Forest close to losing the thread

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The Independent Online
Nottingham Forest 1

Pearce 8 pen

Middlesbrough 0

Attendance: 27,027

"THERE are times when the only thing that matters is the result," the Forest manager Frank Clark had written in his programme notes, reflecting on points "scratched rather than schemed" from a single-goal Boxing Day win over Sheffield Wednesday. It also proved to be an accurate forecast of the way yesterday's victory was gained.

The result was decided in the ninth minute, when the Middlesbrough defender Curtis Fleming illegally halted Steve Stone's progress towards the six- yard box and Stuart Pearce unleashed the full power of his left foot to beat Gary Walsh from the penalty spot. What followed was an anti-climax and Middlesbrough, having been braced for the worst after their 4-0 thrashing at Everton, probably felt unlucky not to have salvaged a point.

"It was a carbon copy of Boxing Day, really," Clark said afterwards. "We started brightly, got ourselves in front but then lost the thread." Middlesbrough, quite apart from suffering a confidence crisis after Goodison, were down to 14 fit players, with Jan Fjortoft joining Nick Barmby and Craig Hignett among their significant absentees. There was evidence, certainly, that Forest were expecting a relatively straightforward afternoon's work.

In the event, with the 32-year-old John Hendrie leading the line on his own and Clayton Blackmore, 31, recalled for the first time this season, the visiting side looked the hungrier and it was just as well for Forest that a defence well marshalled by Colin Cooper was able to restrict their opportunities for, on balance of possession, they might have won. "In the circumstances I was pleased with my lads," their manager Bryan Robson said.

The problem for Forest is that they are a counter-attacking team that lacks a cutting edge. Clark still has not replaced Stan Collymore. Although any criticism of his signings needs to be qualified. He had wanted to establish Kevin Campbell, bought for pounds 2.5million from Arsenal, as a partner to Bryan Roy and acquired Andrea Silenzi from Torino as insurance. But both have been hampered by injuries and Roy has been sidelined too.

The Dutchman, who had a cartilage operation five weeks ago, has recovered quickly but only played for the last 17 minutes, replacing Jason Lee, Forest's leading scorer with seven goals but out of his depth at this level.

Middlesbrough were closest to an equaliser five minutes before half-time when Hendrie shot from 25 yards and rattled Mark Crossley's right-hand post. A free kick awarded when Juninho was brought down at a similar distance from goal early in the second half was wasted.

Without the support of Barmby and Fjortoft, the Brazilian at times looked ordinary. But he is coping well with the demands of a Premiership winter, apparently unaffected by the freezing temperatures and the physical nature of the game here. The way, at one point, he pursued Pearce for 40 yards amply illustrated his appetite for the fray. Forest, who have failed to score more than one goal in any of their last 10 matches, attempted to stir themselves in the final quarter hour, mounting a quest for the insurance of the second goal in which Chris Bart-Williams flashed a 30-yard drive narrowly wide.

Lee might have made the points safe just before he was taken off but, in a goalmouth scramble, needed too many touches, which was rather typical of his afternoon.

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