words: David Marples
Upon realising that Aitor Karanka made sweeping changes to his team selection for this game, slight disappointment was quickly replaced by pleasant satisfaction that so despite so many changes, the team still looked like it could put on a show and give anyone a game.
Ben Osborn continued to remind everyone what a very good footballer he is despite being shunted back to left back. His foray forward was a classic case of fortune favouring the brave as somehow the ball slapped back off his knee and ended up apologetically in the Stoke net.
Up to this point, the game was rather odd in that Gary Rowett's team, running to the rhythm of the excellent Bojan, looked impressive as individuals but still less than the sum of its parts. Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher looked very accomplished when on the ball but grew frustrated easily when a move broke down. All the while, Forest simply did their thing - wait, defend when necessary then break dangerously when the moment arose. One minute you could be forgiven for thinking they weren't at the races but the next, they put a move together which blew that theory away. This team looks increasingly comfortable in its own skin.
Just before half-time, Daryl Murphy sprinted beyond the last man and blooted the ball harder than Hot-Shot Hamish might after standing on an upturned plug. The wind was in their sails and Stoke looked all out of puff.
Diogo Gonçalves was linking up with Osborn down the left impressively and with each dribble, his confidence grew. Ben Watson was not only organising the midfield but prompting attacks too and Liam Bridcutt played like a whack-a-mole to Karanaka's hammer - continuously reminding him that he is around and his performances won't simply slither gently into the night but keep on jumping up, giving him an almighty headache.
When Joe Lolley did his very best Arjen Robben impression and put the hosts three goals ahead, Stoke effectively decided to chuck all of their chips on the table by throwing on Benik Afobe and Thomas Ince in a kind of 1-1-9 formation, culminating in Afobe converting after a rather speculative/clever (delete as appropriate) shot.
Forest still looked dangerous on the break and Gonçalves might well have put the game out of sight but his shot was tame - a gentle belly rub compared to Murphy's sledge hammer. Moments later, Gonçalves skipped through half the Stoke team and surrounding counties only for play to be pulled back when the Stoke bench - and pretty much only the Stoke bench - stamped their feet and threw a wobbly at what they perceived to be foul play. Everyone else looks slightly bemused - even more so when a red card was brandished. This was going to be interesting but not necessarily in a good way.
Saido Berahino took a rest and sat on the ball before making it 3-2 and from then on it was a a case of standing firm in defence - which the home team did, despite offering Berahino the easiest chance of the evening, which he flatly and promptly turned down.
Since the FA Cup tie against Arsenal, cup games at the City Ground have been more fun than fun hour at Funky McFun's Funhouse. It seems a while since Forest's balls were in an ever decreasingly sized sack - as it were. It would be nice to extend fun hour and remain in the velvet bag a little while longer.