As brilliant as last minute goals always are, failing to beat Blackburn Rovers at the weekend leaves Coventry City in the territory of requiring something incredible in order to make the top six. With four of the remaining seven games against teams above the Sky Blues in the table – most of which are away from home – it would be especially remarkable if this team managed to finish in the play-offs from the position they are currently in.
Those faint hopes of glory could well be put to bed in this upcoming fixture against a confident Nottingham Forest side. If nothing else, it would really would be a statement of intent to come out of a clash against one the division’s form teams with a victory. With little to lose in defeat, however, there is no reason for the Sky Blues not to put everything they’ve got into claiming a win that would keep the season alive for a while longer.
It doesn’t look like Mark Robins’ options have improved since the weekend, with Kyle McFadzean the only player seemingly likely to return to selection consideration here, with even that being a seemingly remote possibility. With these next four games, up until Easter Monday, being the last block of congestion in the calendar, the manager may be of a mind to rotate in one or two areas to avoid burn-out.
The most likely area for change at the moment is at wing-back, with neither Ian Maatsen nor Fankaty Dabo having looked 100% fit on Saturday. On the left, Mark Robins may be loathe to move Jake Bidwell from the left-sided centre-back position that he has been performing competently in, which could see Jordan Shipley take Maatsen’s place in the side. On the right, Todd Kane for Fankaty Dabo would be a more straightforward swap, if it is deemed necessary to do so.
Further forward, a switch to one up front may well be likely here, with Coventry City likely to spend a large proportion of this game without the ball. While Matt Godden has shown in recent games that he can contribute outside of the penalty area, this feels like the kind of game where he may end up being a peripheral figure. Just who would join Callum O’Hare in the attacking midfield positions remains to be seen, with the likeliest move being to push Jamie Allen forward and bring Ben Sheaf into central midfield.
Finally, after another useful contribution from the bench at the weekend, there may be calls for Fabio Tavares to start here. However, Mark Robins’ reticence to bring him into the first-team probably means it is unlikely that Tavares will start a game until there is less at stake – which is the sensible decision for such a raw talent.
Last Time We Met
It was the game that set the tone for an excellent start to the season for Coventry City. Back in Coventry, back in front of fans, it was an occasion that had been long anticipated. Not even Nottingham Forest taking the lead in the first-half, through a well-executed counter-attack to set up Lyle Taylor, could shake the sense that it was going to be the Sky Blues’ day.
Throughout the second-half, the belief that the game could be turned around built to what felt an unstoppable crescendo. With ten minutes to go, the breakthrough eventually came, with Callum O’Hare wriggling free of two defenders on the edge of the penalty area, playing a ball that fell to Viktor Gyokeres, via Ben Sheaf, to level the scores.
Not content with what looked to be a decent point, Coventry City kept up the pressure in the closing stages of the game. It was O’Hare who, once again, befuddled the Forest defence, winning a free-kick that led to chances for both Dominic Hyam and then O’Hare himself, before Kyle McFadzean (and the sheer desire of the home crowd) forced the ball into the back of the net.
Just what that win meant, no-one of a Coventry City persuasion really cared. It was simply good to be back.
The Manager – Steve Cooper
That opening day defeat for Nottingham Forest gave way to a really poor start to the season under serial Championship promotion-winner, Chris Hughton, engendering the sense that anything above survival would be an achievement at the City Ground. Since the appointment of Steve Cooper as Hughton’s replacement, Nottingham Forest have looked among the best teams in the Championship. Now, missing out on the top six would be considered a disappointment.
Although he has been aided by some useful additions in the January transfer market, Steve Cooper has demonstrated his credentials as a coach and tactician in unleashing the talent of a number of players he inherited upon his arrival. The exploits of academy graduate, Brennan Johnson, have been the most eye-catching, but Cooper has raised the performance levels of just about every player in the squad. There is bar for performance is so high at the moment that anyone that comes into this Nottingham Forest side has to play well in order to hold onto their place.
Who To Look Out For?
The aforementioned Brennan Johnson is the undoubted star of this Nottingham Forest team. A quick, skilful and driven presence in attack, Johnson can carry the ball up the pitch, beat defenders in tight spaces and threaten the opposing goal, making him irrepressible both in terms of creating and scoring goals. Johnson’s efforts have been aided via the January addition of Aston Villa loanee, Keinan Davis, who is not only a physical battering ram of a centre-forward, but possesses the skill and pace to roll past defenders and open up all kinds of space in the final third.
Forest have a number of options in support of that duo of Johnson and Davis in attack, with the Danish attacking midfielder, Philip Zinckernagel, another intelligent attacking player, while they can call on the goalscoring instincts of Lewis Grabban or another hard-working physical presence in Sam Surridge. With a number of games in hand to make up over the final month of the campaign, having the ability to change things up in attack is a useful trick for Steve Cooper to have up his sleeve.
In central midfield, the duo of James Garner and Ryan Yates provides both balance and control for Forest. With Garner an excellent ball-player and set-piece taker, Yates’ physicality and energy means that Nottingham Forest can really dominate teams in the middle of the pitch when they need to, or sit in and break up play when the opposite is required.
Another star of Nottingham Forest’s season has been Djed Spence at right wing-back. Middlesbrough’s decision to loan him out to another Championship side back in August already looked strange, with Spence’s impressive form making it look all the stranger – albeit, Middlesbrough’s own right wing-back, Isaiah Jones, has had an almost equally strong campaign. Spence is a really aesthetically pleasing footballer, a tall, rangy and skilful player who can beat opponents both for speed and skill before getting crosses into the penalty area.
In central defence, Joe Worrall and Scott McKenna have impressed under Steve Cooper as the wide centre-backs in Nottingham Forest’s back three. The experienced, Steve Cook, had helped provide solidity for Worrall and McKenna to flourish around before picking up an injury recently. In goal, Brice Samba is one of the best shot-stoppers in the Championship, but is prone to the odd moment of madness.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
Coventry City are going to have to be prepared to deal with a quick, forward-thinking and skilful opponent, similar, in a manner, to Blackburn Rovers at the weekend after they brought on Bradley Dack and Ben Brereton Diaz. This is likely going to be a test in how this team can soak up pressure, which isn’t something the Sky Blues have necessarily looked comfortable doing for much of this season. There is a real risk that an early Nottingham Forest goal could lead to quite a comfortable win for the home side.
The template for this game for Coventry City, provided they can settle into it, will likely surround breaking from deep. With that in mind, deploying Ian Maatsen further forward to utilise his pace on the counter may be a consideration for Mark Robins – although, just who plays at left wing-back in that instance may make such a call difficult. If not Maatsen, then the ability of Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare to get Coventry City up the pitch, with Gustavo Hamer providing the service, will be vital in turning what are likely to be long portions of defending into attack.
The skill and directness of Djed Spence from right wing-back for Nottingham Forest could be really hard for Coventry City to contain. With neither Jake Bidwell, Ian Maatsen nor Jordan Shipley the strongest defenders from left wing-back, Mark Robins may well just have to hope that a mismatch in that area of the pitch doesn’t lead to goals.
Additionally, the combination of Keinan Davis’ physicality and Brennan Johnson’s mobility in Nottingham Forest’s attack is another thing that Coventry City’s defence may simply be unable to deal with. The midfield and attack will have to play their part in providing the defence with as much protection as possible, it will take a significant collective effort to keep Nottingham Forest at bay and to give the Sky Blues the opportunity to claim a win here.