After weeks of anticipation, the big one has finally arrived. Nottingham Forest will lock horns with Derby County on Saturday in a match that means so much more than three points. This is the East Midlands derby, the Reds vs the Rams, east against west. Emotion, atmosphere, animosity. Leg-breaking tackles, last-minute winners, roof-raising celebrations.
In the eyes of Forest fans, this is the make-or-break fixture. Forget Bristol City after the international break, or QPR on the following Wednesday night - just make sure that this game ends with a win.
The Reds have been undeniably inferior to their neighbours in recent years, not managing a finish above ninth in six years while the Rams have soared to four top six finishes in the same amount of time. The Fawaz era was one of the bleakest, most depressing periods in the history of Nottingham Forest football club, and it certainly reached its nadir in the 5-0 trouncing at Pride Park back in 2014. An unforgettable day for both sets of fans.
Recently though, the tables have turned. A Yohan Benalouane goal secured Forest their first win in three years over Derby back in February, and August saw a second home victory over the Rams: a convincing 3-0 win in the Carabao Cup. The atmosphere around the two clubs couldn't be more dissimilar at the moment.
While Phillip Cocu's side are still suffering with the hangover from the drink driving scandal and are currently languishing in lowly 15th, Sabri Lamouchi has enjoyed a fine start to Championship life as Forest manager, sitting pretty in fourth place with a game in hand. The fans have bought into the Frenchman's philosophy, and the club feels united - something which the Forest faithful haven't been able to say for quite some time.
With Forest in better form and in front of their own crowd - a sell-out crowd that certainly stirs up quite the atmosphere when it comes to derby day - it would be easy to pinpoint the Reds as clear favourites. But when it comes to the attritional East Midlands derby, the game is decided by key moments ; form goes out of the window. Ultimately, it will come down to which team can keep a level head amidst the chaos.
Forest skipper Michael Dawson has been declared fit for Saturday, while midfielders Alfa Semedo and Samba Sow will not return until after the international break: "I think Samba Sow and Alfa Semedo will train with us next week," Lamouchi told Nottinghamshire Live earlier this week. Benalouane - who inspired Forest to victory over the Rams back in February - will also watch from the stands with a hip injury.
Derby midfielder Krystian Bielik is expected to return this weekend after taking a heavy knock on his ankle and hip in the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough last time out. Tom Huddlestone is sidelined with a hamstring injury until December, while left-back Scott Malone was also forced out of the Middlesbrough game through injury and will not feature on Saturday.
Forest: (4-2-3-1): Samba, Cash, Dawson, Worrall, Ribeiro, Watson, Yates, Lolley, Silva, Ameobi, Grabban
Derby: (4-2-3-1): Roos, Lowe, Clarke, Davies, Bogle, Bielik, Shinnie, Lawrence, Paterson, Holmes, Martin
Dawson returning will be a massive boost
Despite certainly having lost a yard of pace and not exactly being the template modern centre-half, there is no denying how crucial Dawson has been to the Forest defence this season. With Dawson in the team, Forest’s win percentage has been 12.5% higher, conceding 0.25 less goals per match.
The Englishman isn’t easy on the eye, but his intangible qualities should not go unnoticed. Dawson is a born leader, and the defence on the whole looks much more organised with him in it. His cool head and experience will be invaluable on Saturday in a game where the occasion too often overrules rational thinking.
Two up front again for Cocu ?
In the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough last weekend, Cocu went with two up front for the first time this season. Jack Marriot and Chris Martin led the line excellently, bouncing off each other with great chemistry. However, Cocu insisted in his post-match interview that this tactical altercation was not a permanent shift, but merely a different outlet to be utilised depending on the opposition.
The East Midlands derby at the City Ground often begins with a fast, high-pressing tempo, and what caused Frank Lampard’s team so many problems last year was their adherence to playing out from the back. Cocu has also rarely strayed away from this philosophy this season, but perhaps to weather the early storm he should look at utilising the more direct outlet to Marriot and Martin.
With Martin winning the headers as the target man and Marriot running off him, Derby could bypass the press easily with a direct, chipped pass and instantly cause issues for Forest down the other end of the pitch.
What the managers have said
“Two players with different qualities, but they match up well in the team,” Cocu said of Martin and Marriot in an interview with the club.
The Dutchman has been in high spirits prior to Saturday’s clash, and seems unfazed by the weight and significance attached to the game : "Personally I always loved playing in the big games.”
He continued: “The understanding between the players is getting better, the gameplay is improving.”
"The most important thing now is to perform in an away game, especially this big game coming up on Saturday.”
Lamouchi turns 48 on Saturday, but there’s only one thing he’ll be wishing for: “It would be a very good gift [3 points] , absolutely, not just for me but for the players and the fans. I know how much the game means to them," he said in in his pre-match press conference.
The Frenchman insists, however, that Saturday’s match will present an entirely different challenge to the Carabao Cup victory in August. "The cup game had a totally different context, but against Derby it is always the same idea: just win."
“The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing and it was just the League Cup. I'm sure it will be the same again."