With the critical part of the season on the horizon, the Premier League chicane looming large, the last thing Nottingham Forest needed was another game to add to an already congested schedule. Forest, however, seem to have developed a habit of making life difficult for themselves and have now added an unwanted FA Cup fourth-round replay against Bristol City into the calendar.
With the potential for a points deduction for breaching financial rules a cold reality, Forest’s short-term focus is on creating as healthy a buffer as possible between them and the relegation zone. For Nuno Espírito Santo, dropping into the Championship is an unthinkable prospect, the Cup, realistically, a mild inconvenience. He recognised as much afterwards.
Given all of that Nuno, externally at least, seemed more upbeat than one may have expected. For Forest, the overwhelming positive was the return of Morgan Gibbs-White from an abdominal injury but that they needed to introduce him at the interval was indicative of their flat first-half display. The other obvious plus was a first clean sheet since beating Aston Villa at the start of November, Steve Cooper’s final win in the job. “Conceding goals was something that was creating too many problems for us,” Nuno said. “It was a priority to work on this aspect. I told the boys after it was a big step for us as a team to keep a clean sheet. The first half was not so good, the second half much better.”
Bristol City will relish the replay at the City Ground, even if it means they face a gruelling run of seven games in 23 days. Since replacing Nigel Pearson, Liam Manning has had little time on the training pitch to drill his players in his methods. After disposing of West Ham in the previous round, his side sniffed another upset against Premier League opposition and in first-half stoppage time Anis Mehmeti would have served up a tap-in for Tommy Conway but for Murillo’s vital intervention. From the corner, the City midfielder Jason Knight headed on to the roof of Matt Turner’s net. A minute earlier the Forest supporters behind Turner’s goal thought they had taken the lead at the opposite end but Danilo’s first-time shot rattled the City net via the advertising hoardings.
For much of the first half, this was a cagey, tactile contest, both 18-yard boxes seemingly sterile environments. It was hardly chance-a-minute stuff. Andrew Omobamidele made a smart block to prevent an early Conway strike from troubling Turner and the City striker also sent a half-volley wide after connecting with a Mehmeti cross from the left. The hosts shaded the first half but both sides enjoyed long periods of possession.
Nuno stuck with the same starting lineup that began defeat at Brentford last time out and in effect named his strong possible team but for Gibbs-White, who entered in place of Ryan Yates to a great ovation. Forest and their supporters pined for Gibbs-White, a gifted No 10, to make the difference and his quick-thinking gave Chris Wood, a one-time City loanee in 2011-12, a whiff of goal approaching the hour. From about 20 yards, Gibbs-White feinted to shoot with his right foot, paused and then dinked a delicious, chipped pass into the box for Wood, who, a second too slow to get on Gibbs-White’s wavelength, could only cushion a weak header at City’s goalkeeper, Max O’Leary.
Nuno acknowledged Gibbs-White’s audacious pass with a broad smile on the sidelines and the playmaker is slated to start at Arsenal on Tuesday. City, who have designs of making the second-tier playoffs, crafted another chance three minutes later, George Tanner’s cross somehow eluding three red shirts, Mehmeti among those left wondering how they did not make contact. “The lads are quite frustrated in the changing room, which I quite like,|” Manning said. “I thought we showed great bravery to go and do ‘us’. It is another experience ticked off with lots of positives. We just lacked a little bit of composure and calmness.”
Knight released the City substitute Nahki Wells with his own sublime scooped pass late on but the impressive Murillo got across to force a corner. Another City substitute, Sam Bell, also had an effort blocked and at the other end Callum Hudson-Odoi fired against the side netting. The side netting was seemingly the order of the day, the rampaging left wing-back Cam Pring smacking a shot narrowly wide on 85 minutes, after Harry Cornick steamed forward from inside the City half on the counter. On the night Forest simply did not do enough and rarely threatened. A 92nd-minute free-kick, skied by Danilo when the home support finally had cause for concern, said it all.