Nottingham Forest gave Liverpool a taste of what they hope to bring to the Premier League next year



You always get a chance as an underdog, two seconds that are somehow slowed down to six or seven parts, giving you time to realize how important what is about to take place will be. Taking that chance does not mean you win, because the quality gap can not provide such guarantees. But to miss it means you probably will not.

Brennan Johnson is one of the cornerstones of this Nottingham Forest team because he is a young academy graduate and the club is still trying to develop their own even though it is to sell at a huge profit. Philip Zinckernagel is another because he is a loan player and Forest has a harvest of them that brings them closer to promotion than anyone here thought possible six months ago. As the former crossed for the latter, City Ground held its breath as one, waiting to scream of exaltation.

Two seconds later there is no goal. Two minutes later is there. Zinckernagel has pulled his shot past Alisson’s goal. Diogo Jota has guided his past Ethan Horvath. These are the margins. But they are also the difference. Every player at the professional level has the ability to do something ingenious. What sets the best apart from the rest is the ability to do it consistently and to do it when under pressure. Liverpool must play against Manchester City in FA Cup semifinals.

But the most surprising element of this cup match came after the goal, not before it. Until Jota’s end, this was a smoldering fever of a game. Tackles were tough and chances rare, but shared fairly evenly as Forest gave just as well as they got against a much-changed Liverpool team. Jürgen Klopp has repeatedly stressed that this is the strongest, deepest squad of his Liverpool period. Proof of that is that he made seven changes and still selected 10 senior internationals.

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After the goal lay the real magic and waited. Most observers expected Liverpool to control possession and destroy Forest’s spirit, while Forest would try to cause harm to preserve that spirit. When world-class teams meet Championship teams, control becomes inevitable.

And yet the opposite. Forest created three or four excellent openings in the last 15 minutes. Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate sent the ball forward and were put under physical pressure by Sam Surridge and Keinan Davis. Instead of control, there was chaos. They should receive a compliment for the fact that Luis Diaz, Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara came on the field to save the day.

Followers on the shores of Trent have been starved of trophy progress. They are one of seven of the 92 league teams that never play at the new Wembley. It was the first time they have played in the last eight of any tournament since 1996, when Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Jean-Pierre Papin were Bayern Munich’s stars in the Uefa Cup. They have been waiting for 23 years to play against Liverpool, an opponent who for at least two glorious years was lucky enough to call Forest their equal.

They were desperate not to behave like underdogs. They knew Mr Clough would not have allowed it. But there were small giveaways, immediate concessions that the past can never last until the present. As Liverpool’s team coach drove into the car park at the back of the grandstand, a group of supporters offered up cheers that could not be considered a friendly welcome.

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A child who sat on his father’s shoulders and looked with wide-eyed wonder let his guard slide. “I can see Virgil van Dijk!” he shouted to his mother, standing ten feet away.

And they did not act as one. This is not Liverpool’s priority competition and this was not their first team. But then it’s not Skovens either.

There are bigger battles to fight, more important step by step and psychological ghosts to try to joke in the playoff semifinals. Sunday afternoon brought a reflection of history, a time when these two clubs fought on equal footing. The best Forest could hope for was to fight on unequal terms, and that goal they met. If Cooper can take them to Wembley in the playoffs, no one will miss it in the trophy.

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