And so it came down to the final three games. The Reds have seemed to come into form at the right time, picking up six points from their last available nine. But with two of the three remaining games away from home and the prospect of hosting Arsenal inbetween, points had to come from their remaining two games on the road.
A single change was made by Steve Cooper from the side that beat Southampton, as Brennan Johnson was dropped in favour of Joe Worrall, a back three preferred for this fixture by the Welsh manager. Having mathematically secured Premier League survival last weekend, Chelsea boss Frank Lampard made five changes including in goal, where Senegalese stopper Edouard Mendy started for the first time since the ex-Derby boss retook the reins.
Packed together in the Shed End of Chelsea’s 40,000-seater stadium, Forest’s travelling contingent were at their best from kick off, aiming to assist their team in ending a run of seven straight away defeats. The hosts had all of the ball but not much idea early on, with Forest looking more threatening on the break and from set pieces.
The game’s first real chance came on 13 minutes after some nice play in Forest’s midfield. Orel Mangala nicked possession back and his tackle found Danilo in space, the in-form Brazilian in turn finding his countryman Renan Lodi in space on the left wing. Lodi’s cross hung in the air before Taiwo Awoniyi rose in between the Blues’ defence and nodded confidently into the empty net.
Early limbs in the away end, Awoniyi’s seventh goal of his Premier League season — all but one of them have been the opening goal. And of those five previous opening goals the Reds had won in four, so could the Nigerian’s touch prove to be golden once again?
Joe Worrall made a goal-saving challenge to deny Raheem Sterling after 17 minutes, as the England international controlled in the box and was about to shoot when a sliding Worrall toed the ball away from Sterling; a crucial challenge the skipper could not get wrong.
The hosts saw a few efforts blocked from Nathanial Chalobah and Mateo Kovacic over the next few minutes, but nothing to really trouble Forest who looked reasonably comfortable with their lead. Their first meaningful effort came through £106 million man Enzo Fernandez, who sent a 25-yard free kick wildly over the crossbar, never troubling Keylor Navas.
Navas would be troubled on 33 minutes though, following young left-back Lewis Hall’s attack down their left. After he skipped past Serge Aurier, the Englishman flighted a lovely cross right onto the head of Joao Felix, Navas making a class diving catch to deny Chelsea the leveller.
A reasonably uneventful 15 minutes at the Bridge followed as half time creeped upon us, the most entertainment Reds fans gained was taunting Lampard and his connection to a certain rival of theirs. Chelsea hadn’t done much to make Forest sweat, with their solid back five reducing the hosts to just the one clear chance. You did just feel there were goals in this one though, a feeling that was certainly proved right.
Four minutes into the second half, Forest crafted a corner following a blocked Danilo cross and so nearly made it count. Felipe flicked it on and into a congested penalty area, Moussa Niakhaté coming closest to connecting as the ball bounced fractionally wide.
Chelsea broke forward from the resulting goal kick and finally found the right combination to unlock the resilient Forest defence. Noni Madueke slipped in advanced full-back Chalobah on the byline, who sent a flashing ball back into the box, his ball evading everyone but Sterling who coolly caressed past Navas.
Forest went into the game with a better home record than Chelsea this season, the Blues on the back of six defeats at home, but knowing their poor away form was firmly the worst of the 20 Premier League teams. Something would give in West London.
Having been passive in the first 45, the early Chelsea goal sparked them into life.
Connor Gallagher had a strike from 25 yards collected by Navas after he was found by Hall, following Mangala surrendering possession on 55 minutes. Forest then failed again to play out from the back just a minute later and allowed Félix to get a sight of goal, his strike looked to be nestling in the top corner but dropped just over Navas’s crossbar. Just.
The pressure was constant and Chelsea were rewarded for their hounding of Forest on 58 minutes. Substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek won the ball on halfway and sent Sterling off on goal. After cutting inside and sitting Felipe down, the experienced winger guided a curled shot beyond Navas and into the far-right corner.
Chelsea looked like they could run away with it, but that wouldn’t happen on the travelling fans’ watch, vocal as ever in their support of their side.
That support would be given another moment to shout about just after the hour from yet another Niakhaté throw — always a threat. After the initial throw was cleared, Mangala hoisted the ball back into the danger area and a stretching Awoniyi was able to get his head on it, sealing a thrilling start to the second half.
Awoniyi’s second brace in as many matches, the Nigerian has now doubled his goal tally for the season in his last two games.
Renan Lodi had a couple of chances in the minutes after the goal, his first on 67 when a low shot from the edge of the box rolled wide. His second came four minutes later and following a throw, the ball sat up nicely for him to volley and after deceivingly heading for the top corner, his effort flew just wide.
The final moments of matches always seem to be nail biting in Forest games- and this one was no different. A point makes a huge difference at the bottom of the table, so nerves flooded the travelling support as their team battled hard to hold on to a point.
However, a crucial away draw was secured following five minutes of additional time, a united applause followed from both players and supporters, both certainly merited the point. Forest now sit three points above the dotted line going into their tie with Arsenal, with two matches remaining for them to win the race for survival.
Cooper said: “If we end up where we want to be, I think we’ll look back at today and be more than satisfied with it. You see the team Chelsea have and the subs they can make changes with, and away from home, it was always going to be a really tough game, so for the players to commit to the plan we put in place, to show desire, attitude and togetherness they did were real positives.
“I think there’s also disappointment in the dressing room about what could have been, which I like. That’s the culture we are trying to create here. It’s mixed feelings of working really hard to get something out of the game and being satisfied with that, but then at the same time knowing that it could have been different.
“The goals probably sum up what I’m saying with how hard we’ve had to work for ours through strategies and set pieces, but although they were two good finishes from Raheem Sterling, we’ll look at it and think about how we let them in too easily.
“We don’t blame anyone, we do everything together, which has been a big strength of ours this season. You can see it on the pitch, the culture and togetherness of the group is at a maximum which we’ll need for the final two games.”