Can Forest's pace end the Foxes chase?
With two Clasicos down and two to go, the eyes of the world will be on Madrid and Barcelona over the next few weeks. Back in November, a global television audience watched Barca triumph 5-0. On the same night, there were slightly smaller figures for another game of football – the return fixture of which arrives tomorrow.
So much has changed. There were flakes of snow in the air on that chilly evening in the East Midlands, in stark contrast to the balmy weather that has hit the region this week. And no longer are Nottingham Forest and Leicester City the two form sides in the division. Both looked destined to challenge for an automatic promotion place until recently. Now, realistically, they are left to scrap for the last remaining play-off place along with a host of other clubs.
Forest fans largely seemed to take November’s 1-0 loss at the Walkers Stadium on the chin. It was an off night for their side, a defeat from which positives could be taken. If Sven-Goran Eriksson could only mastermind a single-goal victory against such an off-colour Forest side with the help of Premier League loanees Curtis Davies and Roman Bednar, perhaps inspiration could be drawn from their solid foundations.
Back then, Lee Camp and his back four looked almost impenetrable and it took a scurrying run from Darius Vassell and a trademark ghost into the box from Andy King to break their resolve. Despite this concession, centre-backs Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers both turned in superb displays and Chambers in particular has been a revelation this season in a fairly consistent defensive setup.
Eriksson, meanwhile, has constantly tinkered with his preferred lineup. Bednar has long since returned to West Bromwich Albion, while Yakubu and Diomansy Kamara will expect to be selected to play at the City Ground. Indeed, of the four attackers that took to the field to face Forest in November, only the assisting Vassell and goalscorer King remained for last Saturday’s visit to Reading. Brian McDermott’s men are now the Championship’s form team and their 3-1 win over Leicester at the Madejski Stadium was their eighth in a row. The Royals have earned designs on the second automatic promotion place that Forest and Leicester coveted for so long.
Reading’s goals could be attributed to two main factors – the rippling pace of Jimmy Kebe, whose 90-yard dash tore the visiting defence apart for the home side’s third strike and the nature of the back line that was destroyed in the process. Eriksson dropped his two best defenders – Miguel Vitor, on loan from Benfica, and Manchester City’s Ben Mee – in favour of the attack-minded Kyle Naughton of Tottenham and Chelsea’s Jeffrey Bruma. Another Dutchman borrowed from Stamford Bridge, the left-back Patrick van Aanholt, was partly at fault for Reading’s third goal following a dreadful throw-in.
When the defence was performing well, Eriksson was praised for his ability to lure such exciting talents to the club. Now it is failing, he is carrying the can for relying on loanees to form the team’s rearguard. Of the six defenders used in the last two games, only one is on a permanent contract – the Ivorian Sol Bamba, whose general dominant effect on the side is diluted by occasional catastrophe.
It is this weak spot which Billy Davies will look to exploit and it could be argued that he has the perfect players to do it. The success of Kebe and fellow goalscorer Jobi McAnuff in counter-attacking at pace against a high backline will not have gone unnoticed and the propensity of Davies to shuffle his forward line suggests that the likes of Nathan Tyson and Garath McCleary could start.
Forest fan Pat Riddell, who runs the Seat Pitch blog, says to expect the unexpected:
“Billy Davies is likely to opt for a 4-4-2 formation, partly because we’re at home and partly because Guy Moussi is fit again giving us strength in central midfield. But second-guessing Davies is practically impossible. It could be any variation on 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.”
“The injury to Guy Moussi coincided with our disastrous nine game run without a win and his return – and hopefully full fitness – gives the team a far better balance. If Chris Cohen continues his recent performances and Lewis McGugan and/or Raddy Majewski can offer a glimpse of their occasional brilliance, there is hope.”
“Indeed, if the strikers are given sufficient service then Robbie Earnshaw, David McGoldrick, Marcus Tudgay, Dele Adebola or even Kris Boyd (still yet to win over the fans) might make an impression.”
Nine players and not a mention of Tyson or McCleary. With any two of four vying to start at centre-back for Leicester and the wealth of attackers at Forest’s disposal, that particular area of the pitch could be made up in a wide variety of ways on Friday evening. Whatever the two men in charge decide, the hopes of last season’s two beaten play-off semi-finalists hinge on those that take to the field. The away end at the City Ground holds nasty memories for Leicester fans, who have not seen a league victory there since the 1970s and last season experienced a 5-1 humbling.
Nottingham Forest could not ask for a better blueprint of how to beat Leicester City than the example shown by Reading last weekend. If Billy Davies asks his players to soak up the visitors’ possession, few will be surprised. And when they do gain possession, expect plenty of lightning-fast counter attacks.
Dealing with the inevitable is often easier said than done and on the banks of the Trent, Eriksson must prove himself all over again.