FOREST UP AND RUNNING
ONE MOMENT OF GENUINE QUALITY IS ENOUGH TO BREAK THE DEADLOCK
TWO exciting, encouraging performances, a host of summer signings and a packed, close to capacity City Ground crowd, bolstered by 21,000 season ticket sales – all combined to ensure the sense of anticipation and expectation was crackling every bit as much as the atmosphere on the banks of the Trent.
It was perhaps greedy to expect both at once but, having impressed with some electric football against Bristol City and West Brom, in two games that had entertained, but had also not garnered the results they had merited, what unfolded on Saturday afternoon felt somehow fitting.
It is often said the mark of a good side is the ability to win football matches when they are not at their best.
If that old adage is true, then there was certainly plenty of evidence to suggest Aitor Karanka’s Nottingham Forest side are at least on the right path towards becoming something good.
The picture of injustice Paul Clement painted after the final whistle was not entirely accurate – this was not in the same bracket of daylight robbery as his well-organised, but ultimately toothless Reading side had suffered at the hands of Derby County, on the opening day, in front of the television cameras.
But it was a closely contested, hard-fought affair in which one moment of genuine quality was enough to break the deadlock, as well as the Royals’ resolve, and to decide things in Forest’s favour.
Forest were marginally the better side and they just about deserved their narrow victory, even if they only periodically found top gear. They did enough. They got the job done. You get the idea.
Joao Carvalho and Gil Dias had previously been the beating heart of the promise Karanka’s new-look side had shown. But, against Reading they were more subdued, less of an influence.
But just as their two previous performances had not established, with any degree of certainty, they will be a runaway success this season, nor does one less convincing display prove they won’t be.
What was encouraging for Forest was that the two men who replaced them off the bench took the opportunity to step into the void and up to the plate.
Hillal Soudani, from his first performance in pre-season, has played with the enthusiasm and energy of a teenager; he has the demeanour of a man who is excited to have the opportunity to prove himself in England – and who is determined to do exactly that.
The Algerian international might be 30, but he still possesses the kind of character and personality on the pitch that could quickly make him a favourite among the fans.
His goal, swept emphatically and precisely beyond the reach of the goalkeeper and into the corner of the net, after a split-second sight of goal opened up for him will not do him any harm on that front.
While his fellow substitute, Matty Cash, had an equally big impact on the game, with the two of them, together, instantly lifting the tempo and the sense of urgency in the For- est ranks. Cash, always a dynamo, might have had a goal himself, if not for a combination of a good save and, from the rebound, an awkward bounce which guided his second shot over the bar.
And that came after he made a hash of things with his very first touch, having been picked out in the centre by a fine cross from Ben Osborn, who was often Forest’s most dangerous attacking outlet, Cash lifted a shot over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Osborn’s range of passing and accuracy of delivery was also the catalyst for good chances for Lewis Grabban and Dias,
His his own work-rate and determination also allowed him to fulfil his defensive duties when it was required.
The big price tags placed on the heads of Carvalho, Dias and Diogo Goncalves led to the feeling that, if Forest were to be successful this season, the foundations for that might just be from Portugal.
Forest spent 15m euro to sign Carvalho and it would cost even more, if they want to sign Dias and Goncalves permanently in the future. The very early evidence is it might well prove to be a worthy investment.
But in the last two games, those roots have come from Algeria, with Adlene Giedioura netting the Forest goal against West Brom on Tuesday night and Soudani, who cost roughly £2m when he joined from Dinamo Zagreb, both showing their own quality in key moments.
When Forest face Bury on Tuesday night in the EFL Cup, it will be different players again who get the opportunity to take the spotlight, not least because Karanka has hinted he might change the entire starting XI.
If he were to do so, it would be no sign of disrespect to the League Two club. Instead, it would be a reflection of the squad Karanka now has at his disposal.
Forest now have a group of 24 or 25 players who could all come into the side, without weakening it very much at all.
With the impressive summer transfer business they completed, what Forest have done is give their manager the level of strength in depth that has not been seen at the City Ground in many years – and along with that, a great deal of options.
When Dias and Carvalho looked just slightly quieter than they had done in previous outings, Soudani and Cash took their opportunity to shine. The experienced trio of Michael Dawson, Ben Watson and Daryl Murphy had only a watching brief from the bench.
Players like Luke Steele, Joe Worrall, Goncalves, Ben Brereton and Liam Bridcutt could not force their way into the squad at all – and new signings Michael Hefele and Sam Byram will hope to make their mark in the near future, after signing in recent days.
When Forest head to Wigan next weekend, to return to Championship action, Tobias Figueiredo and Danny Fox could feel hard done by if they do not retain their place in the heart of defence, with Fox in particular standing out as a dogged, determined performer against Reading, with the bandage he finished the game with wrapped around his head the perfect metaphor for the bravery and commitment with which he had played.
The same can also be said of fullbacks Tendayi Darikwa and Osborn, who continue to do a grand job of finding the difficult balance between attacking width and defensive cover. Hefele and Byram might have to be patient for just a little while yet, along with quite a few other quality players, within the ranks of the squad they have joined.
You could work your way down the pitch and make further similar observations about Guedioura, Jack Colback, Joe Lolley and Grabban.
But these are the brand of difficult, but welcome decisions Karanka will have to make every week, for the rest of the Championship season. As he observed himself after the final whistle, Forest’s success or failure will not be decided by what they do as individuals, but by what they do as a team and, more accurately, as a squad.
Danny Fox hurls himself into a challenge
Gil Dias just fails to keep the ball in play for Nottingham Forest in the 1-0 victory over Reading