The bottom two clashed at the City Ground, with every game seeming to be a relegation showdown. On the back of a 5-1 victory for Everton earlier in the day, this certainly was.
A single change was made from the defeat at Brentford as Ryan Yates returned with the armband in place of Joe Worrall, with the Reds reverting to a back four. Southampton were looking for their first win in 10; four of their six wins this season have been on the road.
The visitors kicked off proceedings and it was they who had the game’s first real chance after nine minutes through Scotland international Che Adams. He was found by Theo Walcott in the box and seemed to have a clear strike on goal, until a last-ditch block by centre-back Felipe saved his side.
Rain was teaming down on the banks of the River Trent, the gloomy night summing up both sides’ murky seasons. There had been a bit more sunshine for the hosts this campaign though, with them knowing a win would take them to 16th.
Southampton knew that a defeat would pretty much relegate them, so they threw everything at it early on. However, this left them vulnerable to a counter attack, somewhere Forest excel.
With 19 minutes played, they proved this with a wonderfully connected move. In-form midfielder Danilo flighted a ball right wing for Johnson, who left defender Ainsley Maitland-Niles for dead. Just inside the area, his first-time ball was latched onto by striker Taiwo Awoniyi, the Nigerian’s effort too powerful for Alex McCarthy in the Saints goal.
This was just the beginning that the Reds needed. And they were only getting started.
From a relatively even contest, the game swung firmly in Forest’s favour just three minutes after their first goal, as they grabbed a second. Southampton failed to clear inside their penalty area and a poke forward from Danilo fell into the path of Awoniyi again, a clinical finish followed into the roof of the net.
A manic few moments were rounded off after 25 minutes when Southampton pulled one back. Forest squandered possession on halfway allowing the visitors to break five on three. Adams drove goalwards and found Stuart Armstrong on the left wing. A goal similar to Forest’s first, the Scot’s first-time low ball found Alcaraz at the far post, with the striker cutely tucking home for 2-1.
Elation to panic in seconds — supporting Forest is rarely easy.
Another Forest breakaway nearly found their third after 35 minutes, Johnson at the heart of it again. His run down the right saw Forest with two free men in the middle but a Jan Bednarek block saved his lucky side from falling further behind.
The Reds just kept coming though and won a penalty with a minute until stoppage time in the first half. Gibbs-White’s touch failed to find Johnson but he was able to get his foot ahead of Maitland-Niles’ attempted clearance, hacking down the Welshman and forcing Michael Oliver to point to the spot.
Johnson and Gibbs-White both on the pitch and Awoniyi on a hattrick, there was a conundrum as to who would take it. But there was never any doubt in Gibbs-White’s mind, as he took responsibility and blasted straight down the middle, Alex McCarthy diving out of the way.
A frantic first half left a positive feeling in the minds of the majority at the City Ground, but would it continue?
Five minutes into the second half, the fear came flooding back.
Another goal was pulled back by the Saints and no surprise it was from a James Ward-Prowse delivery. His corner was met by the head of Lyanco who planted his header low and found the net, too powerful for Keylor Navas.
Confidence and momentum was diminished and transferred to the Saints, looking for their fifth away win of the season. Southampton had been first to many crosses throughout the game and they always threatened to make one count.
A free-flowing exchange between Johnson and Gibbs-White down the right on 62 minutes saw Forest’s first second-half chance, McCarthy palming the latter’s cross away from goal.
Fourteen goals had been scored in the other two Premier League matches earlier in the day, and this riveting City Ground contest certainly carried in that trend.
The next goal seemed crucial and with 17 minutes to play it came.
After falling over, substitute Cheikhou Kouyaté found Johnson surging forward on the right, the Welshman in turn sent a low ball across the box. A cute Gibbs-White flick fell to the composed feet of Danilo, who crashed his effort into the Trent End goal and darted away with his trademark pistol celebration; his third goal in as many games.
The Saints would be disheartened to be behind, as they ended up having 12 second half-shots compared to Forest’s two — but it’s the goals that count.
Navas made a good save with four to play, diving low to his right to keep out substitute Sulemana from close range. Three minutes later Forest thought they had a fifth as Felipe was found by a deep Gibbs-White free kick before controlling and finishing clinically, but VAR ruled him to have been a yard offside.
As the game entered stoppage time, Forest chose to do it the hard way, conceding a penalty with minutes to play. It was substitute Sam Surridge who allegedly clipped Romeo Lavia, with his captain Ward-Prowse mirroring Gibbs-White’s earlier spot kick and blasting down the middle.
Wins never seem to come easy for Forest, and neither did this one. But after over 10 long minutes of added time, the whistle blew and the party started. The win sees Forest lead the way ahead of the five sides that are likely to be relegated, and brings them ever closer to achieving survival.
Forest are not safe, far from it, but have taken one giant step in that direction at their feared fortress.