Sunday, 10 August 2014

Nottingham Forest 2 - 0 Blackpool

A win, a clean sheet, two goals from débutantes, no new injuries, a captain returning as a hero, a hero returning as captain. Yes, there were certainly a lot of positives to take from Stuart Pearce's first match back as Nottingham Forest manager.

It wasn't perfect however, and I'm sure Pearce himself would be the first to acknowledge that there's a lot of work to be done yet. Still, in having six players making their Forest débuts and with a number of key players still returning to fitness, it's clear that Forest are a work in progress. This was an encouraging start though.

I have to admit, Pearce's first competitive Forest team selection took me somewhat by surprise. It was certainly attacking, but the number of 'square pegs in round holes' evoked memories of not-too-distant times, as Danny Fox lined up in the centre of defence and Andy Reid in the centre of midfield. Even the returning Chris Cohen's selection in midfield raised an eyebrow as his most recent matches had been at left back, but with both Henri Lansbury and David Vaughan missing through injury it probably made sense.

As mentioned before, six of Forest's summer acquisitions made their first starts in the Garibaldi: Jack Hunt and Michael Mancienne taking their places in defence, Michael Antonio and Chris Burke in midfield supporting the striking partnership of Matt Fryatt (sorry, I refuse to call him 'Matty') and new club record signing Britt Assombalonga. Karl Darlow and Dan Harding completed the XI.

In a gesture typical of the man, Stuart Pearce took his place on the bench after the strains of Mull of Kintyre had finished reverberating around a packed and sun-drenched City Ground, presumably not wanting to take the focus off the players. The booming chant of 'Psycho' stood the hairs on end and following a clap and salute from the boss, the game was on.

To be quite honest, the opening exchanges were a bit flat. Blackpool were pretty solid for a team who'd been thrown together amid turmoil and at short notice, and Nathan Delfouneso could've easily given them the lead after missing a far post header. An excellent Burke cross was headed over by Antonio and a strong run from Assombalonga led to him being outnumbered by the visitors' defence before Forest finally made the breakthrough.

Andy Reid's long-range shot beat Blackpool keeper Joe Lewis and cannoned off the post before falling nicely for Antonio to sweep home the rebound and put Forest into the lead. A roar of delight and a little relief resounded round the stadium and, five minutes later, it was repeated. A lovely switch pass from Fryatt found Hunt out on the right. He played in Burke who cut inside and curled a wonderful shot past Lewis with his left foot. Forest dominated the rest of the half and coasted to the interval 2-0 up.

Aside from an opening flurry where both Forest strikers went close, the second half was a bit of a damp squib. Blackpool belied their shambolic preparations by enjoying a lot of possession though they never really troubled Darlow. Andrea Orlandi's curling effort which flew just wide was as good as it got. Forest didn't test Lewis either though and the final result of 2-0 was a fair reflection of the match. So, how did this new-look Forest perform?

Darlow put aside what must have been a difficult week and gave an assured performance between the posts, though in truth he could've been reading a Geordie phrasebook in readiness for his move, so little did he have to do. The back four will be tested much more than this in the future but they were very good. Hunt got forward really well down the right and, though Harding still stopped and turned back a few times when advancing, his defensive performance was exemplary. Pearce's influence rubbing off already? Fox didn't quite look like he was born to play centre-half but neither did he look totally out of place, whilst Mancienne was excellent. Not the tallest, he won most things in the air and his pace and positioning will be a great asset this season. Both he and Fox played some effective raking passes from the back too.

Antonio looks raw and exciting and I can imagine he's going to thrill and frustrate in almost equal measure this season, but he took his goal well. As did Burke who showed us all the quality that he used to torment us with before he signed. Though in an unfamiliar role, Reid did OK and Cohen showed us all what we've been missing with an energetic display. Getting another 85 minutes under his belt is a massive bonus.

Fryatt and Assombalonga both looked lively with the latter often dropping deeper to join in with the play. His quality is evident though and the signings of both he and Burke on free transfers could prove to be inspired. Assombalonga looks the type of player we've been crying out for for years. Pacey and direct, he's going to be a handful for defences all season. One turn, run and shot in particular showed what he can do. It was also great to see Eric Lichaj back on the pitch, though with Hunt's performance he may have to wait a while for his chance back in the team.

With the likes of Jack Hobbs, Kelvin Wilson, David Vaughan and - should he reject the Premier League overtures of Burnley - Henri Lansbury all to return, the squad looks strong, deep and varied. If all the players are ever all fit at the same time, Pearce is going to have some serious selection headaches to contend with.

That's all for the future though. This day was about the return of a genuine Forest legend and the team getting off to a strong start. Pearce is back and the team is back winning - we couldn't have asked for much more than that.

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