Impressive Rams capable of sustaining promotion challenge
Rowett blessed with tremendous squad depth
Sky Bet Championship
Ipswich 1 Derby 2
Garner 65 Winnall 13, 48
Wolves are going to win the Sky Bet Championship unless something dramatic happens in 2018 but the race for the other automatic position should be much tighter and Derby highlighted their Premier League ambitions with a win over Ipswich that took the Rams up to the dizzy heights of second.
The manner of the Portman Road performance pointed towards Derby being deserving of their tag as the team most likely to join Wolves in the top flight.
Using expected goals is generally a reliable guide to the ebb and flow of a match, but it wasn't on this occasion with Opta's ratings suggesting this was a 1.11-1.11 tie.
For an hour this was about as one-sided a contest as you could get in the second division with Derby dominant to such an extent that boss Gary Rowett said the first half was the best County had played this season. He suggested a 4-0 or 5-0 margin would have been a fair reflection on the opening 45 minutes.
"They could have been out of sight," admitted Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy. "We were beaten by a considerably better team."
Depth of squad is vital, particularly at this time of the year, and Rowett was able to change five players from the 0-0 draw at Hull with one of those, two-goal Sam Winnall, proving to be the key man.
Winnall's first, a header from a Tom Lawrence corner, was soft from Ipswich's point of view but the second was a stunning shot that moved wickedly from left to right and flew into the top corner.
Between Winnall's brace he forced a decent save from Bartosz Bialkowski, while Lawrence and Tom Huddlestone had goalbound efforts blocked by desperate Ipswich defending and Matej Vydra wasted a glorious opportunity when fluffing a one-on-one.
Derby's front four caused havoc with Lawrence and Johnny Russell providing the width, Winnall the focal point in attack and Vydra's movement from a deeper position left the hosts bamboozled.
Recent teams in focus
Huddlestone was running the show, albeit at a slow pace in central midfield alongside fellow unit George Thorne, and it was not until Joe Garner pulled one back from a corner that Derby were flustered.
The Rams sat deep, inviting pressure in a frantic last 25 minutes but Scott Carson was rarely troubled apart from set-pieces.
They could have counter-attacked better as the match wore on, although experienced centre-backs Curtis Davies and Richard Keogh always looked relatively comfortable as Rowett's men held on for a victory their dominant first-half display merited.
Bigger tests are on the horizon - Sheffield United head to Pride Park on Monday before Bristol City visit on January 19 - but on this evidence Derby are excellently placed to sustain their promotion bid.
Ipswich are ravaged by injuries in midfield which certainly did not help their performance and things got worse for manager McCarthy when centre-back Adam Webster limped off to leave the Tractor Boys with further worries for Monday's trip to Fulham.
Town did not lack for spirit and effort, particularly after Garner gave them a lifeline, but they were beaten by the better side, a point gracefully acknowledged by McCarthy.
Garner was isolated in the first period as he chased aimless long balls and one counter-attack from Bersant Celina apart (which ended in a shot wide) it was tough going for the Tractor Boys.
McCarthy moved away from his opening 4-2-3-1 formation after the break, pushing Martyn Waghorn further forward and switching Celina to a more central position from the left.
It enabled Ipswich to sustain late pressure but there was little in the way of opportunities apart from Waghorn's excellent corners which look their best avenue to goal.
Fans favourite Celina isn't quite so popular with McCarthy and the on-loan Manchester City playmaker did little on this occasion to suggest the young Kosovan is deserving of having the team built around him.
Ipswich will do well to sustain their top-half place for the remainder of the campaign, although they won't come up against teams of Derby's quality on a regular basis.
Ipswich 4-2-3-1: Bialkowski; Spence, Chambers, Webster (Iorfa 74), Knudsen; Connolly, Bru (McGoldrick 70); Ward, Waghorn, Celina; Garner.
Derby 4-2-3-1: Carson; Wisdom, Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Huddlestone, Thorne; Russell, Vydra (Olsson 81), Lawrence (Weimann 69); Winnall (Baird 88).
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