Bottom of the league. One win from 11. Seven goals all season. Things weren’t looking rosy at the City Ground. That was until Liverpool came to town…
Two changes were made by Steve Cooper from the goalless draw at Brighton in midweek, as Cheikhou Kouyaté replaced Orel Mangala and Taiwo Awoniyi started up top, meaning Brennan Johnson missed out on the starting line-up for the first time in the league this season. Jürgen Klopp made five changes for the visitors, fielding a seemingly weakened side despite the inclusion of Mohamed Salah.
Forest kicked off as both sides searched for a win that would top off a decent week for both teams. From the off, it was clear that something was different. Forest were on the front foot, chasing Liverpool after every pass and making them see that they would have a tough 90 minutes ahead of them.
Despite this strong start, Liverpool had the game’s first opportunity. A searching long ball from Harvey Elliot after eight minutes found fellow youngster Fabio Carvalho in the penalty area. He brought the ball down easily and saw a near-post effort put behind by Dean Henderson for a corner. Forest then cleared for another where Roberto Firmino met James Milner’s delivery but headed well wide from close range.
The sell-out City Ground crowd were pleasantly surprised by their team’s opening 20 minutes and they crafted their first opening with 19 gone. Ryan Yates regained possession with an excellent sliding challenge and allowed Forest to break. He found Jesse Lingard on the right who fed through for Awoniyi. The Nigerian managed to play in Kouyaté on the edge of the box but his shot was tame and into the hands of Liverpool stopper Alisson.
Awoniyi then had a chance of his own after 24 minutes, as Forest broke quickly after winning possession again, this time from Scott McKenna. The Scot found Awoniyi deep in the Liverpool half on the left and sent Joe Gomez backtracking as he drove infield. As he approached the edge of the box, he cut inside onto his right foot but his shot was easy for Alisson to gather.
The hosts were in the visitors’ faces, pressing with intensity, passing with ambition and defending with authority. Something not seen all season by the Forest faithful.
And the Forest chances kept coming, but again the attacking blade was blunt. This time with half an hour played, Awoniyi broke forwards and found Lingard in space inside the penalty area. On his weaker foot, he couldn’t find enough power to beat Alisson, the busiest of the two ‘keepers at this stage.
On 38 minutes, Liverpool had an amazing chance to take an undeserved lead. After Forest cleared the initial corner, Milner swung in a perfect ball to the back post right onto Virgil van Dijk’s head. The Dutchman tried to head across goal for a teammate when everyone else in the ground was expecting him to try and find goal, meaning Forest cleared.
As half time came upon us, it was clear there was a drastic difference in Forest’s play. While Liverpool didn’t look like their fiery best, Forest had been brilliant. They looked competitive which they hadn’t-for the majority of the season, and there seemed to be an understanding between the group of players, something again lacking this campaign. But they couldn’t afford to let their standards drop.
The first chance of the half came to the visitors after six minutes, as a deep free kick dropped to Mo Salah but a poor touch saw the chance fade for the Egyptian. The ricochet fell to Carvalho who blasted well over the crossbar.
With eight minutes played of the second half, Awoniyi — a handful for Liverpool’s defence all game — pounced on a loose Gomez touch on halfway and was seemingly clean through on goal. Gomez had no choice but to hack Awoniyi down, receiving a booking. Chance gone then, or was it?
From the resulting free-kick, Morgan Gibbs-White found Steve Cook peeling off at the far post. From the right-hand side, he leathered a sumptuous delivery into a crowded penalty area. The cross was played goalwards by Awoniyi but only onto the post. And guess who met the rebound? Yes, the man who was involved in everything Forest were doing well, Awoniyi. He couldn’t miss, slamming high into the net from two yards out and sending the City Ground into delirium.
An excellent piece of anticipation from the striker, as Forest scored the first goal for the fifth match this season, only going on to win one. However, this day was starting to feel different from the rest.
The Liverpool onslaught was always going to come and from kick-off they worked an opening. Milner drifted in from the right wing and found Elliot in the box, forcing Henderson into a smart near-post save.
From the resulting corner, Forest went up the other end and nearly doubled the lead they’d just got. Awoniyi sprung past Gomez and found Lingard racing down the right wing. He did well to get his head up to find Gibbs-White at the far post, who couldn’t convert after taking too long to get his shot away, blocked brilliantly over the bar by a sliding Milner.
A frantic few minutes was followed by changes from both managers, as Cooper elected to try and secure the much-needed points, introducing Joe Worrall and Brennan Johnson. Awoniyi was given a standing ovation by the City Ground crowd as he departed, putting in arguably his best shift in the red shirt.
Johnson had an effort merely minutes after coming on, as Kouyaté — also having his best game in the Garibaldi — played a nice one-two with Gibbs-White and attacked down the left wing. He found Johnson at the near post but he couldn’t get his left-footed shot past Alisson.
The City Ground was in fine voice as its supporters sung relentlessly, looking to get their team over the line in what would be a statement victory.
With six minutes to play, Andy Robertson broke free down the left-hand side and found his fellow full-back and sub Alexander-Arnold arriving at the far post. His header was straight at Henderson, who still had to be alert to push away from goal, not the last time he’d be called into action.
Forest had the chance to seal it two minutes later. Gibbs-White danced away from Gomez and played in an advancing Yates with a lovely dink. In the area on the left, he sent a venomous effort goalwards, denied only by a world class save from Alisson who was advancing.
As five minutes of stoppage time began, you just thought Liverpool would have one more chance. And that came when Alisson trundled forward for a corner.
Robertson curled in and van Dijk met his cross. A free header that was going in. That was until Henderson pulled a worldie out of his hat, diving like a cat to his left to keep out Liverpool and preserve the host’s precious lead.
Minutes later, Liverpool had another corner that Forest were able to clear and counter attack towards an open goal. However, they couldn’t convert, with Johnson’s eventual shot from 40 yards cannoning off the post before the offside flag was raised.
Liverpool got lucky there but just seconds later, the full-time whistle blew. Forest had pulled off a staggering victory against 12 men at times, as referee Paul Tierney seemed to give Forest less and less as the game went on.
Nonetheless, an excellent Forest performance was merited with three points, a feeling not felt since August. The team looked like they had an understanding of each other like never before, and there were real glimpses of the Forest of last season. Their first thought when winning the ball was to attack, complimented by a resilient defensive display. Playing against Liverpool, chances will always be conceded, but Forest can thank Henderson for two class saves in particular, and be content they stuck one of their numerous chances into the net.
The better team won and alongside a courageous team performance, individuals shone through as well. Henderson’s heroics have been discussed while Cook and McKenna continue to build a solid partnership at the back. Aurier and Williams kept their wingers quiet and the midfield is starting to look a lot more competitive and fast paced. Finally, they had an attacking threat with fluid and fast football, spearheaded by Awoniyi.
Liverpool’s winless Premier League record at the City Ground was further extended into the 21st century, as this performance must be a building block for the season. The Reds looked like a Premier League team and with a manager who loves everything about the club, better things are surely ahead.