Forest strike a blow as play-off battle hots up
The City Ground
Nottingham Forest manager Billy Davies let out a deep sigh as he walked back to his dugout, hands buried in his pockets.
It was the midpoint in the second half of Friday's crunch Championship fixture between his team and local rivals Leicester - and the Forest boss had just seen his team needlessly squander possession yet again. Leicester struck on the break and briefly had a numerical advantage but they wasted the opportunity.
It was that sort of match - frustrating, nervy, error-strewn and edgy; the sort of contest that does nothing for the length of your fingernails but plenty to obliterate your sense of inner calm.
Forest's 3-2 victory was just their second in 12 league fixtures and lifted them back into the top six. It also effectively ended Leicester's fading hopes of promotion, leaving them six points adrift of Forest with three games left.
Davies is still confident of taking his team to the play-offs. Photo: Getty Images
Forest, Leeds, Millwall, Hull and Burnley are the teams left slugging it out for sixth place. Millwall and Hull are in reasonable form but none of them are exactly red hot at the moment. The scrappy contest at Forest did little to detract from the belief that the team that does claim sixth will stumble over the line, claiming the position by virtue of creating the least number of errors rather than producing the greatest moments of brilliance.
It is little wonder that Davies wastes no opportunity to remind everybody that there will be plenty of twists and turns before the end of the season. He was at it again after Friday's match, while in his notes in the match programme he compared this stage of the season to the final stages of the Grand National.
"The winners can come from any quarter," said Davies, before adding that it was impossible for his squad to work any harder.
Yet after Friday's contest there was also a brutal and searingly honest assessment from Davies, who had seen his team twice throw away the lead minutes after scoring.
"What you see is a naïve young group of players who shoot themselves in the foot constantly," added the Scot.
Davies is a complicated individual, a mass of contradictions, but his record speaks for itself with five play-off campaigns in the last six years. His team now face a Bristol City side lodged in the holiday-focused confines of mid-table before matches against relegation threatened Scunthorpe United and Crystal Palace.
Given Davies' record it would hardly be a big surprise if Forest do finish in the top six, however his team were poor for long stretches of Friday's match. Davies quite rightly observed that their passing was below par and his side lacked width, while for long periods they were frustratingly devoid of the inspiration that a player like Radoslaw Majewski, an unused substitute, can provide.
Forest's late winner came after Leicester keeper Chris Weale allowed Paul McKenna's weak strike to squirm under his body and Davies noted that it was a slice of fortune that has been long overdue for his team. He also talked about staying injury free and repeatedly stressed the importance of refereeing decisions. It was bullish Davies returning to his favourite themes.
However, the sporadic booing aimed at the home team as they left the field at half-time told its own story. There were many emotions in evidence inside the City Ground on Friday but the overriding mood did not strike me as one of feverish expectation, of a crowd that believes their team are close to promotion.
The gloom at the final whistle belonged exclusively to Leicester. Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson more or less conceded it was the end of their promotion dream.
"I'm afraid that is the end of our play-off hopes," said the Swede.
The Foxes Premier League ambitions were terminated in a split-second last season as Yann Kermogant's audacious chipped spot kick looped tamely into the arms of Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall during their play-off semi-final penalty shoot-out. It was a jaw-dropping moment, almost beyond belief, and it turned out to be just about the final act of Leicester's season and the Frenchman's career with the club.
This season the Foxes campaign has unravelled slowly and painfully over the final weeks of the season, with the mounting frustration given expression
Just a few weeks ago it looked as though the struggles of the opening months of the season were firmly in the past as Eriksson's team moved within four points of an automatic promotion place after putting together an eight-match unbeaten run through January and February.
But since their 2-1 win at Bristol City on 18 February, their form has deserted them and big wins over Scunthorpe and Burnley have only provided brief respite from telling defeats against promotion rivals such as QPR, Cardiff, Norwich, Reading and now Forest.
There are plenty of lessons for Eriksson to absorb and much work for the Swede to do over the summer if both he and the club are to return to the top flight at the end of next season. Leicester have lost more games than anyone else in the top 10 and the consequence of an unsettled backline has been a leaky defence that has conceded more than a goal a game on average.
"We are a team that can play good football but we have conceded too many goals and far too easily," bemoaned Eriksson after Friday's defeat.
"If you want to be in the play-offs or win promotion then what we have done is not good enough."
Eriksson needs to work out his best side and stick with it, certainly with regard to the defensive aspects of his team's play. As Paul Gallagher recently observed, the constant chopping and changing has had a detrimental effect.
The club currently have the full quota of six available loan signings, plus defender Miguel Vitor, who is on a season-long deal from Benfica. Some of them - such as strike duo Yakubu and Diomansy Kamara - are high-profile players by Championship standards, but they have not really justified their billing. Yakubu has scored three goals in his last 11 games - and all of those came against Middlesbrough. He was slow, uninspired and hauled off after 57 minutes at Forest.
There are also a whole host of players who will return to the Walkers Stadium in the summer after temporary spells elsewhere, some of whom, such as striker Jeffrey Schlupp currently at Brentford, are extremely highly rated.
Finding the right blend for the next campaign will go a long way to determining Leicester's prospects for success.
Eriksson made it clear that he wants to stay at the club and take them into the top flight. Davies is very much locked in the mindset of taking one game at a time as he tries to win his second promotion to the Premier League after taking Derby there in 2007.
On the evidence of Friday's performance, a substantial improvement is required if Forest are to end their 12-year exile from the league to which their supporters and manager are so desperate to return.