With 16 games of the season to go, Nottingham Forest are five points outside the Play-Off places, which marks a significant improvement on last season. How well has this season gone, so far?
Probably not as well as it could’ve done. Not by a drastic margin, but I think it’s safe to say Forest have underachieved. They put together a squad under Aitor Karanka that looked as though it was more than capable of securing a top six finish and you can debate whether that was going to happen until you are blue in the face; it still might have done, who knows? At the end of the day, the form under Aitor was stuttering – I think they took four points from the last six games he was in charge – and it looked like things were almost grinding to a halt. Martin O’Neill has come in now, there are 16 games left, there tends to be an average of 75 points for that final play-off spot and if they are going to do that, they need to win 11 of their last 16 games. That’s certainly promotion form but that’s what they are looking to achieve.
Forest lost just two of their first 20 games, but are currently in the midst of a run where they’ve lost six of the ten games that followed. Can you pinpoint any factors that could have influenced this downturn in form?
Well, they’ve had a defensive crisis, it’s fair to say. They’ve been missing four defenders: three through injury and one through suspension. Michael Hefele, Michael Dawson and Tobias Figueiredo are all likely to be out for another month, at least. Hefele won’t play again this season, Dawson could be another six weeks and Figeuiredo developed a blood clot after a dead leg and a minor injury became quite a serious one. Tendayi Darikwa got a three-match ban for a nothing tackle and that was also a key factor. They did go out and sign three defenders during January to try and reflect that; they signed Yohan Benelouane from Leicester City and he promptly got himself a suspension on Saturday! It’s all adding up. They also signed Molla Wague and Alexander Milosevic. It doesn’t explain it away completely because it’s a more recent thing, but that has been a factor in their stuttering form, the fact they are missing quite a few defenders.
In the middle of January, Martin O’Neill returned to the club where he made his name in the 70s and 80s. That must’ve been an appointment that was very well received, was it?
It was generally well-received. He is obviously a man with huge historic links to Forest having won the European Cup twice with them and they have tried on a couple of occasions to get him in as manager and they’ve finally done it now. While there was some disappointment among some fans that Aitor Karanka’s tenure was ended, it was mitigated by the appointment of Martin O’Neill.
Whenever Forest feature on Soccer Saturday, Jeff Stelling always seems to be mentioning Joe Lolley and Matty Cash. Aside from the repetitive currency jokes he makes, how good have the pair been this season?
Lolley has been brilliant, but he’s probably had a little bit of a quite spell, by his standards, recently. I’m speculating but I don’t know whether January was a distraction, with talk of Premier League clubs looking at him. He seems quite a level-headed bloke and I’m not sure how much of a factor that would be, but we’ll find out in the next few weeks now the window is shut, I guess. He has been very, very good indeed and he is unplayable when he’s at his best. It’s interesting you mention Cash because he’s gone under the radar quite a bit amid the impact made by Lolley and the fact Joao Carvalho had come in for £13 million and done alright, which cast him out of the spotlight a little bit. The progress he’s made and the fact he’d come in and scored eight goals this season has gone unnoticed by many, but he’s been a really important figure as well.
Do you think the squad has what it takes to reach the Play-Offs this season?
The thing you hope for is that it’s one of those years where there’s a lower average number of points needed to reach the top six and I think, realistically, if Forest are going to do it then they are going to have to hope that’s the case, but 11 wins from 16 is a lot. I think, if they were to win the next four and give themselves a bit of momentum, then there’s a whole lot more hope immediately. But the cold, hard truth is that they’ve won two games in a row once all season and that was in September. It’s been that crippling lack of consistency that’s cost them; they’ve drawn so many games they should have won. Admittedly, under the previous tenure, rather than O’Neill, but that’s the thing that’s undermined them, the fact that they’ve drawn so many games that they could easily have won. They’ve let three points slip on too many occasions, which is why they are where they are now, just adrift of the promotion pack.
How are Forest likely to set up on Saturday? Can you give us any early team news?
It’s a little hard to predict, given the fact O’Neill has admitted himself that he is still trying to decide what the best approach is for the players he’s inherited. The last two games they’ve played a 4-1-4-1, which becomes a bit of a 4-3-3 when they are in possession and on the attack.
The three guys I mentioned – Dawson, Hefele and Figueiredo – are all out, Benalouane is suspended, as is Jack Colback, but Darikwa is back, which will be a boost. Wague has a minor injury and is a minor doubt, which again would see Forest with a bit of an issue in the centre of defence. Other than that, Lewis Grabban has been carrying a minor Achilles problem, though he’s still been able to appear on the bench, but I think that’s all.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
It’s rarely a 0-0 draw when these sides meet, but let’s be optimistic and go for a 2-1 win to Forest.