Are Nottingham Forest realistic play-off contenders this season?

This is a question that is now being asked, because as of Tuesday night, Nottingham Forest extended their unbeaten run to 13 games following a 0-0 draw with Queens Park Rangers at the City Ground.

Now in that 13-game stretch, there have been more draws (7) than wins (6), however the very fact that Forest are not losing after a tough start to the season is very promising.

It is well known that Forest started the season under a transfer embargo and as a result were limited to free transfers (cannot offer more than £10,000 a week wages) and loan deals, but if you look at who Reds' boss, Dougie Freedman has managed to bring in under such difficult circumstances you can only applaud the former striker.

During the summer, Forest managed to bring in Nelson Oliveira from Benfica, Ryan Mendes from Lille, Chris O'Grady from Brighton, Kyle Ebecilio from FC Twente and Jonny Williams from Crystal Palace all on loan deals, whilst also securing the permanent signings of Matt Mills, Jamie Ward and Daniel Pinillos on free transfers.

Last season the Reds' looked very vulnerable at the back and heading into this season, fans were even more concerned as both Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles, two players Forest sold to Newcastle United in January were now gone for good, after initially being loaned back until the end of last season.

As aforementioned brought in to sure up the defence were former Bolton Wanderers centre-back Mills, and former Cordoba left-back Pinillos, both of whom have had a positive impact on the side.

Mills has re-ignited his career at the City Ground this season and has not only looked solid, installing confidence in the back line, but also proved a regular goal threat mainly from set-pieces. Mills has already scored five goals this season, beating his previous season-high of four, which was last season when making 37 appearances for Bolton. Having scored over 22% of his career goals in one half of a season (23 games) at Forest, it certainly looks like the defender has found his scoring touch.

Pinillos made the left-back spot his own straight away, as Freedman was looking to replace out-of-favour Danny Fox and the Spaniard made his mark. He became an instant favourite with the fans, however during Forest's win over MK Dons back in December, Pinillos suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury, which will keep him out for the remainder of the season.

Freedman moved fast to replace him though, again opting against recalling Fox to the side, the Scotsman dipped back into the loan market to bring in the experienced Slovenia international, Bojan Jokic from Villareal.

Jokic has slotted in comfortably in the left-back position, and he along with Mills, Eric Lichaj and a combination Jack Hobbs and Michael Mancienne have all played a part along with 'keeper Dorus De Vries in keeping a clean-sheet in the last three consecutive league games.

Since the start of 2016, Forest have played six games, including a cup-tie with Tuesday night's league opponents Q.P.R and conceded just twice, in the 1-1 draws with both Charlton Athletic and Birmingham City.

If there can be any criticism of this team right now it would be it's failure to turn mediocre draws into wins and this may be down to a lack of fire-power up front. With the team coping with the long-term injuries of last season's top scorer Britt Assombalonga and Matty Fryatt, Forest have been forcred to rely on the trio of Oliveira, O'Grady and Dexter Blackstock. Between them they have only managed 11 goals, 7 of them coming from top-scorer Oliveira.

With the form they are in, Forest should definitely be expecting to beat the likes of Charlton, however some of these draws are better than they look.

Drawing away to Cardiff can hardly be seen as a bad result as they currently sit in 9th place, having only lost one game at home all season to league leaders Hull City, whilst the draw at home to Leeds United was at a time when the visiting side had won four of their last 5 games in December. Leeds remained unbeaten until their 2-1 defeat to Ipswich Town on the 12th January, meaning an 8-game unbeaten run of their own.

The draws away to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers would have been dissapointing, coming off the back of comprehensive 3-1 and 3-0 victories over Reading and Fulham respectively at home in the two fixtures prior, however there was only 3 days between the two games which meant fatigue and rotation would have played a part.

To remain undefeated throughout the months of December and January, in what is possibly the busiest time of the season would be nothing short of miraculous, and should they avoid defeat at home to Watford in the F.A Cup 4th round this weekend, that is exactly what Nottingham Forest will do.

So how far can Forest go? Currently they sit 7 points adrift of 6th placed Sheffield Wednesday who have a game in hand, but a win against Leeds in a fortnights time could see them move within four points of the play-offs should other results go their way and then maybe, just maybe the Forest faithful will start to believe again.

With that trip to Leeds the start of a very tricky February, this may be the telling month in the Reds' season. If they can get a positive result away at Elland Road to keep the run going, next up is what looks like an inviting home game against another Yorkshire-based side Huddersfield Town.

Huddersfield who have got to face Preston away and Cardiff at home before visiting the City Ground have not found it easy on their travels. They have won just three times on the road this season, whilst drawing four and losing seven, and they might struggle to improve that record against a Preston side who have won 3 of their last 5 home games despite losing 3-1 in front of their own fans against Brentford last weekend.

Ideally Nottingham Forest need to pick up back-to-back wins in their next two games, before they face two tough away trips against 3rd placed Burnley and league-leaders Hull just three days later . It is hard to imagine they will remain unbeaten, especially against two of the top three in the league although they did just beat second-placed Middlesbrough away from home last weekend. If by some miracle they can extend that unbeaten run, their play-off destiny may well be in their own hands.

They face Ipswich (8th), Derby (5th) and Sheffield Wednesday (6th) in March so will have chances to take valuable points off of those around them and therefore climb into contention.

There are still a lot of what-ifs right now, and the odds are still stacked against them, but what is certain is that there is certainly still hope, and with the likes of Ward (2 goals in his last two starts) and young star Oliver Burke really stepping up, their chances are now a lot higher than expected before the start of December.

Ward a summer signing  from local rivals, Derby County looks to be relishing in his new, more advanced role that he was deployed in, in the games against Bolton and Middlesbrough and he may well become the regular goalscorer Forest have been looking for. Burke, a youth-team graduate really looks a great prospect and has proved that good things can come from bad situations.

Freedman has had no choice but to include some younger players on the bench this season but it is Burke that has really shone. After making a noticeable impact coming off the bench against Leeds in the 83rd minute back in December, the Scotland under-19 international has not looked back.

In that cameo appearance, Burke rifled a shot against the post in the closing minutes and almost stole all 3-points for his side and as a result has found his chances in the first-team more frequent. His scored in his very next game, just 9 minutes into the game against Cardiff, and found the net once more in the 3-0 home win against Bolton.

If Freedman can find a way of successfully incorporating Ward, Burke and Oliveira into the same side, Nottingham Forest may well become a very dangerous side, with a very potent strike force against any opposition.

So yes at this moment in time it would appear Nottingham Forest can now be considered contenders for a play-off spot, but only time will tell, and it's clear Freedman is remaining coy at this point. When asked about any more signings this transfer window, after the win against Middlesbrough, he said “I’m happy with what I’ve got as long as I’ve got honesty, hard work and that people show commitment to the wonderful supporters who were here today.  before stating “We’ve got a committed team – where that takes us I’m not too sure yet.” 

The above quotes would suggest that whilst another signing (to fill the one spare squad space they have) would be ideal, he is happy with the squad he now has at his disposal, and also does not seem to be ruling anything out in terms of where his side can finish this season.

Freedman has often been cited as negative tactically by the fans of each the three clubs he's managed (previously managed Crystal Palace and Bolton), but right now it looks as though he is working within his means and is now exceeding expectations in what is clearly a difficult season for all involved at the City Ground.

It would be nothing short of amazing if Freedman can drag this side, made up of loanees, free transfers and youth products into the play-offs and if he does, fans will no doubt be singing his name come May.

For now the jury will remain out and as soon as this unbeaten run inevitably comes to an end, the pressure will be back on the manager and players alike.  For now though, the mood around the club is clearly positive and it looks like the manager is relishing in the challenge so far this season. Whilst no one can know for sure how long this up-turn in form can last it, would be silly to rule this Nottingham Forest side out at this point in time.






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