Nottingham Forest came crashing back to earth with a defeat at Stoke City which can only be described as ‘After The Lord Mayor’s Show’.
Just when you thought it was safe to talk about a play-off challenge, the Reds failed to build on their previous momentum. It was especially disappointing to lose in such a lacklustre fashion, given the levels of euphoria created by the victory over Derby County just five days earlier.
Martin O’Neill quite rightly picked the same starting 11 that put our local rivals to the sword, so there can be no complaints about team selection, in my opinion. He also deployed the same formation which, again for me, was well within reason.
However, regardless of the recent progress made by Forest, bad omens lay in wait at the other end of the A50. Since moving to their new home in the 1997/98 season, Stoke had prevented Forest from winning a single game there.
Despite the successes it has brought with it, Stoke’s windswept Bet 365 Stadium is a soulless shadow of their previous home, The Victoria Ground. With its low-lying roofs and spacious terraces, the Victoria was one of the best away venues in the Midlands and a happy hunting-ground for Forest supporters too.
Just like they’d done back in the day, Forest took a huge travelling fanbase last Saturday, 2,900 in fact. It made a mockery of the home support as large sections of empty red seats littered the adjacent stands. Whether it was down to life in the Championship or City’s recent run of six games without a win, I’m not sure, but I expected the Potters to sell out.
As for the game itself, Forest never seemed to get out of second gear. If I had to describe the performance in just one word, it would be lethargic. I certainly won’t go down the road of attributing it to tiredness or any such rubbish, Stoke just seemed to want it more, especially in midfield.
All over the park, the men in gold were second best or too far off their opposite number. Oghenekaro Etebo’s opening goal was a perfect example as he waltzed unchallenged through acres of space before picking his spot and finding the net. Had that been last Monday, he’d have been shut down within the first five yards.
Who knows, things may have been different had Ryan Yates’s effort not been brilliantly smothered by Jack Butland in the first half. That aside, Forest were pretty much limited to half-chances and shots from distance for the remainder of the game.
I alluded to the Stoke midfield earlier and two players in particular caused a lot of problems for O’Neill’s men. Tom Ince was very lively and full of energy, while Joe Allen seemed to be the architect for all that was good about the home team. It was frustrating to watch because had the Forest players applied themselves as they’d done so in recent weeks, against better opposition too, I wouldn’t be waxing lyrical about the opposing players.
At this point, I’m certainly not going to clock in at the ‘fickle factory’, especially given the praise I’ve heaped upon our players and management of late. I’ve witnessed real progress over the last four matches and high levels of intensity on and off the ball. Nor will I lay any blame upon Joao Carvalho for the second goal. Yes, he had a poor touch, but Benik Afobe had plenty to do before finding the net and ending the game as a contest.
Carvalho had entered the fray in the second half, as did Leo Bonatini. Both are lacking match fitness for obvious reasons, but it’s imperative that the latter does some catching up. With Lewis Grabban constantly susceptible to Achilles flare-ups, Forest need a goal scorer like the Brazilian. Daryl Murphy’s game is effective in the right environment, but he is anything but prolific.
Forest must once again raise their game if they are beat Hull City this coming Saturday. They must also learn how to build on victories like the Derby game and not to rest on their laurels.