WANDERERS had scored 11 goals in three games, while Derby County were the division’s second highest scorers – we were guaranteed a thrilling game, right?
They were famous last words. What we got was a taught, tense and tenacious contest that provided the Yin to Saturday’s Yang at Leeds.
Freedman had talked about “control” in the 5-1 demolition job at Elland Road but there was rarely a moment when such a word could have been confidently used at the iPro Stadium last night as Wanderers had to work hard just to stay on level terms.
That they did is testament to a gritty streak they have developed this last couple of months and one that has rather been overshadowed by their attacking exploits of late.
While the “Joe n Juke” partnership has grabbed all the headlines in the last few weeks, it has distracted attention from the rapid improvement of Tim Ream – here restored to his rightful central position, Medo Kamara, Alex Baptiste, and most notably Zat Knight, who stood head and shoulders both literally and metaphorically above his fellow defenders against the Rams.
It wasn’t free-flowing at any point but for Wanderers to come to a side still riding high in the table and grind out a point in this fashion would have been unimaginable a few months ago – a fact not lost on the cheering fans as they filed out of the stadium at the end.
Wanderers started very much on the back foot and were forced to do all the defending for the opening 20 minutes.
Adam Bogdan remained largely untested aside for a side-footed effort by Chris Martin from the edge of the box and but the Hungarian again looked in confident mood, coming to punch a couple of dangerous crosses away and help out his back four.
Knight had gone back to his day job, having turned marksman at Leeds United, and shone in the opening exchanges with a couple of fine challenges inside his own penalty area.
It was a thorough examination too for Wanderers debutant Alan Hutton, whose last competitive club game came for Mallorca in June last year.
The Scot joined in a stubborn defensive display early on showing only a few minor signs of ring-rustiness.
For the most part it was quite hard going in possession for Freedman’s side, with the dots not being joined in midfield with anywhere near the regularity they were at Elland Road on Saturday.
It took them half an hour to muster an effort at goal – that a blast from Andre Moritz that had to be pushed away athletically by Lee Camp.
It all left lone front man Lukas Jutkiewicz looking exactly that for the whole first half.
For all their possession, Derby really only really had one meaningful sight of goal in the opening 45 minutes.
Jamie Ward has made a habit of playing well against Bolton since they joined the Championship rat race and it was the Northern Ireland international who fired a fearsome effort from the edge of the box that whistle past Bogdan’s right hand post with the Hungarian a mere spectator.
Andre Wisdom, the solid-looking right-back on loan from Liverpool, was Derby’s main outlet alongside Ward on the right and he had the final say in the half with another shot from distance that flashed wide.
The flow hardly altered after the break, with Ward seeing an effort deflected just wide two minutes into the second half and Richard Keogh heading over the top.
Freedman attempted to add some more muscle by bringing Liam Trotter on for Moritz who, but for his one shot, had struggled to get into the game at all.
But it proved to be a fraught first few moments for the on-loan Millwall midfielder, who gave the ball away with his first touch and presented a chance to Ward, cleared eventually by a wall of orange defenders.
Jutkiewicz got a rare glimpse of goal just after the hour mark as he cut in on Trotter’s pass to fire a shot, which took a deflection en route to goalkeeper Camp’s grateful arms.
Chung-Yong Lee came into the action for Davies, who appeared to have run his race, but the wait for that midfield spark continued into the final third of the game.
Derby threatened in fits and starts – substitute Conor Sammon heading wide with eight minutes remaining and then conspiring to shoot straight at Bogdan in the dying throes of injury time from even closer range.
Wanderers improved towards the end, Camp making a good save from Jutkiewicz’s attempted cross and Danns going close with two efforts from the edge of the box.
But in the end, the two sides continued to cancel each other out to the bitter end. Anyone doubting Freedman’s willingness to secure a point should take note of his final substitution, which sacrificed his only striker, Jutkiewicz, for David Wheater.
And considering the improvement over the last few weeks, you couldn’t deny him that in the end.
DERBY (4-3-3): Grant 7; Wisdom 7, Keogh 6, Buxton 6, Forsyth 7; Eustace 6, Hendrick 7, Bryson 6; Ward 7, Dawkins 6, Martin 6
Subs: Bamford 73 (for Eustace), Salmon 78 (for Ward), Russell 82 (for Dawkins)
Not used: Legzdins, Naylor, Whitbread, Thorne
WANDERERS (4-2-3-1): Bogdan 7; Hutton 6, Knight 8, Ream 7, Baptiste 7; Spearing 7, Medo 8; Davies 6, Moritz 5, Danns 6; Jutkiewicz 6.
Subs: Trotter 5, 53 (for Moritz), Chung-Yong 6, 65 (for Davies), Wheater 90 (for Jutkiewicz)
Not used: Lee-Barrett, Hall, Vela, Mason.
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire)
STAR MAN – Zat Knight 8
From goal-getter to goal-preventer, the big man is definitely in form. He was rock solid throughout last night’s game at Derby and you hardly noticed he was playing in a back four that had never played together before.