The Premier League’s longest streak without a win and pressure mounting from some sections of the fanbase. Forest and Steve Cooper were in need of a win to stave off the negativity surrounding them pre-match. But it wouldn’t be easy, facing a Villa side unbeaten in seven and with 15 goals in their last five Premier League games.
Cooper reverted to a back four for this one, bringing in debutant Odysseas Vlachodimos, Harry Toffolo and returning striker Taiwo Awoniyi; three changes from the defeat at Liverpool. Unbeaten in seven games against Forest, Villa named an unchanged side from their victory against Luton, their XI including returning Red Matty Cash and England striker Ollie Watkins.
As football always seems to do so finely, remembrance was observed impeccably before kick-off, remembering those who gave their today for our tomorrow.
With Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis in attendance, a spark was needed from the off. Following a wretched last 10 minutes against Luton and a rather lacklustre display at Anfield, they needed to come out and get the fans on side. From kick off Forest were on it, winning an early throw-in and also seeing Nico Dominguez strike over the crossbar.
Just the start they wanted, and a start they converted after just five minutes. Anthony Elanga broke through Aston Villa’s high line and left Cash for dead as he accelerated down the left wing. Toffolo got up with support and was played in by Elanga, the full-back sending a gorgeous ball across the penalty area that seemed to be missing everyone. Everyone except Ola Aina, who arrived on the edge of the box and fired a first-time thunderbolt low and hard along the floor, ripping into the bottom left corner.
Another early goal at the City Ground was just what the doctor ordered, a full-back combination for the goal that emphasised both Toffolo and Aina’s strong form this season.
Since October last year, Forest had only lost twice at the City Ground in the Premier League and Villa on the back foot from the off. After all, the Villains had only dropped points away from home this season, winning each of their five home games. They weren’t looking threatening in this one either, the only time Forest seemed on edge was from the six corners they faced in the first half, Villa unable to convert any.
Forest were applying the pressure and were inexplicably denied the chance to double their lead with 15 minutes gone. Dominguez dispossessed Boubacar Kamara on the edge of his box and found Awoniyi, one-on-one with Yashin award-winning ‘keeper Emily Martinez. However, as the Nigerian was about to strike, referee Jarred Gillet blew for an alleged foul from Dominguez, something that ultimately could have waited until the shot had been taken for VAR to look at.
The Reds were growing frustrated as they had multiple chances to get in behind Villa’s afore-mentioned high line, often camped on the halfway line, with four off-sides going against them in the half. Villa themselves only had one shot on target in the first 45, Vlachodimos saving from a tight angle when Nicolo Zanolio shot after 36 minutes.
With six minutes until half time, Dominguez had the perfect chance to give Forest a two-goal cushion, but failed to aim his first time effort between the goalposts. This was following a fast break down the right through Aina.
A lead Forest merited at the break, while Villa saw most of the ball it was the Reds who looked the most threatening. They knew it wouldn’t easy to hold on to a lead against Unai Emery’s side, on the weekend commemorating a year since the Spaniard took charge.
Much like the first half, Forest came out fighting in the second and after Vlachodimos took an easy save from Watkins, Forest went up the other end on 47 minutes. Toffolo was found well forward on the left and after his first cross was returned to him by Awoniyi, his second found Orel Mangala in space on the edge of the box. Cries of ‘shoot’ rang around the City Ground, listened to by the Belgian after taking a touch. A missile was fired from Mangala’s right boot, with Martinez only able to parry as the ball spun back over his head and towards his goal. He was able to spring back and attempt to clear, with the City Ground half-celebrating.
Forest’s celebrations were given the green light by referee Gillet following a quick look at his watch, Mangala’s first goal at the world famous City Ground — and what a crucial one it looked.
A goal in the 47th minute was a fitting tribute for Nottingham Panther’s Adam Johnson, with a period of applause following the celebration to remember him.
The two-goal lead gave something for Forest to hang on to, but they couldn’t afford to change style and sit on the lead, the thing that stung them against Luton. Forest’s intent to continue playing their football was replicated by Cooper, with no substitutions until 70 minutes.
Villa were always going to create danger and came closest on 68 minutes after a recycled attack fell to Moussa Diaby, his tame left-footed effort from inside the box easy for Greece’s number one to collect. The visitors were committing bodies forward and had another opening with 11 minutes to play, left back Lucas Digne firing over from inside the box on the left.
As stoppage time came ever closer, the belief and happiness in the City Ground was immense. Despite a small minority exiting early, the majority of the home crowd stood, waving scarves above their heads and chanting like there was no tomorrow. The Reds’ past two seasons were built on togetherness and the closing stages really felt like that bond was back for good.
Full-time brought back that glowing winning feeling for the first time in over two months, the Reds climbing to 12th but more importantly gathering momentum at the right time. There were so many positives to draw on; from Vlachodimos’ faultless debut, Murillo and Niakhate looking unbreakable at the back, Sangaré amongst others bossing the midfield, Elanga cooking up a storm on his 50th Premier League outing and the return of Awoniyi, to name a few.
Forest go to West Ham next Sunday in front of the Sky cameras once again, with the bit between their teeth and confidence flowing through their veins.
Cooper said: “I felt we were good for the win. Villa had a lot of the ball, they never really peppered our goal, but they’re one of the in-form teams in the league. You see where they are, the players they’ve signed and who the manager is, you know you’re coming up against a really good team.
“I thought our goals were excellent in terms of the moves. For Orel to get in that area, it’s a great strike for the second goal, and the move that led to the first goal is excellent and something we worked on in terms of getting into that area, you just want the talent to take over and for them to believe in themselves.
“There’s a lot that goes on tactically against Villa in the way they play with their box in midfield. You really have to match it, because if you don’t, they can hurt you, but tactically without the ball we were absolutely brilliant. There were some brilliant individual performances and there’s a lot of gratitude from me to them for sticking to the plan.”