Two key factors why Derby County will be a different animal in the play-offs

The Rams are unbeaten in five heading into their final two Championship games and still have George Thorne, Chris Martin and Jake Buxton to return before the play-offs.

A lot has been made of Derby County's recent run of results which has seen them crash out of the automatic promotion race, but supporters should brace themselves for a very different Derby side heading into the play-offs. 

Steve McClaren's men could ensure their play-off fate this weekend with a win at Millwall and after five games without a loss, many will predict that to be the case as the East Midlands side go about piecing their season back together after a torrid couple of months. 

Exactly two months ago this Saturday, Derby were sitting top of the league and five points clear of third with just 13 games left of the season to play. It was a position many had predicted last season's play-off finalists to be in at the business end of the season. However, an injury crisis saw all their early season endeavours turn into a distant memory. 

After the injury to George Thorne, the Rams went seven games without a win, which included throwing away a 2-0 lead with just injury time left to play at home to Birmingham City. It threatened to not only end Derby's automatic promotion hopes, but their promotion dreams altogether.

Nevertheless, an unbeaten April, at least up until now, has seen them comfortably into the play-off positions and ready for a crack at the so called 'lottery' for the second time in two years. 

Why back Derby County in this season's play-offs? 

As mentioned, before Derby's injury crisis they were top of the league and five points clear of third. At the time, it was as comfortable as any side had been at the top of the league throughout the season. 

Now, although Derby are still feeling the effects of the injuries and still nearly 10 players short of a full squad, they are said to be expecting key trio Jake Buxton, George Thorne and Chris Martin back in the side before the play-offs kick off on 8th May. In fact, all three stand a good chance of playing a few days before then in their last game of the season against Reading at home. 

The return of Thorne, if he can maintain his fitness, could be the biggest boost for the Rams as he can boast a 79% win percentage with the East Midlands side when he has played. He was also, arguably, the star of last season's play-offs and was bitterly unfortunate to be on the losing side in the final after producing perhaps the best individual performance on the day. 

For McClaren, however, it's not just the players returning that could give his side a boost heading into the play-offs either. The form of players such as Simon Dawkins, Tom Ince, Jesse Lingard and Darren Bent can also give him belief that his side may just be picking up momentum at the right time. Ince and Bent in particular have scored a combined nine goals in Derby's last five games. 

Although the Rams have been poor defensively of late, McClaren should look to ensure his backline are confident and organised in the next month and not allow their hard work earlier in the season go to waste. It's important for the fans and the team to remember that with just two games remaining of the season, only Middlesbrough can boast more clean sheets than the Rams. 

It's anybody's game in the play-offs, which is often the case, but with potentially a near fully-fit squad expected and good players in great form, Derby are a side not to be written off. 

Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch