Brighton manager Gus Poyet praised his players for making the perfect start to the new year after first-half goals from Ashley Barnes and Andrea Orlandi gave them a third successive victory as they beat Derby 2-1.

The eighth-placed Seagulls sit three points outside the play-offs and Poyet hopes their challenge will be further boosted by the acquisition of 26-year-old Argentinian striker Leonardo Ulloa.

Brighton have agreed a fee, thought to be £2 million, with La Liga side Almeria for Ulloa, who watched the game after flying over to discuss personal terms. The Seagulls scored twice in the first 25 minutes to take a firm grip of the match before a crowd of 25,464 at the Amex Stadium.

Striker Ashley Barnes gave them the perfect start with the lead after only 80 seconds with a simple tap-in at the far-post, after David Lopez found space behind the Derby defence. Spanish defender Inigo Calderon set up compatriot Orlandi as Brighton doubled their advantage with the midfielder netting a classic header at the far post.

Jeff Hendrick gave Derby hope with a 70th-minute tap-in following a free-kick by substitute Jamie Ward.

Poyet is delighted with the way his men have responded following their 3-1 home defeat to Watford just after Christmas, and said: "To come back with three wins is down to the players and they've been a bit less pretty.

"We took advantage of the situation in our FA Cup game against Newcastle and need to keep going. It's up to me to manage the squad well and keep us strong."

Derby manager Nigel Clough admitted inexperience at the back cost his team dearly as the Rams were beaten for the sixth time in their last eight away league games.

He said: "Mark O'Brien was caught out of position for the first goal and the manner of the second goal was disappointing. There was a foul on Richard Keogh prior to Brighton scoring but the referee missed it. We had no decisions in the first 30 minutes of the game.

"We had two inexperienced 20-year-olds at the back and didn't have the nouse or experience that Brighton had in their side. But I never felt that we were out of it, even at 2-0 down. We could have been 4-0 or 5-0 down. But it wasn't and we were very spirited."