Nottingham Forest have made a European campaign out of sneaking apparently lucky victories, but they have never broken hearts so cruelly as this. Having been outplayed by Second Division Oxford United for much of last night's FA Cup fourth-round replay, they ultimately gained a flattering victory at the Manor Ground.
Forest now host a reprise of the 1991 FA Cup final, with Tottenham Hotspur visiting the City Ground for a televised fifth-round tie on Monday.
Spurs won that final, which is remembered for Paul Gascoigne's self-inflicted knee injury, 2-1. Four members of the current Forest team played: Mark Crossley, Ian Woan, Stuart Pearce and Steve Chettle. While they will have an added incentive on Monday the most motivated player may be Kevin Campbell, who will have the chance to maintain the revival of his career, and maybe gain belated favour with Arsenal fans.
It was Campbell who put Forest on course for victory last night, coolly scoring his fourth goal in seven matches after 39 minutes. Late goals from Ian Woan, from a penalty, and Andrea Silenzi settled the tie - but not before Forest had been stretched to the limit.
The difference, as so often in these contests, was in the finishing and defending: Oxford's mistakes were punished, Forest's were not. The result, if not the performance, is a significant boost for Forest ahead of their Uefa Cup quarter-final tie with Bayern Munich next month. Their goalscoring problem has become acute in recent weeks, so much so that the Forest manager, Frank Clark, took the bold step of dropping his Dutch international, Brian Roy, last night.
"Anyone who has seen us playing recently will understand why Brian was not in the team. When a special player like him is not playing well you wait and wait but eventually you have to do what is best to strengthen the side," Clark said.
After a cautious opening half-hour, Oxford were building up a powerful momentum when Campbell scored. Matt Murphy, drafted in to add forward support to Paul Moody, had twice squandered excellent positions and Crossley had made an excellent reaction save from Matt Elliot.
Then Forest, who are never more dangerous than when under pressure, created the best move of the match. Woan, having skilfully held the ball up, laid it back to Steve Stone who slid a pass through to Campbell. He scored with an aplomb rarely seen at Highbury.
Oxford were undaunted and, with Bobby Ford prominent in midfield, they carried the game to Forest in the second half. Steve Chettle was booked for checking Stuart Massey and Crossley had to make several decent saves.
As Malmo, Auxerre and Lyon will testify, Forest are hard to beat. Even Rush and Aldridge, as enviable a pair of substitutes as there ever was, could not make a difference. They were, admittedly, Matthew Rush, not Ian, and Martin Aldridge, not John. The difference was soon evident, Aldridge missing two chances in a manner which would have had his namesake reaching for a revolver.
Inevitably, Oxford left gaps and, after Stone drove though one of them with nine minutes left, Massey was forced to handle to stop him. With Stuart Pearce injured the influential Woan took the penalty, scoring with less power but an accuracy that was the equal of his skipper's.
Four minutes later Massey slipped and Silenzi took advantage to add a third. It was only his second goal of the season and made for a rare double. With a new ground in the offing, this may be the last FA Cup tie staged at the Manor Ground, but at least those present can say they saw Kevin Campbell and Andrea Silenzi score in the same match.
Oxford United (4-5-1): Whitehead; Robinson, Gilchrist, Elliot, M Ford; Massey, Murphy (Aldridge, 64), Smith (Angel, 71), B Ford, Beauchamp; Moody (Rush, 64).
Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Cooper, Chettle, Phillips; Stone, Gemmill, Bart-Williams, Woan; Silenzi, Campbell. Substitutes not used: Haland, McGregor, Fettis (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).
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