One home win all season. Mounting pressure on manager Nathan Jones despite barely being through the door. A fan base turning on its club. Facing a side with zero away wins, one away goal and two away points all season. Something had to give…
For this crucial fixture, Steve Cooper named an unchanged side from the team that came back to take a well-earned draw against Chelsea on New Year’s Day, as Forest looked to extend their unbeaten Premier League record against their hosts, with all those games being played at the Dell. Southampton made three changes from their away defeat against Fulham as their line-up included set-piece specialist James Ward-Prowse and Scottish striker Ché Adams.
From kick-off, the travelling Forest faithful dominated St. Mary’s in the hope their side could defeat Southampton and move further up the table in this crucial clash. Early on, the game was very back and forth with neither team taking the game by the scruff of the neck.
It would be the hosts who had the game’s first chance, and what a big one it was. Six minutes in, wing-back Kyle Walker-Peters lifted a lovely ball over the top of Forest’s back line where Adams was too quick for centre-backs Joe Worrall and Willy Boly. Inside the right channel, Adams let the ball drop kindly but failed to get his half-volley on target from inside the box. A glaring miss from the striker and a huge let off for the visitors.
Five minutes later it would be Forest that spurned a huge chance of their own through a bright-looking Brennan Johnson. It came from deep, with a lovely one-two between Orel Mangala and Remo Freuler, allowing the former to send Taiwo Awoniyi striding down the left wing. After muscling off Armel Bella-Kotchap, the Nigerian cut inside and sent a ball across the penalty area. Morgan Gibbs-White dummied allowing Ryan Yates to have a stab at goal. His scuffed effort fell to the feet of Johnson well forward on the right who, after controlling, sent a wild close-range shot cannoning off the crossbar and away from goal.
Two early sights of goal from both teams, both should have ended up in the back of the net.
Saints captain Ward-Prowse had his first sniff of goal from a dangerous set piece after 17 minutes. It followed a Walker-Peters cross from the right wing and Mohammed Elyounoussi managed to draw a cheap foul from Yates. Left of centre, Ward-Prowse tried to pick out the top-left corner but his strike sailed over, much to the relief of the nervous travelling support behind the goal.
A lively game was unfolding, with both sides not scared to get foward and neither really settling or getting into a rhythm. Both teams looked pretty even and it seemed like it would be a mistake or something special that would break the stalemate.
And a mistake it was, with Forest capitalising on a Southampton defensive error. Under pressure, defender Lyanco slipped and surrendered possession to an eager Johnson who began his scorching sprint forward. He seemed to arc his run away from goal but for a good cause, allowing Awoniyi to race goalwards with him and find space in the box. Johnson obliged and picked out the poacher Awoniyi, bagging his fourth of the season, slotting home from five yards.
An away goal? An away lead? You just could not blame the visiting fans for bursting out with uncontrollable joy.
Despite a decent reaction from Southampton, the chances kept coming Forest’s way, with Gibbs-White bringing them forward on the left side. His cross met the head of Yates in the box, who couldn’t generate the power to trouble ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu with nine minutes until the break.
Johnson had his marker on toast throughout the first half and it was a shame that Forest’s midfield couldn’t give the ball to him as often as they’d have liked to. Left wing-back Romain Perraud’s frustration boiled over just before the break, as the two were involved in a tussle summing up the host’s frustrations in a first half controlled by Forest.
However, Forest come out in the second half looking lethargic. They did have a half-chance just after the restart, as Awoniyi latched onto a loose ball but saw his chipped first-time effort sail over the crossbar.
From here, Southampton would take control of the game, largely down to Forest’s inability to clear the ball or hold onto it when they regained possession. This poor start was reflected in the stats, as the hosts had 75% of the ball in the opening 15 minutes of the second half.
Forest were lucky that they were playing a team as poor as Southampton, who failed to capitalise on endless set-piece openings and huge periods of play with the ball. Substitute Joe Aribo had the Saints’ best sight of goal after 67 minutes, who cut inside from the right wing but saw his left-footed attempt blocked by Renan Lodi.
With 20 minutes to play, it was finally Scarpa time. Morgan Gibbs-White was replaced by Gustavo Scarpa, the fiery attacking midfielder who was warmly welcomed by the Forest fans, who have been anticipating his appearance after his arrival from Brazilian side Palmeiras. Goal-scoring hero Awoniyi also worryingly left the pitch limping, replaced by Sam Surridge.
Signed for his attacking excellence, Scarpa would have to show his defensive resolve as his team continued to invite the hosts onto them. He had his first attacking involvement after 77 minutes when Forest countered through Johnson, with the Brazilian seeing a shot blocked on the edge of the box.
Scarpa would show his brilliance with a sweeping cross-field ball with five minutes to play, wonderfully picking out sub Neco Williams on the right with a pass that only he could see was on. The move was completed when Serge Aurier saw a wild shot fly over the bar from just outside the box.
Despite a late, attacking formation change from Southampton, they would cause Forest’s defence no trouble in four minutes of stoppage time, as Forest were able to claim their first away win of the season — it was about time!
There were different emotions for two managers, with Saints fans often joining the Forest crowd in slating manager Jones while the fist bumps returned for a joyous Steve Cooper. Not their finest performance, but when it was all about getting three points, Forest did that, propelling themselves into 15th place in the process.