Wayne Rooney marked his 500th league game in English football with a goal, as Derby County held promotion contenders Fulham to a 1-1 draw at Pride Park on Friday night.
All eyes were on Rooney ahead of Friday night’s clash, with the former England international making his 500th league appearance in what has been a memorable playing career thus far.
The midfielder showed his expert vision to carve out two good chances for the Rams in the opening 20 minutes, with his low cross finding Tom Lawrence at the front post who could only flick a tame effort into the palms of Marek Rodak.
On 19 minutes, Rooney was in the thick of the action once more – his pull-back finding the onrushing Craig Forsyth, whose cross-cum-shot fired past the far post with Martyn Waghorn lurking.
Fulham were struggling to make any real impact on the game whatsoever, and they allowed Rooney to pull the strings once again. His deep free-kick found Matt Clarke at the far post, who was able to flick the ball into his path and force a fine save out of Rodak.
Rodak was certainly making amends after making two key errors in that defeat to Barnsley, but he would have been urging his side to switch on after what had been a drab display thus far.
In fact, it took Scott Parker’s side almost half-an-hour to shake off the cobwebs and start supplying the dangerous Aleksandar Mitrovic, who looked rather isolated up top on his own.
The Serbian – the division’s leading goalscorer with 21 strikes to his name before Friday – could only head a tame effort into the gloves of Ben Hamer on 27 minutes from a teasing Bobby Decordova-Reid cross.
But still, their first-half performance wasn’t good enough by their usual high standards, as they looked to bounce back from a lacklustre 3-0 home defeat to struggling Barnsley last weekend.
Derby started to re-assert their dominance towards the latter stages of the half – the menacing Tom Lawrence received the ball inside the area after clever build-up play once again, curling a right-footed effort towards goal before forcing another fine save out of Rodak.
There was time for Rooney to torment Fulham before the conclusion of the half, with the 34-year-old almost scoring directly from a corner which nearly left Rodak with a face almost as red as the visitors’ away kit.
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Darren Bond blew the whistle to put an end to the first-half, right after blowing for a Derby passback which was overturned due to a slight touch on Forsyth’s pass from Stefan Johansen, sparing Hamer’s blushes.
10 minutes into the second-half, that man Rooney was there to deliver the goods on what was a special night for the midfielder.
Joe Bryan’s attempted clearance ricocheted into the path of Martyn Waghorn, with the striker twisting inside the area and forcing Tim Ream into handling the ball – the American presenting Rooney to put the Rams ahead.
Rooney ran up to the ball with his usual stutter, threatening to hit it with power, but instead, he pulled off a majestic ‘Panenka’ which found the net.
Calmness personified, and a moment of class from England’s all-time leading goalscorer to net his fourth goal for the club.
Scott Parker would have praying that that moment of magic would galvanise his team into life, but Bobby Decordova-Reid’s effort could only sail over the crossbar a couple of minutes later.
The Cottagers’ boss made his first couple of changes, with Anthony Knockaert and Johansen being replaced by Ivan Cavaleiro and Aboubakar Kamara on 64 minutes, in a bid to affect his side’s toothless output in the final third.
The two substitutes were to make an immediate impact with 20 minutes left to play.
Cavaleiro saw his shot blocked on the edge of the area, but the ball was sent on its way out to Kamara who bended a delicious cross into the box, and there was the clinical Mitrovic to volley a side-footed effort into the bottom corner.
Mitrovic had been rather quiet for the large part, but the prolific front-man was there to deliver when Fulham desperately needed him to score his 22nd goal of the campaign.
That then prompted Phillip Cocu into making changes, with Jack Marriott replacing Martyn Waghorn, and Florian Jozefzoon being somewhat brought in from the cold to replace Jason Knight.
Jozefzoon had only made one appearance since the middle of October before Friday night, but the Dutchman would have been looking to make an immediate impact and prove a point to Cocu with 15 minutes remaining.
Instead, it was Fulham who piled on the pressure and looked to find a winning goal, with Decordova-Reid twisting and flashing a left-footed shot wide and out for a corner.
Cavaleiro then looked to make an even greater impact, but his bending, powerful effort from the edge of the area flew over the bar on 83 minutes.
It was then Derby who desperately looked to create an opening for themselves moments later, in what promised to be a frenetic ending to the game.
First, Andre Wisdom’s pull-back was met with a mistimed effort by Jozefzoon, but the ball trickled to Rooney whose deflected shot went behind for a corner.
A minute later, a smart move which saw Tom Lawrence roll a perfect pass into Craig Forsyth’s pass, resulted in the left-back pulling the ball back for Max Bird, whose curling effort forced Rodak into making another big save.
Then, the best chance of the game fell Derby’s way on 88 minutes.
Rooney’s cute flick unleashed Tom Lawrence down the right-hand side, his cross was met by another miscued effort from Jozefzoon, but the ball fell into the path of Curtis Davies.
The experienced defender isn’t known for his finishing abilities, but his stretched, looping effort, was majestically kept out on the line by Rodak, with McDonald chucking his body on the line to deny Forsyth’s goalbound effort.
That in turn raised the Pride Park atmosphere levels up another decibel or two, but that was to be that. Derby failed to gain real ground on the play-off places, whilst Fulham were unable to make amends for the defeat to Barnsley.
They may be left to rue Friday’s draw come the end of the weekend, as Leeds and West Brom attempt to extend the gap between themselves and third tomorrow afternoon.