Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
Nottingham Forest against Derby County is one of the unique fixtures in the English football calendar.
The clashes are always heated and yet, the rivalry is driven by similarities, rather than differences: the two clubs scaled unprecedented heights under the great Brian Clough.
A key player behind Old Big ‘Ead’s European Cup winning sides in 1979 and 1980 was Martin O’Neill, who returned last month as a manager, in hope of inspiring a romantic push for the Premier League.
Another East Midlands-based Champions League winner is Frank Lampard, who will forever be remembered for his achievements with Chelsea, but now looks to kick-start the second chapter of his sparkling footballing career by winning promotion as a manager with Derby.
Both bosses are under pressure in their quest to achieve their ambitions though, with just two league victories each under their respective watches in 2019.
Forest against Derby, master against apprentice – who will come out on top?
Since O’Neill controversially replaced Aitor Karanka in the hot-seat at the City Ground, he has unquestionably improved the defence.
The Irishman has added Alexander Milosevic, who has provided leadership qualities at centre-back as well as a strong presence in his penalty area, something Forest had perhaps been short of over the last three seasons.
Milosevic is an absolute rock #NFFC
— James (@jez100) February 16, 2019
Yohan Benalouane, since joining from Leicester, has proved powerful in the air, making him a threat in the opposition box as well as being comfortable in his own.
In other areas, however, it could be argued that the Reds have regressed.
Aitor Karanka had built a well-balanced side which could be compact at times but could also open teams up via possession play, with a nice midfield blend of Jack Colback’s energy, Adlene Guedioura’s presence and Joao Carvalho’s craft; the latter operating as the 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system.
O’Neill however, has gone to more of a rigid 4-4-2 setup with Colback and talented academy graduate Ryan Yates sitting deep and getting through all of the dirty work and playing forward at the first opportunity.
With two strikers on the pitch in Daryl Murphy and Lewis Grabban, wide men Joe Lolley and Ben Osborn have had to stay in their defensive third for long spells which limits what they can do on the ball.
Although we can expect Forest to start this match at a high-intensity due to the nature of the fixture, they could struggle to sustain that for more than half an hour and that is when they will need to use the ball with more care and quality than we have seen thus far under O’Neill’s stewardship.
Frank Lampard has said this week that wide forward Tom Lawrence and forward-thinking midfielder Mason Mount shall be unavailable for selection, which is a massive blow for the Rams.
#DCFC I think this shows how much we have missed Mason Mount. Frankie struggling to find the formula without him.
— Nigel Thorne (@nethorne) February 21, 2019
Harry Wilson has not quite been at his brilliant best in recent matches, but that is partly because the team, collectively, have been over reliant on the Liverpool loanee’s ability to conjure up magic from distance.
If we look at the starting line-up that lost 1-0 at home to Millwall last time out, nobody else had the pace and vision to open up deep-block opponents.
Tom Huddlestone is a holding midfielder, albeit usually capable of picking a pass, Craig Bryson is a willing runner and a dedicated professional but not necessarily great in possession, Martyn Waghorn and Jack Marriott are goalscorers with the latter having had limited match practice while Ashley Cole is a 38-year-old left-back playing further up.
Lawrence and Mount are the types of players who could reduce the creative burden on Wilson and there are not too many similar alternative options in that squad.
We could, therefore, see a stalemate – much like December’s reverse fixture and the corresponding clash last season.
0-0 draw 15/2