Nottingham Forest are through to the play-off final for the first time in their history after beating Sheffield United on penalties after a hard-fought two legs. They will now face Huddersfield at Wembley for a chance to return to the Premier League for the first time since 1993.
Forest took the lead early on in the second leg thanks to a goal by Brennan Johnson, who has been one of the team’s best performers this season, but Sheffield United scored two goals in the second half to send the game into extra time. Throughout their campaign, James Garner has been one of their key players and United fans will have been watching the match to see how the young English midfielder performed.
Garner had a solid game but he was unable to get on the scoresheet or register an assist. He also went off injured late in extra time before the penalty shoot-out but hopefully, he will be fit to play against Huddersfield in the final.
But if United fans did not switch off as soon as Garner went off injured they will have witnessed Brice Samba’s heroics in the penalty shoot-out. The Congolese keeper saved three penalties on the night and was hailed for how he outwitted the opposition takers.
One save in particular was outstanding. Conor Hourihane’s penalty was struck down the middle, but instead of diving Samba stayed firmly standing in the middle of the net and stuck a hand out to save the Irishman’s shot.
And there may have been a method in his madness. Samba had a bottle to the side of the net on which Forest’s coaching staff had written all the ways in which Sheffield United players were going to take their penalties.
United fans will remember that David de Gea had a similar bottle in the Europa League final, but when the bottle said stand firm as the taker was going to hit it down the middle, the Spanish goalkeeper still dived out of the way. And of course, United went on to lose the final.
Samba’s save may be a massive step in the right direction for Forest, whereas De Gea’s failure to stop a penalty could be marked as the beginning of the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time at the club. If United had won a trophy that night it would have been a clear measure of progress for the Norwegian’s time at Old Trafford, but instead, the loss invited doubt upon the project.
It still could have all gone wrong this season, as United did not address all the problems in their squad and in some areas the team was overperforming. But in some ways, the win may have acted as the kick the team needed to push forward this season and improve on last season even further.
Now Solskjaer has been sacked and Erik ten Hag is set to be the new manager of United. But football is still a game of moments and hopefully, in the Dutchman’s reign, he will not suffer a similar course-changing moment as the team did against Villarreal.