By Chris Harris
"Rams To The Slaughter". "Battering Rams". "Derby On Course For Worst Season Ever".
That's just a sample of the damning headlines which greeted Derby's 6-0 defeat at Anfield at the start of the month. With one point from their opening five games, the newly-promoted Rams had stattos thumbing through their reference books for clubs who had sunk without trace in the top flight. Comparisons with Billy Davies' side were inevitable.
But are Derby really out of their depth? Perhaps not. They returned from the welcome respite of an international break to register their first win - and first clean sheet - with an impressive display against Newcastle on Monday. Suddenly hope is renewed at Pride Park ahead of Saturday's trip to Emirates Stadium.
We spoke to Steve Nicholson of the Derby Evening Telegraph ahead of this weekend's game. Read on for his take of Derby's start to the season, why the media sensationalism is wide of the mark, why Davies has the fans' backing and why two Scots could be the key to the Rams' survival.
THE STORY SO FAR
"The result against Newcastle was a shot in the arm because they needed a win. They played quite well against Portsmouth on the opening day and they did quite well at Manchester City a few days later, but then the wheels came off big time at Tottenham. Then they lost at home to Birmingham, and you don't want to lose games against the other newly-promoted teams, then they had a horror afternoon at Liverpool and lost 6-0. The international break came at just the right time, it got them together. There were 16 days between the two games and I think they used that well and fired themselves up to get their best result and put in their best performance.
"The manager had said constantly that Derby's season would start 'officially' on September 1 because he felt the transfer window speculation on who might come in or go out was unsettling the club. So that was a key date for them. Also they were three weeks behind everyone else in their preparations because the play-off final was at the end of May. They were playing catch-up in many ways and that, added to being a newly-promoted side, made things difficult. The manager and the players weren't worried, but a lot of critics had them labelled as possibly the worst Premier League team ever. The papers are sensationalist and Davies made a good play of telling the players not to listen to the critics. What Derby have to do now is make sure the Newcastle game is not forgotten and they build from here."
MEN OF THE MOMENT
"Davies has the backing of the fans and quite rightly because he won promotion for Derby. When you lose games, especially 6-0, everyone can pick a 'better' team and the fans will question the manager but that's natural. But not many people were saying things against Davies on Monday night when they beat Newcastle.
"I think one of Derby's strengths last season was the fact they were a good unit, a good team rather than a collection of individuals. Steve Howard was the leading scorer, he's an old-fashioned centre forward who gives his all. He won't score as many goals as last season, he knows that, but Steve is still something of a talisman in the side and a very strong character. Kenny Miller came in from Celtic and scored a cracker on his debut on Monday night. He's got the experience, he's played in the Premier League before, he's played in the Champions League and is a Scottish international, so they are hoping he'll be a key player.
"There are two others to look out for. First of all the captain Matt Oakley, he's very influential. He's played a lot of Premier League games, he played against Arsenal in the FA Cup Final for Southampton and his know-how and style of play is important. Then there's Stephen Pearson, a Scottish international midfielder from Celtic. His energy levels are immense and his ability to carry the ball from his own box to deep inside the opposition half gives Derby a lot of breathing space. So he's one to look out for too."
"Claude Davis cost £3 million so he is going to be the first-choice centre half. He and Dean Leacock kept a clean sheet against Newcastle on Monday so I expect we'll see the same partnership on Saturday. Robert Earnshaw is the club's record signing but so far he hasn't done it. Players need time to settle in - although Miller only needed 35 minutes - and Earnshaw has found himself on the bench after starting the first two games. It will be interesting to see when he gets another chance to show what he can do."
THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO...
"Giles Barnes is the one everyone has got their eye on but he hasn't kicked a ball since the Championship play-off in May. He broke a bone in his foot and has missed all of pre-season which is crucial for any player. He's seven to 10 days away from a Premier League return. He's got fantastic ability, he's young and strong and very confident. There are a lot of clubs out there willing to pay decent money for him."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"They are favourites to go down and newly-promoted clubs do tend to struggle so they know they've got a tough task on. Davies has set a survival target of 42 points and I believe that will be enough. If they don't get too down-hearted when they lose to Liverpool, Tottenham or Arsenal and concentrate on the games where they should be taking points, then they've got a chance of staying up. We saw Newcastle on Monday and to be honest, although they were unbeaten, they didn't overly impress me. If you catch teams on certain days you can pick up points. Added to that, Davies is fiercely determined. He wants to be in the Premier League and he won't give it up lightly."
"I think Davies is likely to stick with the team which played against Newcastle - it was their first win and a clean sheet after all - but he might tinker slightly with the way they line up in order to frustrate Arsenal. I think the important thing when you play Arsenal is to get close to them because the football they play can rip you apart if you don't. You can't give them space to run into. They play with full-backs who play like wingers so you've got to close down the gaps. I think Davies will learn from the 4-0 defeat at Tottenham when they were far too open. I would expect Davies to go in with a similar team and maybe get something from a set piece."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"I've been to Highbury many times and seen some good Arsenal performances and the Emirates looks a fantastic place. I think Arsenal have settled into their home now. At this stage last season there were some difficulties but now they look very accomplished. They look the best footballing side again but they seem to be punishing teams and putting sides away now. We're looking forward to it. Davies says it's a learning curve, it's an experience and Derby have to take these experiences on board and improve as the season goes on. So hopefully next time we meet Liverpool it won't be 6-0 again."