Monday, 29 September 2014

A Wigan a Prayer

It's back on the road and back in action as Nottingham Forest continue their Championship campaign with a trip to the Springfield Park JJB Stadium DW Stadium to take on Wigan Athletic, who were, I think I'm right in saying, the only team to do the league double over the Reds last season.

Forest make the trip to the North West still unbeaten, but having been knocked off the top of the table due to their second consecutive goalless draw, this time at home to Brighton and Hove Albion. By a strange quirk of fixture-computer-generated fate, Forest will again be facing one of last season's losing playoff semi-finalists next up, and indeed another team that play in blue and white stripes. Spooky.

Much as with Brighton, Wigan haven't enjoyed the best start to their Championship season, languishing as they are in lower-mid table on eight points - again just as Brighton were. However, with the likes of Shaun Maloney, Callum McManamanamanaman and, er, James Perch in their lineup they're unlikely to be pushovers. Them being at home should mean they play in a more attacking manner than the Seagulls did however, which might play into Forest's hands.

None of the Reds' injured quintet of Chris Cohen, Andy Reid, Matt Fryatt, Jack Hobbs and David Vaughan are likely to play against the Latics so it wouldn't be a surprise if Stuart Pearce stuck by the team who laboured somewhat - but at least kept a clean sheet - against Brighton. The omens for this one aren't good though: Wigan inflicted Forests's first league defeat of last season and, if they were to repeat the feat this time round, the Reds record after their first ten matches would be identical to last term, with five wins, four draws and a solitary loss.

Still, let's not be too downbeat. Forest are more than capable of getting a result in this match and - as mentioned earlier - with the onus being on Wigan to attack, the opportunities might arise for Forest to hit them on the break. A return to winning ways would be most welcome and would see the Reds nicely positioned ten matches in. Get the next couple of matches out of the way, get to the next international break and get the injured players healthy again and things will look a lot more rosy.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Nottingham Forest 0-0 Brighton and Hove Albion

About the only positive I can take from this game is that we got one more point than we did in last season's corresponding match. Other than that, there was precious little to get excited about as Nottingham Forest stuttered to their second consecutive goalless draw in the league, courtesy of their worst performance at the City Ground this season. 

As expected, Stuart Pearce recalled the players he'd rested against Spurs on Wednesday night, meaning that the likes of Karl Darlow, Michael Mancienne and Britt Assombalonga returned to the starting lineup. Robert Tesche and David Vaughan were picked as the deeper midfielders, but the latter got injured - again - in the warm-up, and his place was taken by Ben Osborn. Osborn could perhaps have counted himself unlucky not to have started anyway, after his impressive performance at White Hart Lane. 

Brighton also started with one up front, in the form of Craig Mackail-Smith, while his fellow attackers Chris O' Grady and Joao Teixiera both started on the bench. My hopes for this match weren't high when I found out that Robert Madley was the referee, and it pretty much panned out as expected. 

The visitors opened up brightly, with Darlow forced into an early save, before Forest started to exercise some control. However, though Brighton were happy to let the Reds keep possession in their own half, as soon as they tried to play through the Seagulls, the shutters were well and truly put up. As a result, chances were at a premium, and the only save of note that visiting keeper David Stockdale had to make was from a deflected Robert Tesche effort. Bar having to clear a few long balls, Karl Darlow was also relatively untroubled and it was no surprise when the first half finished goalless. 

Things didn't change much after the interval, with Sami Hyypia's men happy to soak up pressure and hit Forest on the break. A couple of their more dangerous attacks ended up with offsides, and a dangerous cross saw Michael Mancienne divert the ball just wide of his own goal. 

Lars Veldwijk's introduction nearly bore fruit, as he just couldn't stretch to convert a dangerous centre, and Mancienne headed over late on when well placed, his attempt thudding into the turf before clearing the crossbar. In the end a draw was probably fair, though disappointing. 

Considering most of the team was rested midweek, this was a strangely lethargic performance. Henri Lansbury in particular was out of sorts. Kelvin Wilson completed another 90 minutes and was deservedly named the sponsor's Man of the Match. The creativity and endeavour of Andy Reid and Matt Fryatt respectively was sorely missed, and the sooner they're back in the starting XI the better. 

Still, we remain unbeaten and in an automatic promotion position, so things aren't that bad just yet. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Brighton Breezy

Before looking forward to Forest's next Championship match - at home to Brighton and Hove Albion - here's a very quick recap of the 3-1 defeat  - our first of the season - away at Tottenham Hotspur in the Capital One Cup.

Looking at Stuart Pearce's team selection before the match it would be easy to say that he wasn't taking the match seriously. However, to do so would be doing both he and the players he picked a massive disservice. Pearce insisted that he believed whatever team he picked would be capable of winning the match, and indeed as late as 70 minutes into the tie, it seemed that could well be the case.

Spurs dominated possession in the first half but failed to really trouble Forest, who went closest to scoring after Ben Osborn's wonderful run ended with a thumping shot which rattled the crossbar. After the break Forest saw more of the ball and looked totally comfortable against a home team who still boasted a £26m striker in their line-up, and it wasn't a huge surprise when the Reds took the lead.

Some good running by Lars Veldwijk saw him chase down a deflected shot before he looked up and pulled back a great ball into the six-yard box, where d├ębutante Jorge (is it pronounced 'George' or 'Hor-gay?') Grant was waiting to sweep it home.

This stung Spurs into a response, but it took a wonder-strike from their substitute Ryan Mason to level the scores. As the inexperienced Forest team tired, Spurs went ahead through aforementioned £26m man Roberto Soldado before Harry '3 Points' Kane wrapped up the points victory with a late goal. Pearce's pragmatism was totally vindicated as the team he sent out did him, themselves and the club proud.

So it's back to the bread and butter of the League, and Saturday's helping of Lurpak-covered Hovis sees an opportunity to avenge last season's last-day loss against Brighton and Hove Albion back on Trentside. That victory saw the Seagulls swoop into the final playoff place at the expense of premature pitch invaders Reading, before succumbing to eventual runners-up Derby.

Brighton's indifferent start to the season under new manager Sami Hyypia might suggest something of a playoff hangover, though they did progress to the fourth round of the Capital One Cup this week with a comfortable away win at Burton Albion. Still, as with any team in this division, Forest would be foolish to take their challenge lightly. Craig Mackail-Smith and recent signings Sam Baldock and Chris O'Grady suggest they're capable of scoring goals; whilst long-term loanees Gary Gardner and Joao Teixeira are impressive names in midfield. This won't be a walk in the park - far from it.

However, for Forest the likes of Britt Assombalonga, Michail Antonio and Michael Mancienne should have benefited from their midweek rest whilst Andy Reid and Jack Hunt may be back in contention, though this match has probably come too soon for Matt Fryatt and Jack Hobbs. Presuming Fryatt is still injured, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Forest persisting with their 4-5-1 formation with the likes of Lansbury and Reid getting forward in support of lone-striker Assombalonga.

The Championship table is now starting to take shape. If Forest's more established players can consistently display the passion and commitment that their replacements did against Tottenham, then they've got every chance of remaining near the top.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Run of the Mill

The matches certainly come thick and fast in the Championship. Barely have we caught our breath following Forest's thrilling 5-3 victory over Fulham, than it's time to look forward to their next match. That's if you can call the anticipation of a visit to Millwall 'looking forward.'

Alongside the London club's famously warm welcome, we'll also face the prospect of playing a team managed by perennial Forest nemesis Ian Holloway. Suffice to say, this will be yet another match in which the Reds can take nothing for granted.

Following the Lions' easy Championship survival after Holloway was installed as manager, they've made a steady if not spectacular start to the 2014/15 season. However, regardless of their form, The Den is never the easiest place to go and Forest will have to play better than they did against Fulham if they've any hope of returning to Nottingham with all three points.

Captain Chris Cohen will obviously be missing this match, but it remains to be seen if any of the other injured trio of Matt Fryatt, Jack Hobbs and Andy Reid will be able to play any part. Hobbs' solid assurance alongside Michael Mancienne would certainly be welcome as I think makeshift centre-back Danny Fox struggled against the twin threats of McCormack and Rodallega.

That being the case, I can see Fox moving to left-back to be replaced by either Kelvin Wilson or Jamaal Lascelles - should either of them be fit enough to start - with Eric Lichaj possibly missing out. I can also see the same 4-5-1 formation as the last few matches being employed, though hopefully to better effect than against Fulham. If David Vaughan is fit then he could be drafted in to shore up the midfield.

Last season's meeting ended in a 2-2 draw and a similar result wouldn't be too bad, but this match probably fits into the 'games you should be winning if you want to achieve promotion' category.' We've got the personnel to win matches like this, there's no doubt about that, we just need to keep the belief and concentration.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Glass Half Ful

In its own way, Nottingham Forest's forthcoming match against Fulham will provide as stern a test of Stuart Pearce's managerial credentials as Sunday's East Midlands derby did.

For one thing, there'll be more expectation on Forest to win, with the West London outfit currently languishing at the bottom of the Championship table after a rotten run of results. It's also very likely that the mood around the Forest camp may be a little flat; after surrendering the lead late-on against Derby and also - it would appear - having lost captain Chris Cohen for some length of time due to another serious knee injury. With Andy Reid limping off as well, one of the Gaffa's main tasks before kickoff on Wednesday will be to pick the boys back up again.

Presuming he can do that (and who could doubt him?) then Wednesday's match should offer Forest a decent chance of putting their disappointment behind them and consolidating their position at the top of the league. They'll have to be wary however; Fulham surely can't play as badly as they have been for too much longer and, once again, Pearce will need to make sure his players show no sign of complacency.

Forest will be forced into at least one change for Wednesday as there's no way Cohen will be able to play any part. If neither Reid nor Matt Fryatt (who missed the Derby game through injury) are available again then I'd be tempted to start Jamie Paterson playing just behind main striker Britt Assombalonga. Paterson showed on many occasions last season that he's an accomplished finisher, and his pace and trickery can cause problems for any defence. After such a calm and assured performance in the most volatile of fixtures, I'd definitely start Robert Tesche in the central midfield role too. Other than that, and hoping that no further injuries occur before Wednesday evening, I'd keep the rest of the team as it was.

The matches come thick and fast in the Championship so there's no time for Forest to dwell on their misfortunes. Nothing would raise the mood more than a comfortable victory and hopefully Pearce and his team will be able to provide it.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 1 Derby County

If one were to list the components of an archetypal local derby, this match would have contained most of them. Full-blooded tackles, niggly fouls, goals, a sending off and lunatics invading the pitch. All we were missing was a dubious penalty and an albatross swooping down and stealing the ball. What - you mean you've never seen that at a match before?

For all the social media nonsense, there wasn't a Bobby Zamora mask to be seen as we trooped into the Trent End to hear that Stuart Pearce had opted for a 4-5-1 with Britt Assombalonga as the lone striker; though with Matt Fryatt not in the squad due to injury it might have been a forced rather than tactical change. Other than that, the team was as expected, with Eric Lichaj at left-back and the triumvirate of Chris Cohen, Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury in the centre of midfield. For the visitors, rat-like striker Jamie Ward missed out due to injury, but Jake 'Missing Link' Buxton lined up in the centre of defence alongside the £120m man Richard Keogh. More on Buxton later.....

A rousing version of 'Mull of Kintyre' preceded the action, which started with an optimistic shot at goal practically from the kickoff by Andy Reid. This opening was as scrappy as most of the half as both sides had a fair share of possession but failed to look really threatening. Fouls by both sides lead to a series of free kicks, none of which really troubled either goalkeeper. John Eustace was booked for a foul, as was Andy Reid, and probably the best chance of the half was - unsurprisingly - from a Forest free kick, which was headed over by Britt Assombalonga.

The two main talking points of the half were the wonderful tribute that both sets of fans paid to the 10th anniversary of the passing of Brian Clough, and the serious-looking injury suffered by Chris Cohen. The applause for Clough rang round the stadium from all four sides and showed in what high regard he's still held, and will always be, by fans of both Forest and Derby. On the downside though, Cohen's injury, suffered in an innocuous-looking challenge, looked to be a bad one. The moment he went down clutching his knee we all feared the worst and although he limped off without the need for a stretcher, the outlook doesn't seem good. Robert Tesche replaced him and almost gave Forest the lead when his long-range effort whistled just wide of Lee Grant's post. With the out-of-sorts Andy Reid limping off as well - to be replaced by Ben Osborn - it wasn't the best of halves for the Reds.

The second half didn't start much better. Derby kept hold of the ball and, on the occasions Forest did have possession, they tried to get the ball forward too early, which was meat and drink to the visitors' Neanderthal defenders. Jake Thugston got booked for upending Henri Lansbury and a good run and shot from Antonio brought a save from Grant before the incident which seemed to spark the game into life.

During a stoppage in play for treatment to Will Hughes - who had been his usual East Midlands Derby self (which is to say he whined, moaned and threw himself to the ground a lot) - Forest's stewards were conspicuous by their absence as a fan jumped the barrier in front of the Trent End, ran (well, waddled) the length of the pitch and doffed his shirt in front of the Bridgford End before whirling it around his head. When he was joined by an even larger accomplice, the stewards finally sprung into action and - eventually - removed the interlopers from the playing area. Foolish to be sure, but it seemed to wake both sets of fans up.

And, thankfully, it woke the home team up as well. Forest pressed forward more and finally made the breakthrough when Michail Antonio's fine run and pass found Assombalonga in the penalty area. Despite seeming to slip, he turned Shotton and curled a lovely effort past the helpless Lee Grant to give Forest the lead. Barely minutes later it could've been doubled, as Antonio headed over from a fine Jack Hunt cross.

Rams' boss Steve McClaren reacted by throwing on a couple of subs and, finally, Forest's giving away of free-kicks came back to haunt them. Craig Forsyth's cross was headed against the bar by Keogh and, following the ensuing scramble, Nottingham born ex-perennial-transfer-target Leon Best forced the ball over the line to level the scores.

Next followed the almost-obligatory dismissal, and unsurprisingly Jake Buxton was the guilty party. After wrestling Assombalonga to the ground and conceding a free-kick the red mist seemed to descend and, as Chris Burke ran forward with the ball, Buxton just launched into him. Out came the second yellow card and off he trotted, knuckles dragging the ground.

Perhaps sensing a chance of victory, Pearce substituted the substitute Ben Osborn and replaced him with Lars Veldwijk, though the tall Dutchman didn't really see much of the ball. The last chance did fall to Forest but goalscorer Britt Assombalonga's header was straight at Lee Grant. Despite some eight minutes of stoppage time the spoils were shared as the game ended 1-1.

Notable Forest performances came from Antonio, who gave Ryan Shotton a torrid time all match, Assombalonga, whose tireless running got the reward it deserved and Robert Tesche, who looks a real find on a free transfer. He looks a similar player to David Vaughan in that he keeps it simple, keeps play moving and keeps possession. I was hoping that Forest's squad depth wouldn't need to be tested so early in the season and hopefully the injures to Reid and Fryatt aren't bad ones. Unfortunately though, I can't see Chris Cohen playing again in the foreseeable future.

But let's end on a positive note. How nice it was to see a City Ground crowd clear the 30,000 mark for the first time in ages. We remain unbeaten and top of the league. We've still not played our best yet and, when we do, we'll get better results than this one. There's still so much more to come from this team and that's a very exciting prospect for Forest fans.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Ram Raid

The first East Midlands Derby of the season is almost upon us and, as always, it promises to be a fascinating encounter. Perhaps not as dramatic as last season's - where home victories for each side led to the sacking of the respective away managers - but it'll be a gripping, blood-and-thunder affair all the same.

Forest come into the match in better form, sitting unbeaten atop the Championship table having dropped only two points so far, while Derby have made a solid start, the highlight of which has been the 5-1 drubbing of newly relegated Fulham. Indeed, as Forest take on Fulham some three days after the Derby match, the week will be a great barometer of the Reds' chances for the campaign.

Whilst the international break may have blunted the momentum of Forest's excellent start, the flip-side is that it will also allow tired and injured bodies to heal and rest. The likes of Jack Hobbs and Michail Antonio, who were nursing niggles after the Sheffield Wednesday match, should hopefully be fit again; while Hobbs, Chris Cohen, Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury - who have all only recently returned from long-term injuries - will surely be grateful for a few days recuperation following a busy August.

Derby fans will no doubt point to their 5-0 defeat of Forest at the iPro Stadium last season as evidence of their superiority; however, the Nottingham Forest they'll face on Sunday is - both on and off the pitch - a very different proposition to the one which lined up six months ago. It's quite possible that, of the team which kicked-off for Forest that day, only Karl Darlow will be in the starting XI come Sunday.

In fact, this time it's Derby who can point to injury problems, with summer capture George Thorne and highly-rated midfielder Jeff Hendrick both definitely missing. Forward Jamie Ward is currently a doubt too, though he may yet play some part.

Forest are yet to concede a goal at home this season. However, as so far they've only hosted Blackpool, who are awful, and Reading, who were awful, then not too much can be read into that. It wouldn't surprise me if Derby are the team to puncture that proud record. No visiting team will want to do it more. Still, if anyone can motivate a team to play to the best of their abilities against our neighbours from up the A52 then it's Stuart Pearce, and I've no doubt that complacency and overconfidence will not be issues for Forest on 14th.

Just what team Pearce will pick is anyone's guess. The 4-5-1 which started away at Sheffield Wednesday ensures we're not overrun in midfield, but at the cost of the impressive Matt Fryatt. With Derby's strong midfield it wouldn't be a surprise to see the same formation start against them too. On the other hand, it's just as possible that Pearce will retain the 4-4-2 which has served Forest well so far at home this season. How nice it is to have such options!

Whatever the formations, whatever the teams, it's sure to be a spectacle; and one which will only be enhanced by both sets of fans paying tribute to the 10th anniversary of the passing of Brian Clough - whose links to both clubs need no explanation. Come 3PM on Sunday one set of players will be parading the trophy which bears his name. Hopefully the match, and the occasion, will have done justice to his memory.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Window Shopping

As seemingly every other team in English football worked itself into a frenzy of buying and selling on Transfer Deadline Day, fans of Nottingham Forest could sit back and watch in beatific peace, happy in the knowledge that - for once - our business had been done early and done well. Whilst the greedy amongst us might have been hoping for one last surprise, it's fair to say that it wasn't really necessary. On a day where, historically, Forest fans would have been fretting over the need for a striker or left-back; there wasn't a murmur of discontent when the chimes of Big Ben marked 11PM and not a single new player had been paraded in the Garibaldi.

Though Deadline Day itself passed off without a whimper, the window as a whole had been busy and fruitful. Here's a summary of what happened:

Michail Antonio
Simon Cox
Britt Assombalonga
Karl Darlow
Chris Burke
Matt Derbyshire
Karl Darlow
Season-long loan
Rafik Djebbour
Contract cancelled
Danny Fox
Dimitar Evtimov
6 month loan
Matty Fryatt
Simon Gillett
Jack Hunt
6 month loan
Jonathan Greening
Louis Laing
Darius Henderson
Contract cancelled
Jamaal Lascelles
Season-long loan
Gonzalo Jara
Michael Mancienne
Jamaal Lascelles
Roger Riera
Jamie Mackie
Season-long loan
Robert Tesche
Radoslaw Majewski
Season-long loan
David Vaughan
Ishmael Miller
Lars Veldwijk
David Morgan
Guy Moussi
Marcus Tudgay
Note - Some of these transfer fees may not be entirely accurate as they were offcially recorded as undisclosed.

The sheer number of players moving to and from the club showed exactly what a job new manager Stuart Pearce had on his hands and it's testament to both he and the club's hierarchy that, as we reflect after the transfer window has closed, we can do so with arguably the strongest and most balanced squad we've had in many, many years.

Pearce saw where the squad had weaknesses and addressed them. The lack of goals was mitigated by signing three new strikers. The need for pace was acknowledged and remedied by signing two flying machines in a day. The need for cover for last season's main creative forces of Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury was noted and sorted. And the icing on the cake was persuading Henri to sign a new deal with the club, when it looked for all the world as if he were leaving.

This couldn't all be done without some cost and this came in the form of the sales of academy products Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles to Newcastle United. However, even this was turned to the club's advantage with the subsequent purchases of Michail Antonio and club record signing Britt Assombalonga. If we'd have kept Karl and Jamaal and not signed Michail and Britt then the squad would've looked decent; but by making those sales, loaning the sold players back and bringing in the two signings, decent was transformed into pacey, strong and threatening.

Of course we've been here before with squads that look strong on paper, but this time it looks really good. We've got a few flexible players who can operate in a number of positions, we've got pace where it's needed, we've got guile and craft and a number of players who can turn a match in a moment and, most important of all, we've got cover. I can't imagine we'll have an injury list anything like last season's - I certainly hope not anyway - but if we do then this time round it seems we'd be better equipped to deal with it.

It's early days yet but already a number of the new signings look inspired. Chris Burke and Matt Fryatt have showed all the quality and experience we expected. Michael Mancienne has looked composed in defence, whilst Jack Hunt has offered a great attacking option from right-back. Michail Antonio can look clumsy, but his delivery has been good and his ability in the air at the back post has been an unexpected bonus and, in Britt Assombalonga, we've finally got a striker who will terrorise opposition defences. His pace and directness will cause problems against anyone in this league and, whilst he still has to hone his decision making at times, his work-rate more than makes up for this.

Hopefully, following this current international break, we'll have a fully fit squad to choose from. A squad that - as it gets to know itself and its manager more closely - will only get better. We're currently unbeaten yet haven't really played that well. If we really start firing on all cylinders out league.