilian forward was endeavouring to replicate the goalscoring prowess of his fellow striker in his absence — when Robinson clipped a ball to the back-post, the 20-year old attempted an acrobatic effort which was deemed a foul by referee Keith Stroud.
By their lofty standards, Fulham were struggling without their main man in the middle of attack.
Again, it was an effort from range which so nearly put the hosts in the lead. Kebano tried his luck from a free-kick about 25 yards out, and thought he'd scored when his deft shot deflected off the head of Davies and looked to be trickling in at the far post, but Roos got across just in time to tip the ball wide.
Frustrated by their inability to open the scoring, Fulham certainly had the players to turn to for that spark of inspiration they desperately needed. Carvalho received possession from Harry Wilson on the edge of the box and took three defenders out of the game with one clean step-over, but his shot was was tame in the end.
The hosts won the ball back quickly and within seconds Muniz had the best chance of the match thus far when he latched onto a poor pass from Graeme Shinnie and used his pace to dart away from Davies, however the striker skewed his effort and failed to test Roos in goal.
This match got increasingly frenetic with each turnover of possession, each side more and more desperate to get a lead before half-time. Derby's high press worked once again when Liam Thompson nicked the ball from Seri in midfield and put Lawrence one-on-one with Gazzaniga; the Welshman rushed his effort under pressure from Adarabioyo but still drew a superb save from the goalkeeper to keep the scores even.
It was goalless at half-time, but both teams had certainly had their fair share of chances to break the deadlock. Proceedings were going pretty swimmingly for Derby, but Fulham needed a rethink in order to win.
Fulham came flying out of the traps for the second-half, and just three minutes after the restart Kebano worked a good chance for Carvalho when he set up the forward on the edge of the box. The 19-year old aimed for the far post, however Roos was equal to it.
The pressure was relentless — Derby barely managed to escape their half in the first 10 minutes after half-time, and the anticipation of Adarabioyo and Ream accounted in large part for that. The latter snapped at the heels of Lawrence to regain possession and fed the ball to Wilson on the right. The winger played a magnificent pass to Kebano on the penalty spot and he worked the space for a shot which was blocked well by Phil Jagielka.
The hosts hit the woodwork for a second time when Carvalho turned picked up the ball in the box following a corner, turned on the spot and shot, the forward so unlucky to see his effort rebound off the upright, and Muniz went close with a header moments later.
It was, surely, just a matter of time.
Forced to camp in their defensive half for nearly 20 minutes, Derby finally mustered their first effort since the break when Lawrence danced free of Seri in midfield and shot from 25 yards, but the forward failed to call Gazzaniga into action.
Fulham thought they'd made the breakthrough with just over 15 minutes left to play. A superb turn from Wilson saw him dance away from Max Bird and feed the ball to Kebano on the left. The Congolese forward drilled the ball in first-time and it was met by Carvalho, but the resultant shot was straight at Roos and Derby cleared their lines.
Moments later, a tantalising cross from Tete caught Roos in no-man's-land, but Byrne did brilliantly to put the ball behind for a corner with Kebano waiting to pounce.
In truth, Fulham couldn't have come much closer, but that crucial goal still eluded them. The ball dropped perfectly in the area for Carvalho who chested it down and unleashed a volley which was saved expertly by Roos, before Muniz's header was cleared off the line by Davies.
It seemed only a moment of individual brilliance would allow Fulham to evade what felt like the increasingly inevitable outcome of a draw. Muniz acted accordingly when he attempted his second overhead-kick of the match, meeting Kenny Tete's cross and leaving Roos rooted to the spot with his effort, but it was just high of the crossbar.
Frustration got the better of Fulham in the end and their chances were few and far between in the final 10 minutes or so. Derby, however, kept pushing, and came agonisingly close to nicking the victory in stoppage time when substitute Colin Kazim-Richards helped the ball up on the edge of the box before setting up Jason Knight for a shot which was saved brilliantly by Gazzaniga at the near-post.
Goalless it finished as Fulham fans left Craven Cottage frustrated, but Derby delighted by a well-deserved draw on the road.
Takeaways from the match
Fulham struggle without Mitrovic
Oh, how the hosts could have done with their arch marksman tonight.
Of course, there's some irony in the fact that while even without Mitrovic's goals Fulham would still have outscored the vast majority of other Championship sides, and yet without him leading the line their whole attacking set-up feels a whole lot less effective. The Serbian is simply crucial to the way Silva's side play, as evidenced by proceedings tonight.
Muniz tried his best in Mitrovic's place and he was supported by an equally effervescent attacking trio behind him, with Carvalho particularly bright at the top of midfield — but they just couldn't find the breakthrough.
It goes down as a frustrating evening for the promotion-chasers; they must figure out a way to win without Mitrovic.
Rooney's Derby get what they came for
Considering the relative positions of the two sides ahead of kick-off, Derby would surely have taken this point prior to their trip to the league-leaders, and they played accordingly.
That's not to say they parked the bus, far from it — Derby were simply diligent and resilient in shutting down wave after wave of Fulham attacks. They struggled more in this regard as the game opened up in the second-half, but a series of crucial saves from Roos ensured they leave southwest London with a well deserved point — one which gives them a positive points tally for the first time this season.
Fulham: Gazzaniga; Tete, Adarabioyo, Ream, Robinson; Reed (Onomah 65'), Seri; Wilson (Knockaert 78'), Carvalho, Kebano; Muniz.
Unused subs: Las, Odoi, Hector, Ream, Decordova-Reid.
Derby County: Roos; Byrne, Jagielka, Davies, Forsyth (Morriso 83'); Thompson, Shinnie; Ebosele (Kazim-Richards 69'), Bird, Knight; Lawrence.
Unused subs: Allsop, Stearman, Williams, Morrison, Sibley, Jozwiak.
Following this draw here, Fulham travel to Lancashire to face Preston North End in the lunchtime kick-off on Saturday.