Having slipped out of the play-off places on goal difference, Nottingham Forest enter the final stretch of the season with everything up for grabs. Ash Dybala considers the Reds’ play-off hopes…
Such has been the madness of this season, only 14 points separate the play-offs and relegation in the Championship. After a resurgence under Billy Davies, Forest climbed into the play-off places and some even dared to dream of automatic promotion. Had Forest continued on that winning run of form, they would have been on 72 points today, five points off second-placed Hull City.
It was unlikely to last though and after taking three points from their last 12, Forest’s season is balancing on a knife edge. Failure to get back to winning form will see the Reds settle into mid-table but should Forest rediscover their winning ways, any of the spots between fourth and sixth could be theirs come full-time on 4 May.
If this season proves anything, there are no easy games in this division and with Millwall and Barnsley still scrapping for survival and Leicester desperate to make good on some horrific form, and get back into the play-offs, those three teams all have something left to play for. Defeat for Middlesbrough against Forest will all but end any dreams they have of reaching the play-offs as well, so every single game between now and the end of the season has something riding on it. Raise the stakes and things become that much more tense.
Considering the position the club was in 12 months ago — and was again two months ago — you could be forgiven for thinking that any possible outcome between now and the end of the season would be a victory. But one can’t help but reflect on questions that will never be answered. Would Forest have been in the play-offs under Sean O’Driscoll? Could Alex McLeish have turned it around? Had Billy been appointed in January would we have made the automatic promotion spots?
From the start of the season this was, for many, a season of growth. We had a new team, new owners, new manager and you can’t just glue a team together just like that, even if you spend big. It took Manchester City, PSG and Chelsea a few seasons to get it right after significant investment as well. There are no shortcuts in football and perhaps this stumble in form is just proof of that. Yes, Forest have played some great football over the past eight weeks. Yes, they’ve beaten good teams and everything around the club seems to be booming again. Yes, Billy is a fantastic manager and the relationship he has with Fawaz is very reassuring. But some obvious flaws remain with the team and I think they are beginning to be found out.
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Forest have had to rely on the midfielders for the majority of their goals recently, with only two goals under Billy coming from strikers (both from Darius Henderson). As much as I admire Simon Cox’s workrate, he’s not scored since November. As much as I think Billy Sharp is a fantastic Championship striker, he’s warming the bench and hasn’t scored from open play since December. Darius Henderson is the Dele Adebola of Davies’ team — a big brute and the type of striker we’ve been missing at the club, but he’s out of contention now until the Leicester game. Dexter Blackstock, on his game day, is a match winner but as the ink has run dry on his new contract, so have the goals. And there are good reasons why Marcus Tudgay and David McGoldrick were loaned out. For any football team to be successful, with perhaps the exception of Spain, there need to be strikers on the pitch that score on a regular basis.
With no natural width and little pace, Forest have lacked a player who can stretch defences all season. You would struggle to find players with the delivery of Lewis McGugan or Andy Reid when they are on form but they aren’t fast, wide players. A lack of vision and speed going forward is perhaps why the goals have dried up for the strikers. Forest have missed Garath McCleary this season and, as much as I hate to say it, there was a good reason why Davies always liked to play Nathan Tyson on the wing.
It will be a huge achievement for this Nottingham Forest team to get to the play-off final and win. I still think that they will finish in the play-off places but is there enough to get across the line this season? If not, retaining the likes of Gonzalo Jara Reyes and Elliott Ward next year and bringing in a few good quality players in the right positions will surely make Forest one of the favourites for automatic promotion, no matter who gets relegated from the Premier League.
You can follow Ash on Twitter: @DizzyBala
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