It’s now mission almost impossible for Barnsley after their spirited rally came far too late at Derby yesterday.
The Reds were second best throughout the opening 80 minutes at the iPro Stadium, but sub Nick Proschwitz then gave them hope of hitting back to earn what could have been a precious point.
However, the Rams held on comfortably for their deserved victory in the end, even fluffing a chance to make it 3-1 from the penalty spot when Luke Steele superbly denied Johnny Russell.
The Reds now have just two games remaining to somehow preserve their cherished Championship status.
They are four points shy of fourth-bottom Birmingham, who have a game in hand and a far superior goal difference.
Doncaster and Millwall are five points out of the Reds’ reach.
Despite those stark statistics, boss Danny Wilson still believes a great escape can be achieved.
He said after the game: “I don’t believe this result changes anything. We’re still in with a shout.
“Stranger things have happened haven’t they? In everyone else’s eyes we’re down, but if we get two wins from these last two games we can make it.
“Peculiar things do happen in football, so as long as the belief is still there among the lads - which it is - we’ll keep going and head to Middlesbrough on Saturday with confidence. That’s all we can do.”
Wilson made a couple of changes to the Reds’ starting line-up following Saturday’s disappointing effort against Leeds.
Lewin Nyatanga was restored to the back four with Kelvin Etuhu missing out thanks to his ankle injury, while Paddy McCourt was drafted back into the midfield at the expense of Ryan McLaughlin, who was dropped out of the 18 altogether.
Rams boss Steve McClaren also made two alterations to the side which triumphed comfortably at Doncaster on Good Friday.
Jeff Hendrick was brought into the midfield three, with former Blade Jamie Ward added to the three-pronged attack. It was a forward line that was to give the Reds’ back four no end of problems in the first half.
The opening 15 minutes were all Derby, with Craig Bryson, Russell and Ward all going close to an opener.
Finally the visitors awoke from their slumber and Tomasz Cywka forced Lee Grant into a fine near-post stop, but the Rams were to quickly regain their stranglehold on the game and they bagged two goals in the 10 minutes leading up to the break.
Hendrick broke the deadlock, firing home low and clinically past Steele from 25 yards after he’d been neatly teed up by Bryson.
Then, three minutes before half-time, Russell took aim from a similar distance and, via an unfortunate deflection off Stephen Dawson, the shot looped over the helpless Steele and into the back of the net.
Results elsewhere weren’t going too badly for the Reds, but their task was a huge one if they were to rescue anything in the second period.
With Jacob Mellis on in place of the ineffective McCourt, the visitors did open brightly after the resumption.
Tom Kennedy’s curling free-kick was superbly saved by Lee Grant and Chris O’Grady glanced a header inches wide, but the Rams were soon back in their stride.
Bryson fizzed a free-kick just wide, while Mellis was perfectly-placed to flick a goal-bound Craig Forsyth header off the line.
As the hosts were just beginning to stroll to their victory and shortly into a play-off tilt, the Reds grabbed their lifeline.
Sub Proschwitz latched on to Nyatanga’s pinpoint header, before drilling coolly past Grant from 12 yards to register his fourth Barnsley goal since his loan switch from Hull.
The travelling faithful were rejoicing behind the goal, but less than 60 seconds later the Rams were awarded their penalty kick when Jean-Yves M’voto clumsily brought down sub Connor Sammon.
However, Steele dived to his left to beat away Russell’s kick brilliantly, and the Reds could breathe again.
Dale Jennings fired in a shot which Grant saved comfortably, but aside than that, the visitors didn’t look like making it 2-2.
Russell came closest to scoring, almost beating Steele from a tight angle as he thought he’d atoned following his earlier penalty miss.
Derby: Grant 7, Wisdom 6, Buxton 7, Keogh 8, Forsyth 7, Bryson 7, Thorne 5 (Eustace 63, 6), Hendrick 8, Ward 7 (Dawkins 65, 6), Martin 7 (Sammon 79, 6), Russell 8. Subs not used: Legzdins, Hughes, Whitbread, Bamford.
Barnsley: Steele 8, Kennedy 7, Cranie 8, M’voto 6, Nyatanga 6, McCourt 4 (Mellis 46, 6), Lawrence 5 (Proschwitz 72, 5), Dawson 6, Jennings 7, Cywka 5 (Noble-Lazarus 67, 6), O’Grady 6.Subs not used: Turner, Hassell, Woods, Frimpong.
Yellow cards: Dawson (58), Lawrence (60).
GOALS: Hendrick 34, Russell 42 for Derby; Proschwitz 80 for Barnsley
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).