Things are getting quite congested at the top of the Championship. Just six points separate second placed Norwich City from Nottingham Forest in sixth place in the table and, should Queens Park Rangers find themselves being docked points over the Alejandro Faurlin, even the relatively comfortable gap between them and the chasing pack – they are seven points clear of Norwich and ten ahead of third placed Swansea City – even that could start to crumble. Yet again, the top of the Championship table seems likely to offer us a tight end to the season.
Part of the package that comes with such a close run-in is that the chasing pack, all jostling for position, have to play each other regularly as the season enters its final straight and this afternoon third-placed Swansea City are at home against sixth-placed Nottingham Forest. Both teams have already been granted a favour at lunchtime by struggling Sheffield United, who beat Leeds United by two goals to nil at Bramall Lane. It’s a result that has given Forest the opportunity to leapfrog over Leeds if they can muster a single point from The Liberty Stadium this afternoon. At this stage of the season, the margins that separate victory from defeat can be very slender indeed.
Much is made of Nottingham Forest’s slide from grace since the glory days of the late 1970s, but Swansea City supporters of a certain age also have cause to get a little wistful when they pause to consider the late 1970s and early 1980s. Under the management of John Toshack, they thundered through the divisions and to sixth place in the First Division in 1982. Their decline was even quicker than their rise. By the summer of 1985, they were back in the Fourth Division again after successive relegations and haven’t been back since. They remain the last Welsh club to play top division football within the English pyramid. Much has changed since then, of course, with the most striking difference between Swansea City then and Swansea City now being the sparkling new Liberty Stadium, which replaced the ramshackle Vetch Field in
The recent form of both Swansea City and Nottingham Forest lends to the (obviously specious and rhetorical) argument that few of the teams at the top of the Championship actually want promotion to the Premier League. Swansea have gone three games without a win going into this match, including defeats at struggling Derby County and Scunthorpe United, while Nottingham Forest’s form is even worse – they have gone six games without a win since beating Cardiff City a month ago. If a forty-six match season allows a certain amount of slack for teams that are chasing promotion, March is the month in which that slack starts to dissipate. From this point on, every result matters and every point counts.
Bearing this in mind, a tense, taut atmosphere at the Liberty Stadium this afternoon is understandable, but it is Swansea that manage to shake off their recent torpor with a first half performance that leaves Forest looking leaden-footed and lethargic. Moving the ball intelligently around the pitch, Forest are chasing shadows for much of the opening thirty-five minutes, and by the time Forest have the chance to get their foot on the ball, Swansea are already looking as if they may be out of sight. It takes just over twenty minutes for them to take the lead, but it is a goal that is more than worthy of such a critical point of the season. Scott Sinclair picks up a through ball and goes on a mazy run before stretching himself to shoot from an improbable angle, wide of the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the net. It is a goal reminiscent of somebody playing a video game on the easiest skill setting.
With the wind beneath their wings, Swansea are now cutting through the Forest defence like butter and it takes just five minutes for them to double their lead, although the second goal is as scrappy as the opener was skillful. The ball is cut back from the by-line on the right hand side, Forest fail to clear and Fabio Borini places the ball tidily into the top corner of the goal. It looks briefly as if Swansea could absolutely run away with this. Borini hits the post from close range and Nottingham Forest look out for the count, but in the last five minutes of the half they finally start to assert themselves and with thirty seconds to play Nathan Tyson wriggles himself into some space on the left and crosses for Kris Boyd to score from close range.
Considering everything, the opening ten minutes of the second half will be critical. Was Forest’s brief demonstration of resistance a mere flash in the pan? We get our answer, perhaps, ten minutes and thirty seconds into the second half. Scott Sinclair is on the Swansea left and cuts into the penalty area. He jinks. Possibly even jiggles a little. The two defenders charged with the job of stopping him part like a pair of sliding doors. His shot is blocked by the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Lee Camp but the ball runs loose for Borini, whose knack for being in the right place at the right time this afternoon has been sublime, to roll the ball into the empty goal to restore Swansea’s two goal advantage.
With a two-goal advantage restored, the match starts to lose a little of its shape. Within minutes of the third goal, Camp makes a spectacular save from Nathan Dyer’s shot from the edge of the penalty area, but Swansea seem reasonably content to sit back a little and take their foot off the gas, all of which seems like news to the irrepressible Sinclair, who goes on another winding run with fifteen minutes to go before getting his sights wrong and shooting over. By this time, Forest are starting to contribute towards their own downfall, and some slack defending puts Camp in trouble, only for the resulting shot to hit the side-netting.
On the whole, though, the match has become an exercise in running down the clock, not getting too tired and not picking up any serious injuries, or at least it has until the match ticks over the allotted ninety minutes and into stoppage time. Garath McCleary finds himself some space and pulls the ball back for Paul Anderson to stab the ball over the line to pull a second goal back for Forest. Suddenly, as if awoken from a dream, they have come to life and within twenty seconds they come inches from what could have been a memorable (if, let’s be honest here, undeserved) comeback. Swansea, for the first time this afternoon, look jittery, Chris Cohen swings the ball over from the right hand side and David McGoldrick’s half-flicked header bounces out off the outside of the post. There’s still time for Sinclair to run at the Forest defence at the other end of the field before shooting over Camp’s goal, before the referee finally calls time on what turned out to be a breathless afternoon of football.
It seems inconceivable that at least the battle for the second automatic promotion place will not go to the absolute wire this season. Two dropped points for Norwich City at Hull City this afternoon means that their lead over Swansea has now been cut to one point and the defeat for Nottingham Forest means that a team that seemed a reasonable proposition as an automatic promotion candidate is now peering nervously over its own shoulder at the likes of Reading and Burnley, just below them. There are now just six points separating Nottingham Forest in sixth place and Portsmouth, all the way down the table in thirteenth place. The star of the show this afternoon, Scott Sinclair, may prove to be a big part of whether Swansea can go on to bring top flight football to the club for the first time since 1983. On the evidence of this afternoon’s performance, both he and they might just be ready for the Premier League. At this stage of the season, however, it’s all about nerve and Swansea supporters will only find out how much of this their team have on a match by match basis.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.