City exchanged blows with a Sky Bet Championship heavyweight only for a familiar scourge to land the knockout punch on a topsy-turvy night at Ashton Gate.
Tom Ince scored a hat-trick at the iPro Stadium at City’s expense back in December, and the ever-dangerous winger was at it again with a typically composed finish to decide a game that swung back and forth all night.
A subdued opening gave way to a gripping exchange before half-time, as Johnny Russell headed the visitors in front from point-blank range before goals from Jonathan Kodjia and Bobby Reid threw Ashton Gate into a frenzy and left Derby County stunned.
To their credit the Rams responded with their best spell of the game immediately after the interval, scoring two quick-fire goals of their own courtesy of Craig Bryson and Ince, the match-winner despite the best efforts of a spirited City side.
Lee Johnson made one change to his side following the 1-1 draw at Brentford on Saturday – the same alteration he was forced to make in the first half at Griffin Park.
Scott Golbourne was fit enough for a place in the squad, but Reid took his place in the starting line-up after the defender hobbled off in West London three days ago, with Joe Bryan again reverting to left-back.
An even contest contained a smattering of good football and a shortage of chances in the opening exchanges.
Derby had the best of them after 14 minutes through Ince, who forced a first meaningful save from Richard O’Donnell with a rasping 25-yard drive that the keeper improvised smartly to keep at bay.
At the other end City tried to get Lee Tomlin more involved, but the visitors were alive to the threat of Jonathan Kodjia’s pace and the Frenchman was struggling to push them back and create the space from which Tomlin thrives.
A brief flurry of excitement in the Derby box saw Bryan’s delivery from the left seized upon by Kodjia, who stood the ball up to the far post with a cross just too far beyond the run of Luke Freeman.
Kodjia’s influence was growing and the Rams were just beginning to look unsettled by the time they took the lead on 37 minutes with a goal that completely changed the face of the game.
When Jacob Butterfield’s initial corner was not fully cleared, defender Jason Shackell stayed forward and provided an inch-perfect cross from which Russell could hardly miss.
It was a setback that sparked City into life. Almost immediately after the restart Reid smartly found Kodjia running at the last defender, shifting the ball on to his left foot and beating Scott Carson with a powerful shot towards the near post that the former England keeper will still have been unhappy to see evade his grasp.
Ashton Gate was alive and kicking again after a subdued start. Derby skipper Richard Keogh saw his clearance loop goalwards off team-mate Marcus Olsson and drop on to the top of the crossbar, but there was greater concern lying in wait for the promotion hopefuls before the break.
When Reid seized upon a loose header from ex-City man Keogh, the South Stand demanded a shot and the youngster obliged, rifling a low drive that again beat Carson down by his near post but far more emphatically.
Derby were shell-shocked. Perhaps the interval came at a good time for them, allowing them to regain some composure after an unlikely first-half collapse, and they began the second period firmly on the front foot.
Russell ran into the box and waited for the run of top scorer Chris Martin on his outside, who was convinced his shot got a touch from the diving O’Donnell on its way past the post.
It was a warning City did not heed, as a slick visiting team suddenly found their form. Ince’s cross was met by the surging Bryson, whose typical burst from midfield was rewarded with a neat first-time finish from ten yards.
Then Ince did the damage himself, latching on to a cute pass around the corner from Martin before beating O’Donnell by calmly slotting the ball inside the far post.
Suddenly you could see why the Rams had scored nine goals in their last three matches – all victories – as they kept their three-goal-a-game average rumbling along in BS3.
It was City’s turn to be pinned back against the ropes, as Shackell headed against the bar, but they came out fighting. Marlon Pack slid the ball down the side of the Derby back four for Kodjia, who charged towards goal but sent his shot into the side-netting when Carson looked more susceptible at his far post.
Johnson made a double change after 72 minutes in a bid to apply late pressure, introducing Scott Wagstaff and Peter Odemwingie for Freeman and Reid, but City would struggle to wrestle back the momentum that swung the game so dramatically in their favour at the tail end of the first half, and Derby survived a late rally to chalk up a fourth straight win.