Nottingham Forest rewarded for Steve Cooper faith as Arsenal wave white flag

Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper hugs defender Joe Worrall (PA)
Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper hugs defender Joe Worrall (PA)

Nobody thought Arsenal would be here at this stage of the season, but that doesn’t make missing out on a first Premier League crown in 19 years, having exceeded all manner of expectations, any easier to take.

Brighton had played their part in finishing Arsenal’s title aspirations off last weekend, but it is Manchester City who ultimately ensured the Gunners finally raised the white flag at the City Ground on Saturday, by doing what they do best – crushing the dreams of teams who dare to even attempt to go toe-to-toe with a force never seen before on our shores.

Knowing even victory at Nottingham Forest would surely only delay the inevitable, Arsenal slumped to another defeat with a whimper, gifting City a third title in a row, a fifth in six years, without needing to kick a ball. The fact Arsenal got so close should be a real badge of honour. It just won’t feel like that right now.

There were contrasting emotions among home supporters, however, as the win secured Forest’s Premier League survival with one game to spare, proving that holding your nerve and sticking with a manager you believe in, even when results are not going your way, can pay dividends in the end.

The walk to the City Ground pre-match was more akin to a red-themed royal regatta than a football match, with supporters lining the River Trent as if waiting for their favourite crew to come rowing past.

But a city expected. One more win would do. Home form has been crucial to giving Forest any hope of survival this season and supporters were going to make sure they did all they could to inspire an eighth home league victory – two more than Chelsea – on the waterfront.

There were tifos that would have made the Yellow Wall blush and a rendition of Mull of Kintyre from deep within their souls to rouse the troops – the fans were ready. And, crucially, so were the players.

It helped that Arsenal were a shadow of the high-octane force that threatened to end City’s stranglehold of the English top flight.

Other than a Keylor Navas save at the feet of Gabriel Jesus and efforts from distance, the visitors did not really threaten to drag the title race out for another day in the first half, with motivation ostensibly in short supply. Win, the Labrador, had not worked his magic yet it seemed.

The goal that eventually settled the contest, one that nearly lifted the roof of the rickety old stadium, was created by a familiar source, as the ever-excellent Morgan Gibbs-White slid the ball into the path of Taiwo Awoniyi, who benefitted from a poor slide-tackle attempt from Gabriel to divert the ball past Aaron Ramsdale and into the net. The Forest hitman has now scored five goals in his last three Premier League appearances, one more than he had in his first 23 games in the competition combined.

Nottingham Forest celebrated their top-flight survival (PA)
Nottingham Forest celebrated their top-flight survival (PA)

There was still hope for the travelling Gunners faithful going into the second half, given their side had previously won three league matches this season when trailing at the break – a division high – but they remained shorn of ideas and belief.

A smart save from Navas to deny Bukayo Saka after the interval threatened to raise hopes of another rousing recovery, but although the home nerves were jangling, Forest could see out the win that secured another top-flight campaign in relative comfort.

Any other era and Liverpool would have three titles in the last five seasons, and Arsenal’s 19-year wait for another Premier League crown could well have been sealed at the City Ground in the Saturday sun.

Instead, despite holding an eight-point lead over City as recently as the morning of April 8, with the Gunners having been top of the Premier League table for 248 days this season – the most days at the summit of the English top flight without having won it – Arsenal have nothing to show for a season of incredible progress.

The fact of the matter is, City in beast mode with their inhumane hunger for glory simply cannot be tamed.

The foundations have been well set by Mikel Arteta. But even given all they have done this term, Arsenal now have a summer to somehow take their game to another level, and some. The master, Pep Guardiola, will be waiting for his apprentice.