Saturday, 6 August 2016

Nottingham Forest 4 - 3 Burton Albion

I have a confession to make. I didn't renew my season ticket this year (#notarealfan). There are a number of reasons for this: I won't be able to make as many matches, the off-the-field apathy and mismanagement and the on-the-field stagnation amongst them. After watching Forest breeze sweep stagger drunkenly past Burton Albion today, part of me wishes I had renewed. Another part - the one which is concerned about the well-being of my heart - is glad I didn't. I don't think it could take many matches like this one, and I have a feeling there might be a few this season.

Philippe Montanier's first competitive Nottingham Forest lineup was so youthful that it'd probably have been asked for ID when buying a pint. Academy graduates Alex Iacovitti and Matty Cash made their debuts, as did equally youthful new recruits Thomas Lam and Hildeberto Pereira. The slightly-more established Jorge Grant and Oliver Burke lined up in midfield alongside the relative veteran Ben Osborn. The more-experienced-but-still-hardly-ancient Britt Assombalonga, Henri Lansbury, Matt Mills and Dorus de Vries completed the starting XI, meaning that new signings Pajtim Kasami, Apostolos Vellios, Stephen Henderson and Damien Perquis all started their Forest careers from the bench.

If Burton Albion were meant to turn up and roll over clearly nobody told them, as they shaded the opening exchanges. A collision between Mills and de Vries gave the returning Chris O'Grady a chance which was scrambled away, before disaster struck when a challenge between de Vries and Brewers' striker Lucas Akins caused the Forest 'keeper to fall awkwardly, and, following a long period of treatment, get stretched off. Henderson would be handed his debut more quickly than anyone could've predicted or wanted.

Five minutes later however Forest shrugged off this setback and netted their first goal of Montanier's reign. A stray ball in the Burton penalty area fell to Grant, whose shot was probably heading wide before Assombalonga popped up at the far post to slide it home. The joy was short lived though as the match was turned on its head in a matter of minutes.

Firstly a Burton corner wasn't properly cleared and the ball found its way to Akins who fired home. Then a suspiciously-offside-looking counterattack ended up at the feet of Lloyd Dyer who steered a shot past the helpless Henderson. Whilst this was exciting stuff it certainly wasn't in the script. Indeed matters could've been worse if O'Grady had any pace, as another Burton break saw him set clear. Luckily he had to cut back inside and his angled shot whizzed wide of Henderson's post.

Parity was restored at the ideal time for Forest - just ahead of the half-time break - when a short corner was taken to Lam. The Finnish defender atoned for a couple of shaky moments by curling in a nice shot which beat Burton goalie Jon McLaughlin at the near post. The teams trooped off all-square while the sun-drenched crowd tried to take it all in.

Swiss international Kasami replaced the slightly anonymous Grant after the break and it wasn't too long before he made a difference. His free kick from just outside the box thudded into the wall before his rebound looped kindly to the waiting Burke. The Scotsman's shot wasn't cleanly hit but it had enough pace to bobble in at the far post with the Burton defence berating the referee's assistant for not giving him offside. Which he probably was. But so was their second goal. So, them's the breaks.

The goal seemed to settle Forest down somewhat, as did Kasami's introduction, and they exercised more control for a period. Burke and Pereira looked dangerous down the right whilst the midfield trio of Cash, Lansbury and Kasami took turns in spraying mostly-accurate long passes around the field. The defence still looked shaky however and it always felt like another goal was needed.

This duly arrived with around fifteen minutes to go when another break down the right found Pereira in space. His cross looped up off a Burton defender and over McLaughlin and may have dropped in anyway before Assombalonga made sure by nodding in at the far post. Two goals from about the same amount of yards.

Hopefully this cushion would allow the Reds to see the game out comfortably but it didn't because they're Forest and that's not how they roll. More slack defending allowed substitute Tom Naylor to plant a fine header past Henderson, who must have been wondering what was going on. A late scramble and a shot which flashed just wide of the post almost gave Burton a late equaliser but the home side just about held out to give Montanier a victory in his first meaningful match in charge.

So, how did this new-look Forest play? It certainly wasn't all roses but there are definitely reasons to be cheerful. Henderson looked a little unsure behind an almost totally new defence. The soothing presence of de Vries was certainly missed and one hopes he isn't out for too long. Watching the replay of the incident he turned his ankle nastily upon landing, but hopefully it's just a sprain rather than anything more sinister.

Iacovitti had a decent debut on the left, though he was guilty of drifting inside a few times. Still, Danny Fox does that too and he's considerably more experienced. His counterpart on the right - Pereira - looked a massive threat going forward. His pace and willingness to run with the ball could be a huge asset, though he too was caught out of position more than once. He did however produce one tremendous block. Someone needs to teach him how to take throw-ins though. Still, he and Burke could cause mayhem down the right. Hopefully his late substitution was due to tiredness rather than any injury.

Mills was his usually muscular self, but Lam - at this early stage - looks a bit lightweight for a Championship centre-half. He won some decent tackles on the floor but was often out-muscled in the air. He does however look excellent on the ball and again was more than willing to bring it out from defence. Perhaps he's more suited to a career in defensive midfield, but it's very early days.

Osborn was busy down the left without being outstanding whilst Lansbury put in a solid performance punctuated with some excellent passes. Cash, in my opinion, outshone Grant in central midfield. He pressed, harried, tackled and passed well, including one phenomenal long-range crossfield ball to Burke.

Burke himself showed just what potential he has. His pace caused problems all afternoon, even though he sometimes lacked an end product. But of course that's only to be expected. If he delivered every time he got the ball he'd have already been snapped up by someone else. His goal was well deserved and I'd have given him man-of-the-match ahead of the sponsor's choice Assombalonga.

How nice it was to have the Forest number nine starting, playing a full match and back in the goals again. Both of his strikes were easy, but they needed someone with a finisher's instinct to be there - which is something we sorely missed last season. I imagine he'll get the night off against Doncaster in midweek but he can reflect on a job well done.

Eric Lichaj replaced Pereira late on and didn't have too much to do, but Pajtim Kasami's first contribution was far more meaningful. He's an imposing figure in the middle but also very mobile. He never stopped moving and always gave an outlet, while his passing was good and one piece of skill left two opponents in his wake. Him, Lansbury and Cash/Vaughan or whoever in midfield has a nice look about it.

There's plenty for Montanier to work on, but there's also a great deal for him to work with. Tuesday night's team should be interesting and I wouldn't be surprised to see many of those who missed out today being given a chance to stake their claims. One thing seems to be sure though, if today is anything to go by: Forest will be very, very entertaining to watch this season, and that's a pretty good place to start.