Nottingham Forest took a significant step towards reaching the Championship play-off final as a dominant display helped them to a 2-1 semi-final first-leg win over Sheffield United.
Jack Colback took advantage of an ill-timed slip from Ben Osborn to fire Steve Cooper’s men in front (10), before Blades captain John Egan was caught in possession by Joe Lolley, allowing Brennan Johnson to fire in an crucial, ice cold second (71).
But just as hope looked to be fading for United, they pulled one back in second-half stoppage time, as Sander Berge bundled the ball over the line, despite replays suggesting Jack Robinson handled the ball before doing the midfielder did so (90+1).
On Tuesday night at the City Ground, the teams will go to battle once more – in a game live on Sky Sports Football – for a place at Wembley on Sunday May 29.
How Cooper’s Reds took a step towards Wembley
As South Yorkshire basked in temperatures of over 20 degrees, there was a party atmosphere at Bramall Lane, as the journey to Wembley began for two of the giants of the second tier.
In his programme notes, Paul Heckingbottom called upon the Blades fans to “understand how important the role they have in what we are trying to achieve is” and they responded as expected, creating a deafening cauldron of noise that clearly spurred the players on to an encouraging start.
It was nearly rewarded early on, too, when Sander Berge was bundled to the deck as he attacked a free-kick, though referee Andre Marriner quickly indicated that he would be taking no further action. But within seconds, Forest took the lead.
Time seemed to stand still for a moment, as Joe Worrall’s speculative aerial ball found Sam Surridge, who squared for Philip Zinckernagel. Ben Osborn lost his footing, the Dane had a shot saved by Wes Foderingham, but Colback was on hand to bail out his team-mate and find the net.
Sheffield United came close to drawing level when John Egan’s powerful, goalbound header was headed off the line by Surridge, but it was all Forest for the remainder of the half – they could quite fathomably have scored two or three more goals.
High-risk defending from the hosts allowed Johnson to drive into the box from halfway to sting the Blades goalkeeper’s palms, before Ryan Yates nodded wide unmarked. Foderingham then made a crucial save to deny Surridge from close-range, before clawing Johnson’s header away seconds later.
Though United were less vulnerable on the counter after the break, and their attacks became more coherent, time after time their finishing left plenty to be desired, while Brice Samba able to make numerous simple catches from crosses into the box.
And they were architects of their own downfall midway through the second half, when Egan was too slow to react to Lolley’s run, with the substitute able to get a shot away that was deflected into the path of Johnson, who finished coolly.
The hosts did, however, find a way to halve the deficit in the closing minutes, when Berge forced the ball over the line to renew Blades hopes ahead of Tuesday’s second leg.
What the managers said…
Sheffield United’s Paul Heckingbottom: “Their players are coming off gutted and ours are coming off with a chance. It’s half-time and we’ve been behind before this season and come back and won. We’ve got to recover and prepare as well as we can – that starts now.
“We went to the very end and our goal was pivotal for us. We knew they’d be coming and countering. They’ve got good players in transition and we weren’t good enough.
“In the second half we were much better. They defended their box really well and obviously when they break, their opportunities come when we’re stretched. It was an error which led to their second goal, but credit our players for fighting back.”
Nottingham Forest’s Steve Cooper: “I’m not going to walk out of here irritated that we’ve taken a lead in the first leg of the play-offs. There’s frustration of course that we’ve conceded and we should have scored more than we did, but it was a proper play-off game.
“In the second half they had more of the ball than we’d have liked, but we still looked a threat. If someone had said we’d have created that many chances in a game of that tension away from home you’d be very happy with it. We’ve got a lot of young players who haven’t experienced games like this. We’re very positive and we can’t wait for Tuesday now. Let’s go.”
Analysis: ‘Sheff Utd will be happier side after late goal’
Former Forest defender Michael Dawson on Sky Sports Football:
“Time will tell whether that goal will cost Forest. They could have been far more ahead. But at 2-0 there is always that opportunity. Sheffield United will be a lot happier now with the manner in which the game ended.
“If you’d asked them before the game they’d have snapped your hand off for a 2-1 lead. But they’ll be so disappointed with the goal they conceded.”
Former Sheff Utd midfielder Michael Brown on Sky Sports:
“That was the chance, right in the final seconds, they needed something going into the second leg. It was a disappointing performance overall but it shows how tight it can be, if you can get something at the end of it.
“Now there’s a bit more confidence on what was a real difficult afternoon for Sheffield United.”
Man of the Match – Brennan Johnson
“We’re in a good position from winning the game. We played well today and had a lot of chances. We’d have liked the advantage to have been bigger, but we’ll take any advantage going into Tuesday.”
The play-off semi-final second leg will take place at the City Ground on Tuesday May 17, live on Sky Sports Football; Kick off 7.45pm. The winner will face either Huddersfield or Luton in the play-off final at Wembley on Sunday May 29.