A second-half double from Saïd Benrahma decided a well-matched contest in Brentford’s favour to continue the best run of form in English football (what there is of it right now).
The Algerian had Ben Hamer to thank for his first as the Derby goalkeeper let a so-so shot slip into the net. But the second, well that was superlative. Cutting in from the left just after the hour Benrahma bent a right-foot shot from 25 yards out into the millimetres of room between Hamer’s outstretched fingers and the angle of post and bar.
It was individual quality that made the difference. For the most part, a youthful Derby side conducted by Wayne Rooney gave as good as they got. But Brentford march on; Leeds, West Brom and automatic promotion still within their sights.
“We are in promotion form,” said head coach Thomas Frank. “We went into this restart knowing we were 10 points off [the top two].” The gap is now three.
“Can we catch them? If so, fantastic. If not we want to keep that momentum and take it into the play-offs.”
With five wins on the trot since the restart, six if you go back to March, the Bees came into the game buzzing. Their “BMW” forward line combined to open the scoring with three minutes gone. Benrahma began the move, exchanging passes with Josh Dasilva before the latter split a sleepy Derby backline. Brian Mbuemo ran on to turn a left-foot shot on to the post and Ollie Watkins snaffled the rebound for his 24th league goal of the season.
Brentford could have been two up in the 11th minute, but Mbuemo’s well-judged effort was cleared off the line by Matthew Clarke.
After the opening spell passed, however, Derby’s slow start evolved into calm control. At the heart of it all was Rooney, his range of passing greater than any other player, his ability to retain possession unrivalled too.
Around Rooney were younger legs, the 19-year-old Max Bird his midfield partner and the 18-year-old Lewis Sibley in the hole. Sibley was sent off at West Brom in midweek but his red card for violent conduct was rescinded and the teenager offered a constant option when his captain was on the ball.
The pair were involved in the equaliser just before the half-hour. A Rooney shot from range was blocked, but Sibley picked up the pieces and played in another teenager, Jayden Bogle, to cross from the right. A low cut-back followed and after a moment’s uncertainty Rooney laid off to Jason Knight, 19, to drive home.
With the game evenly poised at half-time and Derby having looked the more cohesive, Brentford moved swiftly again to swing the game in their favour, albeit with a little luck.
When Watkins found Benrahma out left in the 49th minute, the winger cut back inside to shoot but his effort was too low and too central.
Hamer got down to claim, but in making sure he did not spill the ball he let it squirm through his body instead. A late scramble to clear did not spare his ignominy.
There was little he could do about the third however, Benrahma’s 18th of the season, and after that the game was done.
“Ben takes full responsibility for the goal but he shouldn’t be the only one,” said Philip Cocu, whose team remain three points off the play-offs with three games to play. “We need three wins from the last games. If we don’t get that then I don’t think we will be in the sixth position.”