Nottingham Forest concede four as Aston Villa cement place in top four

Despite goals either side of half time, Nottingham Forest were outclassed as they lost 4-2 to Aston Villa — the Reds’ 14th loss of the season leaving them just four points above the relegation places. George Edwards reports from Villa Park

A goal fest at Villa Park sounds familiar. Much like that famous 5-5 meeting between the sides in 2018, Forest were very much the underdogs against an outstanding side who would be an immense challenge.

Forest’s win over Villa in November last year was their only victory in a stretch of 14 games, a victory that, in isolation, was huge, but was ultimately lost in a field of red L’s. Optimism could be drawn from victory over West Ham last weekend, but the quality posed by Villa this time was undoubted and a step above.

Their excellence became clear as the match unfolded, breezing past Forest for the majority. That said, Forest had chances, as they always seem to do under Nuno Espírito Santo, but there was always a sense that Villa would get the job done in the end.

Nuno made a single change from that win over the Hammers, as an injured Nuno Tavares dropped out of the matchday squad and was replaced by Moussa Niakhaté, who would fill in at left-back. After 17 home games undefeated, Villa have lost their last two at home, their line-up included former Red Matty Cash and the in-form Ollie Watkins.

The Reds kept their first clean sheet against West Ham since that 2-0 win in November, but a blemish would come in this one after just four minutes. Forest hadn’t had a kick at this point as Villa patiently waited for the Forest mistake, and it came when the out-of-position Niakhaté raced up the wing and vacated space behind him, allowing Leon Bailey to get in behind. John McGinn found the winger and as Murillo approached, Bailey was cool. He popped the ball inside the defender and picked out Watkins, who couldn’t miss from two yards out.

An early kick in the teeth for the travelling Reds, in search of their first win at Villa Park this century. Perhaps the best Villa side we’ve seen in that time, the Villains suited the lead and were happy to be patient with the ball.

They had plenty of chances and forced a near-post save from Matz Sels and a goal-line clearance from Niakhaté to keep the score at one. Forest broke forward on occasion and tricky play from wingers Anthony Elanga and Callum Hudson-Odoi failed to result in anything meaningful in front of goal.

But it looked a matter of time until Villa extended their lead, which they did just before 30 minutes, virtually the same goal conceded again by Forest. Again, Niakhaté’s poor positioning allowed space on the right. Again, Murillo failed to close down the winger, Cash this time, and again, it was far too easy for the hosts, as Cash found Jacob Ramsay, who swivelled and played in Douglas Luiz. The Brazilian dispatched first time into the far corner from the penalty spot, assuring the Holte End that the home side meant business today.

The visitor’s issue was things were being done individually rather than collectively. Only Taiwo Awoniyi would press, no one would follow. Hudson-Odoi had a decent chance to run goalwards but held onto it too long and the chance was gone. They were just being outclassed.

A third goal didn’t seem a million miles away and it came with six minutes of the half to play, Luiz on the scoresheet for a second time. Forest cleared from a corner but it came straight back, McGinn with the ball on the right. He went from his left foot to his right and delivered, Luiz first to it as he nodded into the near corner, sealing a first half of dominance for the hosts.

But a bitter taste would be left in their mouths at the break, as Forest pulled one back with seconds left of the first half. A Morgan Gibbs-White corner found Awoniyi who powered a header towards the far post. Niakhaté was well forward and managed to get to the ball, chesting over the line for 3-1.

The goal gave Forest less of a mountain to climb at the break and came after their best spell of the game. If they were going to get back level they had to carry this momentum into the second half, as the manager made three changes at the break.

Forest defenders Murillo and Felipe were replaced by Andrew Omobamidele and Harry Toffolo, with Niakhaté returning to his preferred position. Divock Origi also came on at the break in place of Awoniyi, providing the Reds with a tad more pace as Elanga went down the middle.

Origi’s impact was felt almost instantly as Forest scored again inside three second half minutes, the Belgian pounced on the ball when Elanga was tackled and looked for a forward pass. Origi slipped through for Gibbs-White who beat the offside trap and got to the ball ahead of ‘keeper Emi Martinez, chipping confidently over the goalie to spark raucous celebrations in the Doug Ellis Stand.

Game on.

And didn’t we know it. Just a minute or so later, Forest had a huge chance to score three goals in the space of seven minutes and level the match. Origi integral again, a through ball for Elanga in the box but the Swede panicked and dragged his shot well wide of the bottom left corner. A big let off for Villa but Forest had to keep pressing while they had the confidence and momentum.

You felt that once Villa clicked back into gear they would become immovable once again. Shortly after Elanga’s miss, Villa had one of their own as Youri Tielemans’ strike crashed off the outside of the post, following neat play on the left from Alex Moreno.

Forest remained optimistic, but their confidence would prove fatal as they were pounced upon after making a mistake playing out from the back. On the hour, Omobamidele’s loose ball was latched onto by Tielemans, who in turn looked to play in Watkins. The striker let it run ahead of him, allowing Sels to sprawl in an attempt to claim, only opening the door for Watkins to return the favour Bailey gave him earlier, squaring for the Jamaican who tapped in from five yards.

No sooner than they got back into the game were Forest seemingly out of it again. But they sustained belief and came close to making it 4-3 straight from the restart as Hudson-Odoi fluffed his lines. Williams and Danilo combined as the former crossed for Hudson-Odoi, who slipped and cannoned his effort high and wide.

That was the closest Forest came to denting the hosts’ two-goal lead, although substitute Ryan Yates ought to have done better with a chance on 75 minutes. Gibbs-White delivered a free kick and Yates exposed Villa’s high line by connecting, his left-footed volley landing well wide.

Neco Williams provided some excellent last-ditch defending late on to ensure the score didn’t become five, a game that largely petered out after Villa’s fourth goal.

Villa Park is a tough place to go for any team. The way they take players out of position, create space and employ the high line with precision. Forest had opportunities they just had to convert if they were going to get anything from the game, and the choice to play Niakhaté at left-back when Toffolo was available seemed a strange one, despite the Senegalese’s goal.

It doesn’t get any easier — a cup tie with Manchester United ahead of a meeting with Liverpool before a trip to Brighton, and with a potential points deduction ever looming. Crystal Palace’s win means Forest seem to have been cut adrift and locked in battle with the bottom six, as the race for Premier League survival begins to reach its climax.

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