It feels a bit blasphemous reporting on a match in which a club associated with Ken Bates performed well, but since he’s one of football’s greatest chairmen, a good scrub in the shower should eliminate some of the guilt. Certainly, the Championship fixture between Leeds United and Nottingham Forest weighed heavily upon those at Elland Road on Saturday–both in terms of history and contemporary significance. While managers Simon Grayson and Billy Davies walked down those halls, through those doors, and onto that pitch, the ghosts of Revie and Clough floated along in their wake, anxious to see how today’s squads would rise in a match of near eternal foes. With promotion playoff potential at stake for both clubs, passions indeed ran high on the field of battle but in the end, quality won the day.
The opening fifteen minutes were a flurry of fits and starts as each side wanted to be the first off the mark. Indeed, it was difficult to devise a strategy for either club during this time, although Forest’s initial attack seemed geared toward flooding the Leeds half with as many bodies as possible and forcing them to concede set pieces. Shots by defenders Chambers and Lynch from the channel carved out on the right side were dealt with while Leeds attempted swift counter attacks via Aston Villa loanee Barry Bannan as Forest’s defenders were so high up the pitch. Bannan appeared sprightly on the day, seemingly moving two steps faster than the Forest midfield, but his penchant for long-range shots mostly gave Forest’s GK Lee Camp some extra collecting exercise rather than actual threats on goal.
In his own box, Leeds GK Kaspar Schmeichel proved to be reading the match well, refusing to be drawn into making some hot-tempered error Nottingham Forest were baiting him to make. Advancing in the 16th minute to clear a ball in no-man’s land at first appeared reckless, but when noting he did so in isolation of cover from his center backs, it proved to be a correct decision. As Forest maintained a wealth of possession during most of the opening thirty minutes, Schmeichel’s responses to his threats on goal by an increasingly active Marcus Tudgay were all handled rather neatly.
Following Tudgay’s best chance to give Forest the edge on the score sheet, what could best be described as a “full blooded” challenge by Forest midfielder Chris Cohen on Leeds’ McCartney brought out the red card from referee Mark Halsey in the 36th minute. While manager Davies might attempt to appeal Cohen’s sending off, it appeared in real time as if it was going to be a tackle that earned Cohen a break from the action. With that sending off, a polite exchange of philosophical views between the squads occurred, delaying play and threatening to take an already tense affair out of the referees’ control. Schmeichel slammed the ball down during 1st half stoppage time over the awarding a Forest free kick as opposed to a Leeds goal kick that seemed to demonstrate he and LUFC would lose their cool. Tempered emotions prevailed, though, and the half ended scoreless with Leeds unable to yet wrest control of the match from Nottingham Forest after gaining the man advantage.
As the second half commenced, the quality Leeds possessed over Forest in the attacking department began to pay dividends. Luciano Becchio–playing rather deep throughout the first half, finding himself lost amongst the trees of Forest’s midfield–began asserting himself gradually, and a 10 man Forest side slowly lost their control on the ball. American Eric Lichaj–another Aston Villa loanee for Simon Grayson’s side–found himself the recipient of a smart pass from Robert Snodgrass and crossed in from the right for Jonathan Howson to
head home score in the 51st minute. Just seven minutes later, Becchio was rewarded for his improved assertiveness by being at the right place at the right time when a 58th minute corner kick from Bannan was ping ponged around the box and fell to him to bury for a 2-0 lead.
Nottingham Forest looked slightly deflated by the two goal deficit and looked dead set to miss recording a victory at Elland Road for the first time in fifteen years, but with Leeds United unable to add to its lead due to the misfiring feet of Max-Alain Gradel, Forest shocked the home side with a goal in the 65th minute. First half substitute Garath McCleary–on for an injured Paul Anderson in the 30th minute–produced a rocket of a shot past Schmeichel after some lovely footwork just inside the penalty area opened up space that Leeds’ defenders were too slow to close down.
Brian Clough’s spirit echoed down the road, urging Forest to press on.
Alas, the silence-inducing equalizer never came from those in red, as Gradel finally put his boots on the right feet and scored the third for Leeds in the 73rd minute. On what was frankly his most difficult chance of the afternoon, Gradel capitalized on some sloppy clearing from Nottingham and slotted home a ball that had to be collected and settled mid-shoulder height. Bannan put a long-range kick on one more ball before giving way to Tottenham Hotspur loanee Jake Livermore. Second half substitute Nathan Tyson had the best chance for Forest to claw another goal back late in the match, but he scuffed a wobbly ball just wide right of Schmeichel’s goal. Gradel finally finished things off with his second goal–and the fourth for Leeds–in the 87th minute.
With the 4-1 victory, Leeds United retained its position amongst the Welsh sides for the promotion playoffs, while Nottingham Forest ceded its spot to Reading based on goal difference. As Reading have a game in hand over Billy Davies’ squad, the day’s result might prove devastating for Forest’s promotion hopes. With Millwall having bested Hull City, it now sits just three points behind Nottingham Forest with a better goal differential. As Forest play host to Reading and Leeds United play away to Millwall, next week’s results could either muddy the waters further or provide more definition to who’s in and who’s out at the top of the Championship.
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