Fulham ground out a crucial victory at Pride Park tonight – although they owe a deft of gratitude to Derby defender Horacio Carbonari, whose 72nd minute own goal gave them three points that their promising play ultimately merited.

Jean Tigana’s side still lack a sharpness in front of goal, as demonstrated by the way £11.5m forward Steve Marlet missed a number of very good chances to give the visitors the lead, and the Argentinian’s latest setback in a forgettable season places County’s Premiership status in further jeopardy. Carbonari, making just his second start of a campaign decimated by a pelvic injury, did the right thing in stretching to prevent a Sean Davis cross from reaching Louis Saha but his desperation only succeeding in diverting the ball past a helpless Mart Poom.

The Rams were almost handed an immediate equaliser in similar circumstances when Andy Melville sent a cross from Francois Grenet fractionally wide of his own net, but the brutal truth was that Fulham needed such assistance to open the scoring. Marlet had missed two great chances to give the Londoners the lead as he failed to build on scoring his first Fulham goal against Manchester United last week.

The former Lyon forward, selected ahead of Saha, was making his first Fulham start for two months after being sidelined by a knee problem and burst away from the Derby defence ten minutes after the interval but drove his shot straight at Poom. Just three minutes before Carbonari’s decisive intervention, Marlet made a mess of an even better opening when he couldn’t control a Davis cross six yards out and missed the target altogether when it appeared easier to score.

Derby had all the momentum after securing a first away win of the season at Blackburn but the home side were definitely second best in this encounter. Malcolm Christie squandered their best chance firing over the bar from twelve yards when Luciano Zavagno’s cross had been allowed to reach the in-form striker by a dozing Fulham defence. In a game of few chances, Saha’s run in the penalty area put Carbonari under enough pressure to force the full back into a devastating mistake.

The home fans roared their team on until the end but Fulham survived a late onslaught relatively comfortably. Their only heartstopping moment was entirely self inflicted when an overconfident van der Sar elected to dribble away from substitute Deon Burton before coming under sustained pressure and having to concede a corner. Referee Barry Knight waved away optimistic home appeals for a penalty when Burton went down in the box under a challenge from Melville and Saha should have made the points safe in the final minute but Poom saved well to deny the French forward only a second goal in four months.

DERBY COUNTY (4-4-2): Poom; Riggott, Carbonari (Boertien 87), Higginbotham, Grenet; Ducrocq (Bolder 64), Zavagno, Powell, Carbone (Burton 84); Ravanelli, Christie. Subs (not used): Grant, Elliott.

BOOKED: Carbonari.

FULHAM (5-3-2): van der Sar; Finnan, Brevett, Knight, Melville, Goma; Davis, Collins, Malbranque; Marlet, Hayles (Saha 65). Subs (not used): Taylor, Harley, Ouaddoh, Stolcers.

BOOKED: Hayles, Davis.

GOAL: Carbonari (o.g. 72).

REFEREE: Barry Knight (Oprington)