Nottingham Forest breezed past Championship side Blackburn Rovers to advance into the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup, in the Reds’ first competitive game since mid-November. George Edwards reports from Ewood Park
From Messi to McKenna. Griezmann to Gibbs-White. Freuler to… Freuler. The names that had left our minds for a month or so came flooding back with the much-awaited return of club football. A Blackburn away game brought back warming memories of last season; even more so based on Forest’s six-year unbeaten record at Ewood Park.
Steve Cooper named a reasonably strong XI — including Dean Henderson, Brennan Johnson and Taiwo Awoniyi — with only four personnel changes from their Premier League victory against Crystal Palace. It would be interesting to see how a relatively strong Forest side would fare against a seemingly weakened Blackburn team, with manager Jon Dahl Tomasson making a full 11 changes from their win against Norwich last Saturday.
Kick off was delayed by 15 minutes due to traffic on the outskirts, giving the 6,576 away following even more time to make Ewood Park feel like their home ground — with just the extra 109 miles to travel.
The visitors first opening came after six minutes when Blackburn pressed them into a difficult position near their own corner flag. A neat bit of forward passing from Joe Worrall into Neco Williams was followed by a wonderfully flighted ball forward to Brennan Johnson from the Welsh full-back. Johnson sprung away from his marker and after a pacey run forward elected to try and find goal from a tight angle, finding ‘keeper Aynsley Pears in the way, ignoring the free Awoniyi in the middle.
Pears was just warming up, as he would be a busy man over the course of the 90 minutes, facing a total of 27 shots by the end of the game.
Johnson was able to find Awoniyi in the middle three minutes later, presenting the Nigerian with a one-on-one with Pears, with the goalie doing well to get out early and block the chipped shot.
It was all Forest in the opening exchanges and with 11 minutes gone they were gifted a golden chance to take the lead. Freuler made a good interception deep in midfield and sent an early ball through for Johnson. After skipping past one challenge and advancing into the penalty area, he was tripped by Rovers defender Scott Wharton, with referee Robert Jones having no choice but to point to the spot.
Could Johnson recreate the penalty goal he scored at this venue just 10 months ago? Of course he could, calmly sending Pears the wrong way and dispatching into the left corner of the net.
A much-deserved goal for Johnson, who had been at the heart of everything good about Forest’s performance so far. And the visitors’ dominance down the right wing would continue throughout the half, with numerous chances being created for Awoniyi that were spurned by the striker.
Despite a slight lapse in Forest’s dominance midway through the half, they were on top throughout the 45 minutes and should have been at least another goal up before the break.
You have to take your chances, and Forest were pegged back level just before the half-time interval, with the Wharton brothers combining. A controversial free kick was awarded to the visitors on the left wing, swung in by younger brother Adam and met by older brother Scott. He headed powerfully in at the near post with supposed marker Worrall nowhere to be seen; Wharton atoning for his earlier foul in the box.
1-1 was not a fair reflection of Forest’s first-half ascendancy, but after missing an array of chances, they had to push on and ensure they got over the line in the second.
The Reds’ first opening of the second half came seven minutes after the restart on the counter attack, when Lingard danced through some challenges and was brought down by what looked like the last man Wharton, five yards outside the area. Fired up by the seeming injustice of only a yellow card for Wharton, Lingard regained Forest’s lead from the resulting free-kick. Williams slid in Lingard who drove a low shot goalwards, getting lucky with a deflection off the wall which saw the ball fly past Pears and into the far corner.
From this moment on Forest allowed Blackburn to keep the ball in their own half, pouncing on them if they got anywhere near their goal and slowing the tempo of the game when in possession. A bouncing travelling support continued to dominate Ewood Park, it was certainly good to be back.
Lingard came close to a second midway through the half. After a nice one-two with Johnson down the line, Lingard sent a close-range strike into the midriff of Pears, with the ricochet cleared before a lurking Awoniyi could pounce. A third goal looked certain when Johnson himself had an opportunity, meeting Toffolo’s cross from the left but saw his looping header tipped away by a sprawling ‘keeper with 15 to play.
That third goal finally came Forest’s way and at last it was Awoniyi on the scoresheet with 11 minutes remaining. Lingard was involved yet again, slipping the striker through on goal. He shrugged off the defender with ease and coolly slotted home into the bottom right corner with the inside of his right foot. Sixth time lucky for Awoniyi, after failing to score with his previous five efforts.
Blackburn’s only shot of the half came in the 90th minute from a free-kick on the right, with Ryan Hedges tamely giving Henderson catching practice.
Forest ensured they rounded the game off with style as Johnson deservedly grabbed his brace. Substitute Sam Surridge fed Johnson through down the right wing, as he latched onto it on the right side of the box, and slotted cooly and emphatically across the goalie and into the bottom right corner, rounding the move off with the perfect knee slide.
These types of games can be potential banana skins, but Forest made sure they got the job done in style, reaching the last eight for the first time since 1994. The perfect dress rehearsal for their visit back to the north-west in just four days.