Storming Earle on rebound

FOOTBALL
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For once the figures tell only the mildest of lies. Wimbledon have now gone 12 Premiership matches unbeaten, Nottingham Forest have failed to win in 14; and while only one goal divided them at Selhurst Park yesterday, it was rarely difficult to tell whose sequence was which.

One side, without ever being in control of affairs, bristled with purpose; the other too often wasted precious possession. One side always gave the impression that they believed they might score; the other invariably appeared that they would do their utmost to avoid doing so.

The most telling Forest weakness, and one which must have spread through the rest of the team to erode will, if not legs, was their defence. The lack of pace, which went unrewarded through any real sense of timing, was constantly exposed by Wimbledon's two rapid forwards Efan Ekoku and Marcus Gayle. Both raced into the heart of the Forest defence to create uncertainty, which led to a series of elementary lapses.

This was no better embodied than by an incident in the 78th minute when Stuart Pearce, seemingly under no immediate pressure, passed across the box to his goalkeeper Mark Crossley. Crossley, misjudging the pace - this being one of Pearce's more delicate touches - swung out a leg to clear but failed to make contact. He recovered in the nick of time to hack the ball away.

Forest were not without scoring opportunities, but from the moment that Dean Saunders put a weak shot into the side netting in the second minute the feeling grew that they would not grab their 13th goal of the season. If Kevin Campbell was culpable more than once, Saunders looked like a striker who had scored fitfully throughout his career.

The goal arrived eight minutes from half-time from a free-kick near the edge of the area. Gayle's strike was a beauty and left Crossley floundering as it curled on to the bar. Robbie Earle was on hand for the rebound and his seventh goal of the season. It was so methodical that it would have been no surprise to hear Wimbledon claiming that they practised this set-piece.

For much of the second half Forest were either clearing their lines, struggling to match the opposition's pace or desperately trying to string together enough passes to mount attacks. There were opportunities. Neil Sullivan had to move sharply and spread wide to deny Campbell, and a typically thunderous Pearce free-kick was deflected wide at the last second. In the 82nd minute, and becoming more frenetic, a Saunders cross appeared to land perfectly at Campbell's feet. The net equally appeared to be at his mercy but his approach was hesitant enough for the ball to be scooped away for a corner.

Wimbledon, playing as ever within their limitations, replaced Ekoku and Gayle during the second half. They had done their share of running. Only the yellow card shown to Vinnie Jones might have spoiled their day. On immediate sight it appeared to have been based on reputation rather than crime, but the Forest manager, Frank Clark, was sure the referee acted correctly.

Clark, in any case, has other matters with which to contend. "We didn't just miss chances, we spurned the opportunity to create them," he said. With a ponderous defence, a stale midfield and profligate forwards, his problems are obvious.

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