Brief Chelsea respite over as Raheem Sterling brace does little to lift Stamford Bridge mood
This felt for all the world like another desperate and desolate Chelsea defeat, but perhaps, given the context, a draw was apt.
It was a test of who is worse — Chelsea at winning at home or Forest at winning away — and in the end we weren’t to find out. While Frank Lampard was able to enjoy some respite with victory over Bournemouth last weekend, here was a return to the performance levels served up by the Blues for much of what has been a season to forget.
Yes, he was missing Reece James and Ben Chilwell. Yes, he had lost N’Golo Kante to a groin injury yesterday — one that will likely see him miss the rest of the season. But what else could he or his team offer up as a viable excuse here?
It already felt as though it would be another frustrating day for Chelsea inside 11 minutes, as Joao Felix tried to get his team-mates to join in with a cohesive press. None of them got the memo, Forest played round Felix, and the Portugal forward was left flinging his arms in the air and throwing his mane of hair towards the sky in frustration.
Within two minutes, naturally, Chelsea were behind at Stamford Bridge to the side with by far the worst away record in the Premier League. From Renan Lodi’s hopeful, pumped cross from deep, Taiwo Awoniyi got between Chelsea’s two centre-backs Thiago Silva and Benoit Badiashile, who confused each other. Confusing everyone in the stadium was Edouard Mendy, in for the dropped Kepa Arrizabalaga and suddenly flapping at little more than air as Awoniyi crept between the trio and headed into an empty net.
Another week. Another goalkeeper. Another woeful goal to concede. But for Nottingham Forest, a goal of potentially inestimable value. If their 4-3 win over Southampton on Monday made the Reds hopeful of Premier League survival, what might a win over Chelsea do?
That felt a worthwhile question for Forest’s travelling contingent to ask for much of the afternoon. To glance down at the Chelsea technical area was to see Lampard and his assistant Ashley Cole stood, internally longing for a change in fortunes as much as actively trying to cause one.
So many of Lampard’s players had flagrantly ignored his instruction to “play for pride”. But sometimes it just takes one player to turn a match on its head. So seldom in a Chelsea shirt has Raheem Sterling been that player, but here he played that role.
Sterling had not scored in the Premier League since the 1-1 draw at the City Ground against Forest on New Year’s Day. Favourite opponents? Clearly. Sterling converted via the head of the reclining Ryan Yates from Trevoh Chalobah’s cut-back on 51 minutes. Then, seven minutes later, he sent Felipe skidding out of sight as he checked back onto his favoured right foot and bent the ball superbly past the outstretched gloves of Keylor Navas.
Fed up of the gyp they’d been getting all afternoon from the Forest fans, Chelsea’s support cried out: “WHO ARE YOU?” The brisk answer was that they were Nottingham Forest: a side desperate to survive the drop and with a genuine chance of doing so when Awoniyi headed in his second just four minutes after Sterling had sealed his own brace.
Chelsea battled on in their search to rediscover a lead that ultimately never came. Forest could take heart from a seventh point on their travels this season. Chelsea could take heart from Sterling’s brace and little else.
High up in the West Stand, pulled taut across the advertising hoarding, was a banner that read ‘Chelsea Supporters Club Malta’. Near it, another read ‘CHELSEA ICELAND’. What immeasurable riches Todd Boehly would surely give to be able to look forward to away trips to far-flung destinations of that ilk next season. Alas, one cannot buy European football. Not yet, anyway.
Not even the Europa Conference League beckons for this luxurious group of odds and ends next season. What beckons for Forest remains to be seen.