Do you speak for the trees?

There was a time when Nottingham Forest was Liverpool’s biggest rival. For a brief period in the late 70s and early 80s, Forest was our bogey team. There was a stretch of time where we won one out of 10 matches against them. They ended our bid to win three European Cups in a row by knocking us out of the tournament, which they’d gotten into by beating us to the First Division title in 1978. Brian Clough’s side was a colossal pain in the ass for Liverpool supporters and one of the few real problems we ran into during an 18-year stretch of dominance. This tweet from the club was a nice look back to that time:

They’ve fallen a long way since then; as far as League One. But they’re currently a solid side in the Championship and making a run at the playoff places. So, the fact that Sunday’s match turned out to be something of a struggle is both annoying and kind of refreshing for those of us old enough to remember the days of yore. In fact, when the game started and was being played box-to-box, I was kind of thrilled. Those first ten minutes made me think that they were going to run with us and this would be emblematic of some of the later years of Brian Clough’s reign, when their defense wasn’t quite as obstinate and they’d decided to try to score their way out of difficulties. But then we got one too many decent chances and apparently Steve Cooper decided it was safer to Burnley it up. Back to Cloughie 1.0.

To their enormous credit, Forest remembers the past, too. After all, the last time we played each other in the FA Cup was the replay in 1989 after the initial match had been stopped at Hillsborough. I’ve heard and read stories about the number of Forest fans who suffered from PTSD after the events of that day, as they watched from the other stands at what was happening in the Leppings Lane end. That and the wonderful gesture pictured above made it even more unfortunate that when their squad decided to adopt Burnley’s tactics on the pitch, the home fans decided to adopt their attitudes off of it. Pretty soon, the chant “Always the victims” was ringing out at the City Ground, while the banner covering 97 seats was rippling in the wind. I mean, every club is going to have those fans. This has been a common refrain among Chelsea supporters of late, ashamed that their brethren at away grounds have seen fit to chant the name of their patron oligarch in the face of demonstrated support for Ukraine. But the chant at the City Ground took place while everyone could see the banner that their own club had placed as a sign of remembrance. So, there it is. Maybe we’ll see Forest next year in the Prem. Maybe we won’t see them again for another quarter-century. The Lorax spoke for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. That’s what our club tries to do every time the topic of Hillsborough is raised. That’s why we changed our badge to reflect both the memory and the duty. I guess sometimes it’s better when only one group is speaking.

Nottingham Forest 0 – 1 Liverpool

The match itself wasn’t much to speak of, as it were, past those first 10 minutes. It was another “Liverpool tries to grind through a low block” performance. One way to look at it is that Forest put up a serious fight for a Championship side, playoff spots or no, given whom the opposition was. Another way to look at it was that we made seven changes from the previous match and that includes a number of guys who get very little game time at all; to say nothing of game time with each other. Rhythm and familiarity means quite a bit in a game like football, where split-second decisions are frequent and scoring chances so rare, relative to other sports. In short, it’s a lot more obvious when guys are out of sync and that was clearly the case with a number of Reds, which I’ll get to in a moment. For now, let’s talk about the upsides.

Kostas Tsimikas produces every time he’s on the pitch. If there’s any argument against the kind of depth we have (and there are precious few of those), it’s that players like him can’t get the minutes that they probably deserve. What’s interesting is that his style of play has some significant differences from Andy Robertson’s. Nine times out of ten, those “differences” would be “failings”, but that’s not the case here. He doesn’t bring quite the offensive energy that Robbo does on that left flank, but he also has a better touch from set pieces and his defensive intensity can’t be reproached. It’s fantastic to have such an excellent player as a backup. Of course, given Robbo’s legendary endurance, it also means that “backup” is where he’s likely to stay for the foreseeable future. Any time rumors float around about rivals pursuing our bench, this is the one that concerns me most, despite his stated love for the club (Family are long-time fans), since we have no one but kids (and the occasional James Milner, Robot Warrior) behind him. Speaking of pursuit…

Yeah. Joe Gomez wants to return to playing for England. Joe could probably slot in as a starting CB for most of the clubs in the PL and they’d be getting an English player, to boot. The fact that he came on in his less-preferred role, played well, and was tops in both shots and clearances should tell you all you need to know about his value to the squad, which we don’t want to lose. The fact that he’s only 24, which is young for a CB, only compounds that. He obviously can’t do what Trent does at RB because almost no one else in the world can, but against a Championship side, that’s not really necessary, either. The only reason he’s been left off the pitch this season is because of Joel Matip’s and Ibrahima Konaté’s excellent play while Joe has still been recovering from the devastating injury of last season. I think it’s safe to say that he’s back in form and, given the insane run that we’re coming into in April, opportunity may arise. But it says something when our goalscorer was having one of his lesser performances of the season (despite now being the leading Portuguese scorer in the top 5 leagues in Europe) and our best performances came from the wide spaces, even against a lower division side.

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The Ox. I feel for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s obviously a talented player and there was a stretch in his first season with us that he seemed like a force to be reckoned with in the midfield. But he’s never been the same since that knee injury against Roma and not necessarily because he’s had physical issues, but mostly because he doesn’t seem to fit into our current structure and there are simply players who fit better ahead of him. In 2017-18, we were still a bit more chaotic in the midfield, more interested in pushing forward than in controlling the pace. That’s different now and Ox simply isn’t the best at ball retention and recycling. He’s still an offensive force, as shown by Jürgen’s willingness to pair him with Harvey Elliott in this match and let the two of them decide whom was going to be the winger and whom the attacking mid. But he still just can’t seem to gain any rhythm when he does appear and he seems to be the kind of player who needs regular appearances in order to establish said rhythm. There was a brief moment in early January when it seemed like he might finally be on his way back as a regular. But now we’re almost in April and matches like this seem to confirm that he isn’t.

So, another semifinal, ostensibly at Wembley, although the lack of trains from either Liverpool or Manchester to London for that match on the 16th have both clubs and respective mayors kind of incensed, so some pressure is being applied to the FA for a change of venue. I doubt that it will happen, since the prospect of having a half-empty stadium will just encourage the detractors to ignore the practical issue and complain about modern fans, how clubs don’t prioritize the FA Cup anymore, and so on. Granted, if we weren’t in the position we’re in with the prospect of multiple trophies in the season, we probably wouldn’t prioritize the FA Cup. The upcoming schedule might demonstrate why:

All of those PL matches, including Watford, Newcastle, and (snicker) Everton is effectively a cup match because if we lose any of them, we’re likely out of the PL race. On the one hand: Woo! Excitement! On the other hand: Woo? Tension? There’s no doubt that all of those matches, bar City, are ones that we should win. But this is football, yo. I’ll admit to feeling some of the pressure that’s become an every-three-day thing, which is part of why, for the first time that I can remember, an international break is kind of welcome. Also because I’m back to an actual paying job for the first time in ages next week, so we’ll see how that shakes out. But let’s end on a positive that has nothing to do with the Forest match whatsoever:

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