This time last year, with Nottingham Forest sitting proudly atop the Championship, the first international break of the season was as welcome as a wasp in a spacesuit; upsetting, as it did, our early season momentum. This season however it could prove to be a blessing; allowing the tired and injured to recover and - in an ideal world - Dougie Freedman to strengthen the squad before the transfer window SLAMS SHUT at 18:00 on September 1st. The world is not ideal though, and one suspects that as much of Dougie's time between now and then will be spent dealing with bids for our own players as trying to bring in new ones.
Two of the players attracting aforementioned bids - Michail Antonio and Michael Mancienne - took their places in a Forest team which was missing Henri Lansbury, who himself has been subject to significant interest in this transfer window. Presumably though, after the Fawaz/Henri/Hat/Celebrations picture, that interest will come to nought and Lansbury will remain at the club. This is Forest though so who knows...?
Daniel Pinillos and Kyle Ebecilio made their home debuts and David Vaughan played, despite the family reasons which meant he withdrew from the Wales squad. Tyler Walker continued to plough the lone furrow up front and another Academy graduate Gerry McDonagh earned a place on the substitutes' bench - meaning there were six home-grown youngsters in the matchday eighteen.
The visitors Cardiff City fielded a strong-looking team including ex-Manchester United full back Fabio and the gargantuan Kenwyne Jones, who's the kind of player Forest always struggle against. His inclusion may be why Freedman started with the more physical centre back partnership of Jack Hobbs and captain-for-the-day Matt Mills.
The early exchanges were pretty even, with neither side looking particularly threatening. The Bluebirds were looking dangerous on the break though, as Anthony Pilkington troubled Pinillos down the left and Joe Mason drove a shot straight at Dorus de Vries. Forest failed to heed the warning signs and Eric Lichaj's poor header fell to the feet of Peter (yes, him) Whittingham. His pinged cross picked out Jones who powered a header past the helpless Forest keeper to give Cardiff the lead.
Referee Oliver Langford's general ineptitude was about the only other thing of note in the remainder of the half, apart from a lovely turn and shot from Walker which forced the first of many decent saves from Cardiff goalie David Marshall. A few half-hearted boos greeted the half-time whistle, likely aimed at both the ref and the lacklustre Reds.
Ben Osborn replaced Ebecilio at half time and had an immediate impact, dragging a shot wide soon after the restart. Things were to get worse for Forest though as a Pilkington corner wasn't cleared, and Mason picked up the loose ball, turned smartly and curled an excellent shot beyond de Vries's grasp to double the visitors' advantage.
A period of possession for Cardiff followed, before Freedman introduced Dexter Blackstock in place of the largely ineffectual Chris Burke, moved Walker out to the right and Antonio more central. This meant Forest played more directly but did at least start to create chances. Antonio rattled the stanchion with an ambitious long-range effort then drew a smart, low save from Marshall with another attempt. Walker also tested Marshall with a couple of shots before making way for McDonagh to take his Forest bow.
The increased pressure finally told as Blackstock glanced on a ball through to Antonio, who withstood a meaty Cardiff challenge before slotting coolly past Marshall to give Forest a lifeline. It was one that the Reds couldn't cling on to though, even with the six minutes of stoppage time added after some blatant Bluebird timewasting. The visitors weren't seriously troubled again and secured their third consecutive 2-1 win against Forest.
It's not easy to pick many positives out of that performance. I will though, as that's the kind of guy I am. David Vaughan again looked impressive in midfield, and is starting to get back to something like his best. Tyler Walker continues to defy his age and experience and the role he's being asked to play by putting in another great shift. He really does have a bright future but is in desperate need of some support up top.
On the flipside, Jack Hobbs had one of the worst games I can ever recall him having. Kyle Ebecilio offered little and Eric Lichaj looked a bit shaky. Michael Mancienne again looked worse in midfield than he does at centre back (or left back for that matter) and Michail Antonio was his typical self. Strong runs and a well-taken goal mixed with poor passing and questionable decisions. If, as looks increasingly possible, this was his last game for the club, at least he signed off by rippling the onion bag.
What Forest's squad will look like at 18:01 on Tuesday 1st September is anybody's guess. The almost-inevitable wheeling and dealing will go a long way to shaping the season. Dougie and Fawaz are going to have some hard decisions to make. Let's hope they make good ones.