Chelsea and Forest want the season over but for vastly different reasons
Chelsea just need their new manager and a lot of reorganisation. Forest keep on having to fight for air, but this was a welcome point from Stamford Bridge…
Another step on the long road to survival for Nottingham Forest, another afternoon of wondering where on earth this season has gone for Chelsea.
Honours even at Stamford Bridge at the end of a match which showed why Forest are near the bottom of the table in the first place and why they have an excellent chance of staying above the relegation places, a result which may have left them wondering whether they should be celebrating their point or mildly annoyed at not having beaten fairly limited opposition.
But for Chelsea manager Frank Lampard it was a largely blunt performance, with a team featuring five changes from their win at Bournemouth. Not all of these were intentional – N’golo Kante got himself injured again at the end of last week – and they didn’t all affect the team in the way that he would have hoped.
Changing your goalkeeper – unless they’re injured – is a big call, because when goalkeeping goes wrong, it often does so in a highly visible way, exaggerating the folly of having made the change in the first place. Kepa Arrizabalaga had previously played in all the matches since Lampard’s surprise return, and even though his form has been shaky of late it was still something of as surprise to see him being replaced by Eduoard Mendy, who made his last Premier League appearance in November.
Within a quarter of an hour of the kick-off it looked like a mistake, and because it involved a goalkeeper, it looked like a very big one.
Goalkeepers have an obvious advantage against forwards when challenging for an aerial ball, even if Peter Shilton didn’t act like it for England against Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup. This is what makes it so cognitively dissonant when attacking players beat a goalkeeper to a cross. It’s fair to say that Taiwo Awoniyi has shoulders so broad that looks as though he has an NFL game straight afterwards and hasn’t got time to go home to put his shoulderpads on first, but Mendy is hardly a stringbean either. In fact, he’s 11 centimetres taller than Awoniyi, all of which makes it all the more mysterious that Awoniyi was able to get the ball ahead of him and head Forest into the lead after 13 minutes, especially when we factor in that the goalkeeper can, y’know, use his goddamn arms.
This sort of thing has been remarkably familiar with Chelsea this season. There’s just been a slovenliness to their football at points, this lackadaisical air which gives an impression that no-one’s really that bothered about the outcome of it all. They’re stuck with Lampard until the end of the season and Lampard is stuck with them, so let’s just see these last few games out and hope that no-one saw any of this happen.
The problem is that everybody can see everything now. It would be tempting to glance at the Bournemouth result and acknowledge a convincing-sounding 3-1 win, but this only tells part of the story. The team weren’t firing on all cylinders and the margin of victory was somewhat flattering, and within 15 minutes of this match starting it did feel as though they’d returned to their mean rather than having turned a corner on the Dorset coast.
While Forest weren’t much of an attacking threat throughout the remainder of the first half, Chelsea didn’t offer anything much themselves either. Their best chances, if they could be described as such, came from 18 year-old Lewis Hall, one of the five brought into the team, and hs occasional forays forward and crosses into the box, but this was only relative. Chelsea were almost entirely impotent throughout the first half and Forest were comfortable.
Like so many other teams who’ve arrived at Stamford Bridge this season, they left the pitch at half-time having found things far more comfortable than they might have been expecting before kick-off.
But Forest are also brittle. Only Leeds and Bournemouth have conceded more goals in the Premier League this season, and six minutes into the second half they fell asleep to allow one of the Premier League’s forgotten men, Raheem Sterling, to score from six yards, largely untroubled by the attentions of any defenders. And seven minutes after this he doubled his tally for the afternoon by latching onto a throughball from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and finishing with ease.
Sterling’s expensive transfer to Stamford Bridge has been pretty conspicuous as a disappointment this season, but maybe finishing this season with a couple of goals will get him in the mood to get back to what he’s capable of on a more regular basis next season.
And just as Forest are brittle, so Chelsea remain shorn of confidence and could only hold onto their lead for four minutes, unable to deal with a long throw into the penalty area, only for the ball to be lobbed back in and Awoniyi to bundle in a header which required a fairly lengthy VAR break before being confirmed.
But although Chelsea dominated possession throughout the remainder of the match, the third goal that would have finally given Lampard his first home win since returning never really looked particularly likely. Sterling, with the wind in his sails following his two goals, seemed able to lift Stamford Bridge with couple of surging runs forward, but when required to be the provider of goals he struggled more because there was no-one really to provide them for.
Nottingham Forest continue to scrabble towards safety from relegation at a pace which could at best be described as ‘incremental’ and may now be better described as “shaky”. They’re now on 34 points, three points above the relegation positions. Even with so little of the season left to play, it feels as though there’s so far to go.
Another point towards safety will be welcome to Steve Cooper, but he’ll also know that they probably need another three from their last three games to be able to wipe the sweat from their brows, that the 34 they currently have will likely not be enough, and that their last three opponents are Manchester City, Manchester United and Newcastle.
With every Forest match being an exercise in testing the nerves of their supporters and Chelsea now seven home games without a home win and staring their worst final league position in more than a quarter of a century full in the face, it did feel a little as though both of these teams could do with the season being over already, albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Forest have a daunting last three games and will be watching every other Premier League match that may impact upon them through the gaps between the fingers over their eyes. Chelsea just need this failing experiment over, whether that means the caretaker-manager, more than one of the players, or the club being treated like some sort of billionaire’s fever dream.
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