BARNSLEY missed a valuable opportunity to gain ground in their fight to stay in the Championship as they were clearly second best in a 2-0 defeat at Derby County.
With two back-to-back wins and three from their last four, this was billed as a game the Reds had to at least get something from, a win potentially creating a much-needed five-point gap between them and fellow strugglers the Rams.
The first of three games coming up against sides in the bottom four, victory here – with Reading above them also losing to Milwall – was not quite a must for the Reds, but would’ve definitely boosted their already relatively high confidence.
The mood in Barnsley’s camp has been buoyant after their recent exploits, but on the other side of the coin, with every point gained comes the added burden of knowing that righting their faltering season is still in their own hands.
And that pressure told as a frantic Reds side never looked controlled in the face of an assured Derby side whose football belied their league standing and much discussed off-field issues.
There was a hint of offside to Ravel Morrison’s 22nd-minute opener, but no doubting the quality of Derby’s passing with Lawrence playing the ball in which Morrison let run for Plange, who played a cute pass back to Morrison for his first goal since a League Cup game with Salford in August.
Today’s opponents came into the match two points below the Reds in 23rd, having lost both their last two games 1-0, away at Luton Town on Saturday and then Cardiff City on Tuesday night.
But the Rams extended their impressive form at home, with nine league wins at Pride Park this season.
This match was also the first of five in 14 days before the final international break for Barnsley, with the side surely needing to win at least one of them to stay in contention for survival.
It was the first of three games against other sides in the bottom four, with Reading and Peterborough to visit Oakwell next month.
In the absence of Jordan Williams, the Reds took up more of a traditional back four mimicking the hosts’ 4-2-3-1 with Callum Brittain reintroduced to the starting lineup after returning in recent weeks from injury.
Unlike Williams’ right centre-back role in a back three, which allowed him to roam upfield past Callum Styles on the right, Brittain looked overwhelmed at right-back in the opening exchanges as Derby left-back Festy Ebosele and returning talisman Tom Lawrence combined on that side.
Matty Wolfe in holding midfield, looking to support the full-back, was booked for a late lunge on Max Bird, then the resulting set-piece was not dealt with which saw Luke Plange go close from the left. Wolfe was lucky not to get sent off for another rash tackle a few minutes later.
Domingos Quina had Barnsley’s first shot on target but it was no trouble for Ryan Allsop, the midfielder cutting in from the left but looking indecisive as he struck a limp effort.
Quina then whipped another inswinging ball towards goal, in the 20th minute, but the side’s disjointed build-up play was a stark contrast with the Rams’ measured control of the ball.
Carlton Morris aimed to grab the Ram by the horns as he broke up the right and cut into the box, but his close-range strike was blocked by the legs of Allsop.
Morrison rattled the crossbar from long-range half an hour in, after being afforded plenty of time to tee one up by a retreating Reds defence.
The former England youth player netted his second of the afternoon almost immediately from the kick-off as he played through Lawrence, who crashed an effort off the crossbar which Morrison was in prime position to convert on the rebound.
Malcolm Ebiowei, a teenager making his full debut for the Rams, then went close as he picked up on a poor pass out from Mads Andersen to curve an effort toward the far post from the right.
An hour in, Morris was tripped on the edge of the box then produced a good free kick which Allsop did well to tip over.
Clarke Oduor returned to the team for the first time since December as a substitute for Claudio Gomes, and took up position on the right wing with Styles moving into the centre alongside Josh Benson, another second half sub.
But the home side had done all their talking in the first hour, and were content to let the final moments peter out to a dull conclusion – Amine Bassi whipping a free kick past the left upright was the closest Barnsley got to reviving the game.