Football: Forest fail to dispel rumours of demise

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Aston Villa. . . . .2

Nottingham Forest. .1

A TRAVESTY STILL awaits Nottingham Forest, simply the best team in memory to prop up a top division under any name. In an enthralling match at Villa Park yesterday, the difference between them and the potential championship challengers Aston Villa was marginal. But if Forest continue to concede defensively unforgivable goals they will certainly be condemned to the margins of the game.

With a player who dominates midfield as splendidly as Roy Keane, it seems impossible that Forest can seriously remain in danger. However, for all his magnificent work fetching, carrying and even scoring Forest's early, only, goal, there is an uncertainty about the defence that puts all too much of their otherwise progressive work in jeopardy.

For Forest this was another opportunity to make it clear that the persistent announcements of their expiration as a Premier League club were premature. Their 4-1 defeat of Leeds had all but destroyed the champions' hopes of keeping the title and at the same time confirmed belief in their own football. With every respect to whoever does drop out of the Premier League this season, who would want it to be Forest? Whether or not Brian Clough still inspires them with word, thought or deed, they always try to play the sort of football that he still regards as important, but which has largely been abandoned in England. Win, lose or draw, it has an appeal that ill-deserves to be relegated.

Villa under Ron Atkinson's charge are similarly dismissive of the scampering that all too often passes for entertainment, but on a day when they needed victory to keep up their title challenge and Forest urgently wanted to maintain thoughts of revival, principles were in danger of being ignored.

Villa were set back by the absence with a groin strain of Dalian Atkinson, previously ever present and ever one of their most exciting attackers. Not that the reappearance of Cyrille Regis was any comfort to Forest's defence. They endured a considerable early barrage before, only nine minutes in, Nigel Clough produced one of his more damaging long passes, from deep midfield wide to Keane 20 yards into the Villa half. Steve Staunton tried to hinder Keane but without effect. Keane's instant reaction was to take his chances with a chipped shot over the oncoming but uncertain Nigel Spink, who more or less waved to the ball as it went gliding over his head and under the crossbar.

Keane's ability to break up attacks and attack in his own right is Forest's most valuable asset. Here, against a team whose counter-attacking always leaves the possibility of being caught too heavily committed, he made it obvious why he had just scored his fourth goal in three matches. His eye for the opening left Villa wary of employing their left side, although in all other areas they kept Forest under pressure.

Eventually Villa got the better of Forest's composure. Earl Barrett's forward pass seemed to be well within the control of Carl Tiler on the edge of the Forest penalty area but he allowed Regis to secure it. Mark Crossley came out but Regis simply lifted the ball over his head and in.

Forest had appeared to be inviting Villa to do their worst. Sometimes it seems they almost believe they have a right to safety. Reality hit them one minute into the second half, when Ray Houghton's ball into the Forest penalty area was raised into the air by Garry Parker. Paul McGrath was there to place a strong, looping header over Crossley.

The centre of Forest's defence had been exposed several times before and continued to be their greatest frailty. How they missed Des Walker. Attractive midfield play and even effective finishing all comes to nought if the men at the back are generous to a fault. Tiler was permanently troubled by the busy Dean Saunders and anyone else who approached him. Steve Chettle was hardly a picture of dependability, although his deflection of Staunton's powerful shot midway through the second half was one of his happier errors.

Only by pressing forward could Forest avoid the awkward situations that afflicted them at the back. Once they had survived Parker clouting a shot against their post, they poured upfield in what, for them, might have passed for desperation. Keane continued to be inspirational and Clough tried manfully to get the better of McGrath, which this season is a task beyond just about everyone.

Whether McGrath would have destroyed all the outstanding work he had done by risking a penalty in the final 10 minutes is doubtful. Certainly, when Keane again went marauding McGrath followed him into the penalty area and seemed to make contact from behind. The referee was close enough to make a good decision and turned down a battery of appeals. Forest merited an equaliser, but Villa are not only playing some of the most positive football in the League but seem to have the wink of fortune with them.

Aston Villa: N Spink; E Barrett, S Staunton, S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, G Parker, D Saunders, C Regis, N Cox. Subs: D Yorke, M Breitkreutz, M Oakes (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.

Nottingham Forest: M Crossley; B Laws, S Pearce, S Chettle, C Tiler, R Keane, N Webb, S Gemmill, N Clough, L Glover (T Orlygsson, 77 min), K Black. Subs not used: G Bannister, A Marriott (gk). Manager: B Clough.

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).

Goals: Keane (0-1, 9 min), Regis (1-1, 34 min), McGrath (2-1, 46 min).