Thursday, 19 March 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 0 Rotherham United

Thirty five minutes into what was, up to that point, a somewhat turgid encounter, my mind started to wander from the uninspiring fare in front of me to my Half Time Tweet. How would I sum up the match so far? I'd just about settled on "Well, that was 45 minutes (plus 2 minutes stoppage time) of my life I'll never get back," when two great goals in as many minutes had consigned the tweet to remain forever in drafts, and Rotherham United to defeat. How quickly things can change!

One thing that didn't change was Nottingham Forest's starting lineup however. Matt Fryatt's troublesome Achilles wasn't risked, so Dexter Blackstock remained the lone striker ahead of the usual five-man midfield. Eric Lichaj and Michael Mancienne continued as round pegs, er, full backs and, on the bench, new signing Modou Barrow took Lars Veldwijk's substitute berth. Rotherham included ex-Reds Jack Hunt and Matt Derbyshire, the latter of whom was partnered in attack by the lumpen former Derby goal-machine....., hmm, no. Striker? Barely. Former Derby player Conor Sammon. 

The opening exchanges were as pedestrian as a smart, inner-city square surrounded by bars and restaurants. Rotherham kept possession well without testing Karl Darlow, though they did cause some bother down their right flank where Hunt and Sammon were often 2-on-1 against Lichaj, due to Michail Antonio deciding that tracking back was something other people did. Going the other way though, Antonio sent an early shot wide and produced a typically muscular run which ended in him crumpling in a heap in the penalty area. As this was at the other end of the pitch from me I couldn't tell either way, but the Lower Bridgford seemed miffed that a spot kick hadn't been awarded. Another Antonio rampage was halted, this time outside the area, and Henri Lansbury sent the resultant free kick over the bar. It looked as though the first half would end frustratingly goalless, until the two moments that changed and decided the contest. 

I have to admit, I missed seeing the first goal live as I was mid-Twitter rant about the ineptitude of the unlikely-looking referee. Having seen the replays though, I can assure you that Antonio lofted a ball down the left which bounced nicely into Blackstock's path. The rejuvenated striker in turn lobbed a shot over Miller's keeper Adam Collin, whose despairing dive could only tip the ball onto the underside of the crossbar and in. 

One became two barely a minute later when Antonio picked up the ball in his own half, from about the same position where he'd set up Blackstock's goal. This time though he just got his head down and ran, brushing aside three (admittedly unconvincing) challenges and thumping a low drive past the helpless Collin from just outside the box. Had this been a Saturday match it would've been another sure-fire winner of Sky Sports' Goal of the Day, but instead it just made the score 2-0 and Dougie Freedman's half time team talk a far more pleasant experience. 

The second half followed a similar theme to the first, with spells of largely ineffectual Rotherham possession punctuated by somewhat more dangerous looking Forest attacks. The visitors did come closer to scoring than in the first 45 minutes though, with Lee Frecklington hitting the post and Sammon forcing Darlow into a good save. 

At the other end, Forest just couldn't quite extend their lead. Another couple of Antonio runs ended respectively in a blocked shot and a dangerous cross which was whipped off the toes of Chris Burke. I say "runs" but that barely does them justice. You know when Super Mario eats the flower thing that makes him invincible and then just squashes anything in his path? That's the kind of run. 

Anyway, Gary Gardner curled an effort just wide and a long period of passing saw Barrow - who looked quick and lively on his debut - find Burke with a decent cross, only for the Scotsman's shot to be deflected wide. Despite the blond, flowing-locked promptings of Ben Pringle, Rotherham never looked like scoring and, just before full time, Tyler Walker - son of Forest legend Des - made his Reds bow. He only got two touches, but they were good ones, chesting down a high ball before laying it off to a teammate. Full time whistle. Job done. Three more points. 

Forest weren't at their best but did enough to just about keep pace with the top six. The defence was solid enough and Gardner was again impressive in midfield. What a loss he'll be when he presumably returns to Villa Park next season. Blackstock again ran his socks off and was rewarded and, as for Antonio, well...

Imagine a slightly stronger but a bit more clumsy version of Stan Collymore who plays wide midfield and you'll begin to get the picture of what he's like. At times he can look dreadful, conceding possession easily before standing in disgust at his own profligacy. But at other times, as with his goal, he's totally unplayable. His pace and strength must make him a nightmare to defend against. Indeed there's a great picture doing the rounds of him hunched over the ball, surrounded by five Rotherham defenders. Strength of numbers is sometimes the only way to stop him. 

So, next up are the three matches which will probably shape the rest of our season. Norwich may be too far ahead to catch (though a win would put us only seven points behind them with as many matches to play), and a draw at Carrow Road would be a fine result. Then, over Easter, we host Wolves and visit Brentford. The outcomes of these matches could see us firmly in the playoff mix, or wondering why we even thought about reaching them at all. As Dougie said in his post-match interview, there's often one team that comes from nowhere to snatch a top six place. All we can do is keep on winning, and you never know, it just might be us. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

How We're Playing, We Don't Need Rhodes

When I logged onto Twitter this morning and checked the #NFFC hashtag, I was greeted by the unlikely sight of a report from The Sun claiming that Nottingham Forest were readying a club-record £8m bid for Blackburn Rovers striker Jordan Rhodes. As Forest are currently under a well-publicised transfer embargo, it was easy to dismiss this report as nonsense; agent-talk to drum up interest in Blackburn’s prize asset. However, the report openly mentioned Forest’s embargo and it was penned by the reasonably well-respected Alan Nixon (who broke the Lascelles and Darlow to Newcastle story in the summer). So, could there be any truth in it? And if there was, would it be a good thing?

Unlikely as it seems, I suppose there is some small chance of this deal happening. Rovers, like Forest, are also currently under a transfer embargo. With the current form of Rudy Gestede, Rhodes’ importance to the Lancashire club is not as great as it was, despite his exceptional goal-scoring record. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that – with little left to play for this season – they could be persuaded to loan him out and get at least some part of his wages off their bill. By the terms of Forest’s embargo however, the most they could contribute to Rhodes’ wages would be £10k per week. With Derby and Norwich also allegedly keen on securing his services, surely both he and Rovers would be better off moving to one of those clubs, no?

Forest may have offered a greater amount for a permanent signing fee than the other interested clubs, but to agree to that would take a massive amount of faith on Rovers’ part, as it hinges totally on Forest being in the Premier League – which is a remote chance at best. No promotion, no permanent deal. Would Rovers really sign up to that?

And if they did, and by some miracle this deal happened, what would it mean for the rest of Forest’s season? In Rhodes, Forest would be acquiring a striker with a great goalscoring record, there’s no doubt about that. But the team are playing really well at the moment with the resources they already have. Dougie Freedman’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 is working brilliantly, with both Dexter Blackstock and Matt Fryatt contributing a lot, if not necessarily in terms of goals, then certainly in effort, defending from the front and bringing the midfield into play. How would Rhodes change that dynamic?

The more worrying part for me would be the increased expectation that Rhodes’ arrival would bring. Sure, Forest still have a chance of reaching the playoffs but, with nine points to make up in only ten matches, it’s a slim one. Securing the services of Rhodes might make Fawaz al Hasawi think he’s bought a guaranteed ticket to the end-of-season carnival, which would definitely not be the case. If we did sign Rhodes, and failed to make the playoffs, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Fawaz would sack Freedman for his ‘failure.’ And that would be bad. We’d be back to square one (again) and would have lost a manager who’s had a fantastic impact in his brief time here.

Would I like to see a striker of Jordan Rhodes’ quality in the Garibaldi? Of course I would. But in this case I won’t be too disappointed if the paper-talk turns out to be just that.

Unless he goes to Derby.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Middlesbrough

I believe it was Arnold Palmer who is reported to have said "The more I practice, the luckier I get." It would be rather unfair - and totally inaccurate - to label the impact that Dougie Freedman has had since he took over as Nottingham Forest manager as luck. However, things seem to have fallen into place for Freedman more than they did for Stuart Pearce. Opposition shots are missing rather than flying in, passes are going astray, defenders are slipping, that kind of thing. It's hard to imagine Pearce's Forest pulling off the gritty rearguard actions that Freedman's Reds managed against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough, but these two very similar victories were secured by solid resolve, hard work and taking chances. Certainly not luck.

Following Freedman's first defeat as Forest manager he was forced into more changes than he's had to make in any of his matches so far. Both Matt Fryatt and Danny Fox suffered minor knocks; so Dexter Blackstock started up front and Eric Lichaj returned to the familiarly unfamiliar left back berth. Kelvin Wilson returned in place of Danny Collins, while Michael Mancienne lined up in midfield, replacing Ben Osborn. One suspects that Collins and Osborn were feeling the pace after the recent run of matches, rather than anything more sinister.

There was a distinctly Forest flavour to the visitors' team too, as Patrick Bamford and goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos made their City Ground returns. Boro also fielded Grant Leadbitter, Albert Adomah and George Friend, all of whom had been linked with moves to Forest at one time or another,

The opening exchanges were somewhat scrappy, possibly due to the strong wind which was blasting across the ground. Michail Antonio's deflected shot forced Dimi (I'm not typing Konstantopoulos out every time I mention him) into a good save. Gradually though, Boro started to turn the screw, finding space down the left and keeping Lichaj very busy. One of these forays won them a corner, which was taken short (we never learn) and found Leadbitter. His attempted cross looped over Karl Darlow, hit the far post, rebounded off Mancienne and into the net to give the Teesside team the lead. After having lost against Charlton, this looked like a big test for Forest.

It was a test which the players were equal to. Blackstock flashed a header wide from a Gary Gardner cross, before Gardner himself levelled things up with a wonderful curling shot from outside the penalty area. Boro were forced to replace the dangerous Ryan Fredericks due to injury - which made Lichaj's afternoon a lot easier - and the first half ended with honours even.

The second half started even more scrappily than the first, scrappier than a scrap metal merchant impersonating Scrappy Doo in fact. Simple passes were misplaced, longer ones were misjudged and neither side could keep possession. Antonio in particular was having one of those afternoons, when balls which usually stuck to him ended up bouncing off at angles as yet undiscovered by science.

But then, as he has done so often this season, he clicked. A rampaging run forced Tomas Kalas to concede a corner, though much of the Trent End thought it should've been a penalty; then, barely minutes later, another gallop down the left saw Antonio find Blackstock in the box. The ball seemed to be stuck under the striker's feet but he somehow dug out a shot with enough power to find the top corner and give Forest the lead. It was a really good finish which topped off his 150th appearance in the Garibaldi very nicely indeed.

From then on in, the Reds sat deep and Boro dominated possession. The rest of the second half went something like: pass pass shot blocked pass cross cleared pass shot blocked cross cleared shot hit the post goal kick. For all the visitors' efforts though, I can only remember Darlow making one real save. Forest didn't offer much more themselves but in the end they didn't need to, and the Charlton defeat was well and truly forgotten as another hard-won victory was secured.

I won't lie, the second half was difficult to watch at times as Forest defended very deep and let Boro dictate the play, but it's hard to question Freedman's tactics as the visitors couldn't find a way through, with their only goal coming courtesy of a fluke. It would be easy to say that better teams might have punished Forest, but there aren't many better teams in the division; and the one team who probably are better - Bournemouth - suffered the same fate.

The top of the Championship is ridiculously close, with one point separating the top five teams and five points separating the top seven. Of Forest's remaining ten matches, five of them are against teams currently above us. Our fate may not be in our own hands, but results like this one ensures there's enough to play for to keep things interesting. It always is with us. It always is.