Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Nottingham Forest 2 - 2 Middlesbrough

Nottingham Forest came from two goals down against Middlesbrough to preserve their unbeaten record at the City Ground, but it was the performance of referee Phil Dowd that somewhat overshadowed an entertaining night's football.

Dowd awarded one penalty and brandished one red card but probably should have done both again, as well as making a string of decisions that incensed the home fans. Blame cannot be laid solely at his door though - his linesmen helped him achieve his level of incompetence with a similarly inept display.

Forest made one change from Saturday's win against Barnsley with Djamel Abdoun getting his first league start at the expense of Guy Moussi, though the 18 man squad remained the same. The visitors included a number of players with various tenuous Forest connections: summer target Grant Leadbitter lined up in midfield alongside Albert Adomah, who had been linked with Forest some years ago. George Friend at left back - in my opinion Boro's best player on the night - had also been linked with Forest a couple of seasons ago, whilst winger Mustapha Carayol - also rumoured to be interesting Forest this summer - was on the bench.

Middlesbrough started brightly and had the better of the early play before Kelvin Wilson was forced off with a back injury. Greg Halford took his place at centre-half but the defence had looked shaky even before that, possibly due to the midfield containing all creative players but no destroyers.

It was Halford that dived into a challenge and allowed Adomah to skip past him and set up Kei Kamara for Boro's first goal. From my position in the Trent End I wasn't able to see if Forest's claims for a penalty seconds before were justified or not: with Jonathan Woodgate suspected of handling the ball at the other end.

There was no doubt about the penalty Forest were awarded however, as Rhys Williams clumsily felled Radoslaw Majewski in the 18 yard box. Reid stepped up to take the spot kick - I was surprised Simon Cox didn't claim it - but Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele defied Forest's number 11 with a great save low to his left. Another brouhaha erupted after this - again I couldn't see why - as Dowd seemed already to have lost control. In the end though Forest went in at the break a goal down.

The Reds started the second half better but were stunned when a quick counter-attack saw Leadbitter feed Friend down the left hand side, and the left-back's unstoppable effort flew past Karl Darlow to give Middlesbrough a two goal lead. At the time they probably deserved it. Their defence was closing down quickly, blocking shots and crosses and denying our creative players time and space; while our back four was doing the opposite, repeatedly allowing their forwards to run at them, possibly due to the lack of protection from midfield.

This second goal forced Billy Davies into quickly and riskily using his last two substitutes, bringing on Darius Henderson and Matt Derbyshire to replace Majewski and Cox. Still, fortune favours the brave and it was Derbyshire who brought Forest back into the game, firmly heading home Reid's centre via a deflection off the post.

Poor refereeing does not favour the brave however. Minutes after Derbyshire's goal, a ricochet fell to Henderson in the penalty area and he appeared to skip past Steele before stumbling with the goal at his mercy. I have to admit that at the time I couldn't tell whether Steele had made contact or not. It seems unlikely that Henderson would have dived with an open goal ahead of him though. Dowd wasn't well placed being slightly behind the play, but his linesman should've been able to advise him. In any event, rather than granting Forest a second penalty and red-carding Steele, Dowd booked Henderson for simulation and gave Boro the free kick.

This injustice seemed to spur Forest on and Middlesbrough's previously solid defence crumbled under the constant pressure. A deep cross into the box wasn't cleared and fell to Eric Lichaj, who drove low across the area for Henderson to crash home the leveller. Thankfully he kept his shirt firmly on this time.

Forest applied more pressure but couldn't find a winner, and there was still time for Dowd to have the last word, sending off Middlesbrough substitute Emmanuel Ledesma for a crude challenge from behind on Henri Lansbury. It was a bad challenge but I don't even think Dowd got that right - a yellow card would probably have sufficed.

The draw was probably a fair result. Boro looked very good for periods of the match but couldn't withstand the late Forest onslaught. As for the Reds: this game highlighted the need for balance in the midfield. With nobody to break up Boro's attacks they were able to run at our back four far too often. The early loss of Wilson and a rare off day for Andy Reid didn't help matters. I'd like to see Gonzalo Jara be given a chance in the defensive midfield role. I'd also like to see Henderson start against Doncaster. His two late goals, link-up play and the mayhem he causes in opposition defences warrants it.

The last word must go to Abdoun though. From the moment an extravagant double-dragback turn left a Boro player in his wake, it was clear that he was up for the game. He proved a constant menace, always wanting the ball and running at defenders. Indeed at times he appeared to be thinking too quickly for his team-mates, with clever flicks and passes going unanticipated by his colleagues. On this showing he could cause havoc for defenders in the Championship.

Davies still has a conundrum to solve in the Forest midfield, and hopefully he'll strike the right balance for the next game at Doncaster away and have the team firing on all cylinders for the small matter of Derby on September 28th.

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