Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Waiting, it is said, is often worth it. It was a test of patience for Alexander Isak, for Eddie Howe, for the Newcastle supporters. But two added-time strikes – one in each half – turned the deficit on the pitch and reduced another: fourth-placed Tottenham are now within a point and Newcastle have a game in hand.
There was a lot of talk about Howe last week, suggesting Isak, Newcastle’s record signing, wasn’t ready for a full 90 minutes. This meant that Isak still got going with the necessary intensity after a long injury break. The proof a week, two starts and three goals later is that Isak is ready.
After an evening in which the defenders slipped, the defenders stretched and a technically great equalizer earlier, Isak rose with minutes to go. His header caught Moussa Niakhaté’s hand and presented a last chance from the penalty spot.
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The Swede stepped up, the boos booming across the floor. Cool, calm and game-winning, Isak placed the ball in the top corner. He now has half a dozen goals in just under seven games. “Confidence is the key for any attacking player. The penalty was freezing,” Howe said. “It was a top, top performance. He was a constant handful for Forest. His pace and his tricks were obvious.”
Does Isak have a blanket? “I don’t think so,” Howe replied. “He can give so much more. We knew we were signing a top, top player who is capable of amazing things. I thought he showed that today. He has a big role to play in our future.”
As Isak celebrated with the visiting fans, Howe and his bench jumped for joy. Steve Cooper was devastated. The accordion in the Premier League relegation battle makes home comforts invaluable. Special to Forest: 20 of their 26 points were earned on the City Ground.
“It’s the worst way to lose, isn’t it?” said Cooper. “The main talking points were that we didn’t fight our way around the two goals. These are moments in the game where you just have to see through. Making these decisions under construction is something you get penalized for at this level. Therein lies my immediate frustration.”
Think of poor Emmanuel Dennis. He could easily have left Forest in January but his options were limited to a return to Watford. His elaborate social media announcement garnered a lot of attention, but Dennis’ impact has been limited since then. However, his beautiful start in the first half will be trending.
Cooper had taken a calculated gamble and made a quartet of changes. The idea was clear; sit, frustrate and catch Newcastle at the break. But it took a moment of terror from Sven Botman to give them an opportunity. Botman had shaken off Andre Ayew and everything seemed under control. However, he hadn’t spied on Dennis’ run. Patience, feint, dinked finish. Beautiful delirium.
Otherwise, Forest’s most effective method was windup. The referee, Paul Tierney, barely helped. Jonjo Shelvey appeared keen to make more than a mental impression on his former team-mates but evaded a caution late on. Dennis saw a yellow card after passing Kieran Trippier in the forward break; Cooper asked animatedly why. And he was right.
Joe Willock missed an early shot at glory, ahead of Isak (via three distractions) and Sean Longstaff (via just one). Willock’s cross then found Isak at the back post with the first half almost up. It was just behind the forward, but Isak still shifted his body to deftly equalize.
Allan Saint-Maximin’s hamstring was strained and with Miguel Almirón and Anthony Gordon both absent through injury Howe turned to young talent Elliot Anderson at the break. Shortly after forcing a save from Keylor Navas, Anderson rose and planted a header that would have made another former Wallsend Boys Club graduate purr. “Duh, duh, duh, Geordie Maradona,” the travelers roared.
The celebrations were long over when the VAR screen of doom appeared. Tierney noted that Longstaff was offside. Howe confirmed he needed to look closely at why VAR intervened before praising Anderson. “It’s actually incredibly difficult to get into the Premier League. This is the most difficult part of his Newcastle career. Can he make the step up? He certainly didn’t do himself any harm tonight.”
The noise that greeted the news of the unauthorized gate could have caused waves to smash the banks of the Trent, but Forest couldn’t build on that momentum. Newcastle’s waste looked like it would cost them again. Then Isak intervened. “A big moment for us in our season,” Howe said.