How do you respond to losing a crunch match away at Cardiff City, with injuries seemingly piling up? If you’re Steve Cooper you make some astute deadline day signings. And, obviously, you beat the holders of the FA Cup 4-1 at home in the fourth round.
In one of the most exhilarating 20-minute periods of football at the City Ground this century, Nottingham Forest absolutely destroyed Leicester City. The three first-half goals could easily have been four or five, and the visitors had no way back once Djed Spence added the fourth in the second half.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the Reds were sensational. The Foxes, on the other hand, looked disjointed, overwhelmed and — all credit to Forest’s outfield players — unable to get any kind of rhythm going. After Arsenal in the third round, a home game against Huddersfield Town awaits in the fifth round.
Joe Worrall, supposedly out for another few weeks with broken ribs, returned to the side, as did Steve Cook despite a calf injury against Cardiff, while Joe Lolley made the bench for the first time since November.
Worrall’s return meant a more comfortable 3-4-1-2 formation, after the back four’s struggles last Sunday, allowing Philip Zinckernagel to influence the game from a more central position. Brendan Rodgers’ started with a back four before shifting to a back three, albeit to little effect.
Djed Spence made his way into the Leicester box within the first 20 seconds, and this was merely an indication of how the next 90 minutes would progress. Forest’s front three were pressing high, looking to force errors and prevent the Foxes from playing.
It was end-to-end stuff, and while Leicester edged possession and posed a threat from James Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho, the Reds limited the visitors to two shots on target in the entire match.
Brennan Johnson crossed into box, Iheanacho shot wide, Ryan Yates was fouled just outside the box, Leicester had a smart move at the opposite end and then a shot deflected wide, Spence beat his men to get to the line again, Ashley Barnes sent the ball across goal… it was relentless.
And then Forest, backed by a noisy City Ground, started to gain the upper hand. A James Garner free-kick was met by an unmarked Scott McKenna heading across goal, and the clearance reached Johnson who managed to ball loop back into the box. Kienan Davis, who has looked a remarkable addition since joining five weeks ago, controlled it on his chest, turned and volleyed onto the bar.
The floodgates opened four minutes later. Spence, on the edge of the box, found Johnson who floated the ball to Davis on the far post and all Zinckernagel had to do was poke it into the net. The Forest players were focused and alive to the game, while Leicester were static and disorganised.
The City Ground erupted and barely had time to catch its breath before the second came, just 87 seconds later. Johnson intercepted a Daniel Amartey back pass and, from an almost impossible angle, put the ball through Danny Ward’s legs. Cue pandemonium.
There was almost a third just a few minutes later as Yates narrowly missed a header and then Ward saved a Johnson shot. And then there was a third. Garner’s corner was met by Worrall’s header and the stadium was now absolutely wild. A superb delivery from the Manchester United midfielder, and the captain was the only one who was ever going to meet it.
Leicester were in absolute bits. Spence was denied again with five minutes to go, Forest just striding through the opposition at this point. But a rush of blood to the head saw Brice Samba come way out his box to tackle Iheanacho as he was played through by Maddison. McKenna and Cook had it covered but the Nigerian forward scored from the edge of the box.
The second half continued much in the same vein, and if there were any doubts as to Leicester turning up, let alone getting back into the game, a Spence goal after 61 minutes finished them off. Reminiscent of the old Stuart Pearce-Nigel Clough one-two, the wing-back surged through the middle of the pitch, collected the return ball from Zinckernagel in the box and slotted it past Ward.
Absolutely incredible stuff from Forest, and there was little question as to the result at this point. The Reds were completely dominant, every player on the pitch performed at their best — and you can forgive Samba’s indiscretion for the excellent saves he made at other points in the game.
Cooper, of course, will be taking each game as they come and expecting the players to perform no matter the opposition or occasion. Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday is now the focus. But yesterday was a day to relish — and there haven’t been many like that on Trentside for decades.
Cooper said: “We were excellent today. It’s a really attractive scoreline, but we were good for it. I thought we were excellent with our attacking play, particularly in the first half. We created numerous chances, scored three, Keinan hit the crossbar.
“It was annoying to give the goal away how we did, but at the same time I really liked how we dealt with it. We didn’t let it sway us too much and didn’t let it ruin our momentum. It was a really good performance, a really good result. It was one for the supporters, they were brilliant once again.”