Saturday, 8 November 2014

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Norwich City

As the fourth official held up his board with the red number four brightly proclaiming the number of minutes of stoppage time to the leaden Trentside sky; I sat mulling over what to write about what seemed like another match without a victory. It would be hard, I thought, to criticise the team for their efforts today, even if we'd only managed a draw. Two minutes, one goal and a maniacal celebration later however, and it was a moot point. The long wait was over. Three points were in the bag.

Having started Wednesday's defeat against Brentford with no recognised strikers, Stuart Pearce this time named two, with Matt Fryatt recovering from a tweaked groin (ooer, matron) to partner Britt Assombalonga up front. The team was set up as a conventional 4-4-2, with Jack Hunt recovering from his midweek injury to start at right back, but Daniel Fox not, and being replaced by Dan Harding at left back. Jamaal Lascelles partnered Michael Mancienne at centre half. The midfield quartet consisted of Michail Antonio, Robert Tesche, Ben Osborn and Tom Ince.

Norwich could afford to leave the likes of Nathan Redmond and Gary Hooper on the bench and still name a lineup that looked, frankly, rather worrying. The striking partnership of Lewis Grabban and Cameron Jerome in particular looked like it would cause the Reds defence some bother.

Considering both teams must have been pretty low on confidence, the opening exchanges were rather exciting, with ambitious attacks at either end. A driving Antonio run saw Russell Martin take a fancy to his shirt and try to remove it, earning a very early booking. At the other end Norwich looked to hit Jerome with long passes behind the Reds defence. An Antonio cross found Ince at the back post, and his fizzing shot, er, fizzed narrowly over the bar. Forest had shown more gumption in the first 15 minutes than they'd managed all match against Brentford, but then got hit by a sucker punch.

Some neat interplay between Martin and Jonny Howson found the Canaries midfielder in space in the penalty area. With no defender around to close him down he had the time and space to plant a low shot past Karl Darlow and give the visitors the lead. The early confidence almost visibly drained from the players, and Norwich proceeded to take a grip on the game, though without really troubling Darlow again. Assombalonga's speculative long-range free kick which flew over the crossbar was as close as Forest came to drawing level and the teams trooped off at half time with the score still 1-0.

The interval saw another Forest fan win the 60" TV on offer in the Golden Goal Challenge, and Jamie Paterson go through the kind of vigorous warmup routine which suggested he'd be starting the second half. And indeed he did, replacing Tom Ince.

Early Norwich pressure in the second half thankfully came to nothing, though Darlow was forced into a decent save to palm Grabban's stinging effort round the post. Forest then started to wrest back control of the game, Fryatt and Osborn in particular buzzing round and harassing their opponents, something that was sorely missing against Brentford. Consequently, Norwich started to look shaky and sit deeper, which further encouraged the home team.

Just after the hour mark, Pearce rolled his last two substitute-shaped dice, replacing Hunt with Eric Lichaj and Harding with Henri Lansbury. The first change seemed logical, as Hunt appeared still appeared to be struggling, but the second was rather baffling and a bit harsh on Harding. I wasn't sure if the plan was to play three at the back - and I'm still not sure now. Lansbury lined up on the left at any rate, with Paterson moving infield.

Chances came and went but still a goal wasn't forthcoming. Both Antonio and Assombalonga headed wide from excellent crosses. City keeper John Ruddy stuck his hand in Lascelles face but wasn't punished, and Lansbury shot over from Ruddy's misplaced kick. Norwich sub Kyle Lafferty got booked for hacking down Mancienne and it looked for a while as if the Reds would again have to finish a match with ten men, but the Reds defender recovered and, soon after, the breakthrough came.

A long ball forward was chased down by the industrious Fryatt, and his low cross was swept home by Assombalonga for his tenth goal of the season. At first glance it looked like a slight miss-hit but the replay made it appear a calm finish. To be honest nobody cared - the relief was palpable.

Norwich immediately won a corner from which nothing came, a Forest counterattack saw Assombalonga hesitate when seemingly clean through and end up having his shot blocked, Tesche was forced to concede a foul as City broke down the other end and Bradley Johnson fired over following a scramble after the resultant free kick. This was breathless stuff and either side looked like they could win.

Lansbury did well to track back and concede a corner and, when it was cleared, Forest broke again. Paterson's pass found Assombalonga just in the Norwich half and instead of bearing down on goal, he picked out Antonio with a super through-ball. The Reds winger surged into the box and, with fantastic composure, slid the ball under Ruddy to give Forest the lead. The ground erupted, and following celebrations which, in my case resembled a kangaroo on acid, whistles began immediately as the home fans implored the referee to end the match. Frantic Norwich pressure saw Alex Tettey line up a last-gasp shot which Lichaj flung himself at to block, and that proved a fitting end to a much, much-needed victory, Wowzers.

This was a vastly improved performance - which admittedly isn't saying much. The defence looked better but still let Norwich play through us a bit too much for my liking. Fortune favoured the brave with Pearce's substitutions today though, and the extra midfield impetus that Paterson and Lansbury supplied ended up making the difference. Osborn had probably his best game for the Reds and Fryatt's constant harrying and running got the reward it deserved with the assist for the first goal. Assombalonga tucked away his chance nicely and his pass to find the again-impressive Antonio was the juiciest of peaches. That Wednesday we signed those two players is looking more and more important every week.

The slightly more seasoned Forest fan may remember Pearce's first game as caretaker manager all those years ago, in which a late Alf-Inge Haaland winner saw the Reds come back to defeat Arsenal. This match reminded me a lot of that one. Now follows another international break and a chance to rest and take stock. I might even watch the Leicester City Appreciation Football League Show tonight.

Nah - probably not.

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