With wins for Wolves, Everton and Leicester yesterday, victory was vital for both Forest and Leeds as the pair sat within three points of the dreaded dotted line. The Reds came into the game unbeaten in five Premier League games while Leeds were searching for their first league win since the World Cup.
Steve Cooper gave deadline day signing Keylor Navas his debut in front of the City Ground crowd while also bringing in Danilo, Morgan Gibbs-White and Chris Wood. On the back of an FA Cup triumph against Accrington, Jesse Marsch reverted to his strongest XI including young winger Wilfred Gnonto and ex-Red Patrick Bamford.
A feisty opening followed and Leeds were into Forest quickly, testing debutant Navas within the first two minutes. Luis Sinisterra found space in the box and shot from eight yards out, with the Costa Rican saving and then gathering on the second attempt.
Leeds were growing in confidence when Forest broke sharply down the right wing with Johnson wrestled down by Pascal Struijk before he could dart towards goal. Gibbs-White swung in the resulting free-kick to the back post where Struijk headed away. Johnson was lurking on the edge of the box as the ball sat up perfectly for him. He had the space. He had the time. He of course obliged, volleying powerfully into the bottom left corner to give his side an early advantage.
Despite being under the cosh for the opening stages, Forest’s star man came up with the goods once again with his third home goal in as many games.
Leeds continued with the momentum they had before the goal, looking the more assured and confident side. Gnonto was proving a threat down Williams’ side and the Italian nearly grabbed an assist on 32 minutes. From deep, Jack Harrison found Gnonto at the back post, with the winger heading across goal to find a wide-open Sinisterra. The Colombian failed to find the target as he blazed his first-time effort into the Trent End.
This would only spur the Whites on and Navas was called into action again four minutes later. Gnonto cut back from the right wing and found Bamford who spurned his first touch, as the ball luckily found overlapping full-back Luke Ayling, whose curling attempt was parried away by Forest’s ‘keeper.
An animated Marsch would be frustrated that his side would go in behind at the break, but not before yet another missed chance.
A minute before the break, Williams failed to clear with a header inside his box, pounced on by Gnonto. He sent a vicious shot goalwards, but Navas was alert to punch away from goal and maintain his new side’s lead.
Forest weren’t doing themselves any favours as they could barely string five passes together, credit to the high Leeds press. Wood was released over the top on a rare occasion that Forest beat the press, as he got to the ball on the left wing ahead of onrushing Leeds goalie Ivan Meslier. The New Zealand international delayed his ball into the box though, allowing Leeds to get bodies back and nullify the Forest threat.
Cooper reacted to a questionable first-half performance by making two half-time changes, with Jack Colback and Serge Aurier coming on and Neco Williams moved into midfield.
It was the Reds with the first chance of the second half, as Johnson sent an early ball in from the right wing, onto the head of Gibbs-White. Having a quiet game by his standards, the midfielder rushed his headed chance from the centre of the box, with Meslier claiming with ease.
Gibbs-White was growing into the game in the second half and was involved again after nine minutes, sending an early ball through to Williams who had a clear sight of goal. However, it seemed the chance fell to the wrong player as Ayling raced back to force the Welshman away from goal before he eventually got a shot away that ballooned over the bar.
Cooper’s changes had worked well with Colback and co controlling Leeds’ midfield dominance and Aurier silencing Gnonto. This was despite the away side having 75% of the ball in the second half.
Referee Robert Jones had been having a faultless day — in the eyes of Forest, at least —until 65 minutes, when Struijk had another hack at Johnson. Jones showed no second yellow card to the Dutch defender, perplexing many due to the similarity of his first booking, as he was substituted by Marsch seconds later.
Off the bench, Sam Surridge had the half’s best chance with 10 left as Gibbs-White played him in, right of centre in the box. On his right foot, the striker’s curling shot just flashed over the crossbar, a let off for Leeds who would have been dead and buried.
It was last chance saloon for the visitors when they were awarded a free-kick in stoppage time on the right wing. Everyone including Meslier came forward, but it was a Forest head who rose high to clear with Forest looking destined to pick up their third consecutive home win against Leeds United.
A Super Sunday on Trentside was confirmed by Jones’ final whistle, with the Reds reinstating their safety blanket above the relegation zone. As Cooper said post-match, it was a ‘mixed performance’, with credit to the manager for his game changing half-time subs. But a win is a win and they all count in the race to avoid relegation, as Forest continue on their rise up the table.