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 now they have 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, the 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.
After disposing of West Ham in the previous round, City sniffed another upset against top flight opposition. For much of the first half, this was a cagey, tactile contest, both 18-yard boxes seemingly sterile environments. With a minute of the regular 45 to play, there was a flurry of chances, one at either end. The Forest supporters stationed in the Atyeo Stand, behind Matt Turner’s goal during the first half, thought they had taken the lead at the opposite end but Danilo’s first-time shot, after meeting Callum Hudson-Odoi’s cutback, rattled the City net via the advertising hoardings.
The hosts promptly soared up the pitch and Anis Mehmeti would have served up a tap-in for their homegrown striker, Tommy Conway, the hero against West Ham, but for Murillo’s vital intervention. From Mehmeti’s subsequent corner, the City midfielder Jason Knight headed on to the roof of Turner’s goal.
Nuno stuck with the same starting lineup that began against Brentford last time out and in effect named his strongest possible team but for Morgan Gibbs-White, who returned from injury as a half-time substitute to an ovation from the travelling fans. Nuno surely just wanted to get the job done, having been taken to a replay by Blackpool in the last round. Back-to-back victories against Manchester United and Newcastle suddenly feel distant.
Anthony Elanga and Taiwo Awoniyi remain sidelined while five Forest players are at the Africa Cup of Nations. Chris Wood, who spent half a season on loan at Ashton Gate from West Brom in 2011-12, again led the line but fed off scraps. He had just 18 first-half touches, two more than Turner. One of those saw Wood play a routine pass for Ryan Yates straight out of play approaching the interval. For context, City’s attacking midfielder, Taylor Gardner-Hickman, who recently signed permanently from West Brom, had three times as many.
It was hardly chance-a-minute stuff. Andrew Omobamidele made a smart block to prevent an early Conway strike from troubling Turner and Conway also sent a first-time shot wide after connecting with a Mehmeti cross from the left. The hosts shaded the first half but both sides had long periods of possession. One of the highlights for Forest was the moment Danilo, already something of a fans’ favourite, cutely nudged the ball through the legs of Gardner-Hickman on halfway. Yates, the Forest captain, leathered a shot straight down the throat of City’s goalkeeper, Max O’Leary.
Forest and their supporters pined for Gibbs-White, a gifted No 10, to make the difference and his quick-thinking gave Wood a whiff of goal approaching the hour. From about 20 yards, Gibbs-White feinted to shoot with his right foot, pressed pause and then dinked a delicious, chipped pass into the box for Wood, who could only leap and cushion a weak header at O’Leary. Nuno acknowledged Gibbs-White’s audacious pass with a broad smile on the sidelines. City, however, crafted another chance three minutes later, right wing-back George Tanner’s cross somehow eluding three red shirts, Mehmeti among those left wondering how they did not make contact.
Knight released the City substitute Nahki Wells with his own sublime scooped pass but Murillo got across to block his shot and force a corner. Another City substitute, Sam Bell, also had an effort blocked and at the other end 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 on the counterattack. On the night Forest simply did not do enough and rarely threatened. A 92nd-minute free-kick, skied by Danilo when the home support had their hearts in their mouths, said it all.