Nottingham Forest fight back to gain point against Chelsea

Nottingham Forest came from behind to grab a draw against Chelsea, with an inspired second-half performance, in the Reds’ first game of the New Year. George Edwards reports from the City Ground

2022 was the year of the Red. The year that Nottingham Forest climbed back to the Premier League after a 23-year absence. And while 2022 was about confidence and expression, 2023 must be about stability and progression.

For the New Year’s opening ceremony, Steve Cooper made two changes to the side that was defeated at Old Trafford last Tuesday. Dean Henderson was reintroduced alongside Morgan Gibbs-White, replacing the injured Jesse Lingard. Cesar Azpilicueta for Reece James was the only change for the visitors from their victory over Bournemouth, as they searched for their first away Premier League win in three.

With most Forest games it becomes pretty clear early on that they aren’t too fussed about having possession, but prefer to be direct with their attacks when they have the ball. The hosts would go on to have only 28% possession, but would dominate the rest of the stats. Forest frustrated Chelsea in the opening minutes, only once being exposed by a long ball from defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who picked out Mason Mount. The England midfielder could only balloon his effort into the Bridgford End.

This Forest patience would pay off with 10 minutes gone, as they were presented with the game’s first big chance. After Chelsea spurned possession, some quick forward passing from Willy Boly and Taiwo Awoniyi allowed Gibbs-White to release Brennan Johnson in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, sprinting away from the Chelsea backline. However, a poor touch at high speed forced the Welshman onto his left foot and despite having two bites at the cherry, found Kepa Arrizabalaga in the way both times.

Johnson would show his blistering pace again four minutes later, as he burst down the right wing latching onto a through ball from Ryan Yates. His early cross found Gibbs-White in the box, who saw his first-time effort blocked instantly by Azpilicueta.

Despite being by far the better team in the opening stages, the hosts would fall behind after 15 minutes via a horror show at the back. Christian Pulisic played a one-two with Mount on the left wing, sending the American into acres of space down that side. After being casually approached by Joe Worrall, Pulisic cut inside and sent a low ball towards the near post where Willy Boly got a flick. Instead of following the ball, Henderson was caught stargazing and when the deflected effort bounced faintly off the crossbar, Raheem Sterling gobbled up the chance to lash home from five yards.

Chelsea’s goal took the wind out of Forest’s sails, as the visitors became even slower and patient on the ball with the hosts seemingly afraid of falling further behind. The remaining half an hour lacked any heart from both sides, as questionable refereeing became the centre of attention in a dull 30 minutes.

Looking ahead to the second half, Forest couldn’t let yet another 45 minutes drift away from them, looking like passengers. Instead of being passive, they had to play like they did before the Chelsea goal, with courage and belief.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Only two minutes into the second half, Awoniyi snatched at a decent opportunity to bring his side level. Remo Freuler slipped a cute ball into the Nigerian’s feet who, on the turn in the box on the left, could only force Kepa into a comfortable save.

Forest wouldn’t rest on their laurels and would carve out another opening two minutes later. Yet another fast breakaway, with Gibbs-White releasing Johnson away on the right. From the halfway line, Johnson darted towards goal and saw a brilliant central run from Awoniyi cut off by a recovering Thiago Silva. Johnson had to go for goal then, with Kepa making his best save of the game to deny Johnson who was looking to find the far post from a tight angle.

Relentless attack just wasn’t resulting in a goal, and Gibbs-White would be the next to have his head in his hands after 54 minutes. An overlapping Yates run would result in the midfielder — on his 150th appearance for the club — zipping a fine low cross towards Gibbs-White on the edge of the box. A first-time thunderbolt would fly from his boot, with the ball crashing off the underside of the bar and bouncing agonisingly away from goal.

More chaos in the Chelsea box came two minutes later from a floated Gibbs-White delivery. Awoniyi first saw an attempted return pass to Gibbs-White blocked when the ball fell to Johnson. He sent a cross towards the back post where Serge Aurier whacked a first-time shot well over the crossbar.

Everything about this second-half performance was perfect. Forest were direct, they were exploiting the pace deficit between their attacking players and Chelsea’s ageing centre-back pairing and they were playing with urgency. The ball just wouldn’t cross the line.

Eventually, though, it did.

A truly deserved equaliser came with 63 minutes played from another Gibbs-White cross. His corner was met at the near post by Havertz, with Forest’s Boly winning the second ball. Boly’s knockdown flew straight at the chest of Aurier, who showed brilliant composure to chest down and then fling himself acrobatically in the air to smash the ball home and send the City Ground into raptures.

Attacking wise, Forest had been immaculate in the second half. In the remaining half an hour, the defence would show their class, with excellent performances being put in by Boly and Worrall. The duo were first to every ball, passed with confidence and limited the visitors to just one shot in the entire half.

That chance came with nine minutes to go, as two Chelsea substitutes combined. Fresh from a sparkling World Cup, Hakim Ziyech sent a hopeful cross from deep up towards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the back post. The Gabonese striker got there ahead of Aurier but failed to get a meaningful touch on it as the ball sailed behind for a goal kick.

Chelsea were there for the taking. They offered nothing in the second half and Forest would’ve been worthy winners had they scored again. This feeling was supported by Steve Cooper, with the late introduction of Sam Surridge to try and force that elusive winner.

A winning goal wouldn’t come for either team as the points were shared on Trentside. Forest had shown themselves more than anything that if they play with a bit of confidence and belief, they can give anyone in this league a good game. That positive outlook is what carried them over the line last season and it is a mindset that needs to be instilled in the current crop of players. The quality is there, it just needs to be shown more.

Cooper said: “If anybody deserved to win the game, it should have been us. If you look at the chances in the game, we created the real chances and their goal is slightly unfortunate. We were good tactically in the first half but didn’t show enough aggression.

“Second half we changed our mentality, our aggression and we timed our press better and that led to the better performance. We know we have players that can make a difference, we’re positive about the good things we did but also frustrated because it could’ve been a win.

“It does give you belief, it gives you reference points and we’re going to continue to improve. The belief was good but that has to be the minimum now going into the game against Southampton.”

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