Chelsea had to settle for a point in a game of two very different halves on our first Premier League fixture against Nottingham Forest for nearly 24 years.
We made a bright start and dominated possession and territory in the first 45 minutes at the City Ground, although it was a half decided by two chances, the first saved by Kepa Arrizabalaga to deny Brennan Johnson, twice, and the other scored emphatically by Raheem Sterling to take him back clear as our top scorer with six goals this season.
However, things were very different after the break, as Nottingham Forest came out for the second half looking like a completely different team and determined to find an equaliser. There was a stern warning when Morgan Gibbs-White struck a powerful effort off the underside of the crossbar, but not long afterwards the home side levelled the scores through Serge Aurier after a corner resulted in a scramble in the Chelsea box.
We regained our composure and tried to find our way back into the lead, with substitutes Hakim Ziyech and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang coming close to deciding the game late on, but it wasn't to be after a closely-fought ending which few saw coming at the midway point in the game.
Graham Potter made one change to the side which beat Bournemouth 2-0 in our final match of last year as we began 2023 away at Nottingham Forest.
That was forced upon our head coach by the injury setback suffered by Reece James in that previous match, with Cesar Azpilicueta coming in to captain the side in his absence. It was the Spaniard’s 495th game for Chelsea, putting him clear of Petr Cech’s total as our highest overseas appearance maker of all time.
The team was otherwise unchanged, meaning Marc Cucurella continued on the left of defence while Thiago Silva and Kalidou Koulibaly were in the middle, ahead of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The midfield trio of Denis Zakaria, Jorginho and Mason Mount retained their places, as did Christian Pulisic, Raheem Sterling and Kai Havertz in attack. Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech were both named among the substitutes for the first time since helping their countries reach the World Cup semi-finals, having been rested against Bournemouth.
This was Chelsea’s first match at the City Ground since February 1999. The Blues seemed eager to make up for lost time as we started on the front foot, with Mount smartly bringing down a ball over the top from Kalidou Koulibaly, but he couldn’t find the target with his powerful shot. Less than two minutes on the clock and we had already started to threaten the opposition’s goal.
The opening exchanges were played almost exclusively in the Forest half, with all 10 outfield Chelsea players spending most of their time across the halfway line, and we weren’t far away from being gifted an opening when goalkeeper Dean Henderson dropped a looping ball in the box under pressure from his own defenders, but just recovered in time with Mount poised.
Suddenly, though, Kepa was forced to make the game’s first two saves, in quick succession. As Morgan Gibbs-White lifted the ball over our defence on the halfway line, it allowed Brennan Johnson’s pace to take him clear between Thiago Silva and Cucurella. Thankfully, our Spanish keeper was on hand to save well low to his left, and he recovered quickly to gather up Johnson’s follow-up effort from the rebound.
That seemed to spark things into life at both ends of the pitch, as Azpilicueta produced a strong block from Gibbs-White on the edge of our box, while Havertz was close to getting on the end of a beautifully weighted Thiago Silva high ball and Mount had an effort charged down.
It was Chelsea who got the opening goal at the end of that frantic few minutes, although there was an element of fortune in the build-up. Pulisic did well to play a quick one-two and beat his man with skill out on the left to make space to deliver a cross towards Havertz at the near post.
However, when Havertz tried to flick the ball on with his heel, it came off Forest defender Willy Boly instead and looped over everyone to bounce off the top of the crossbar.
While there may have been some luck involved in the touch off Boly, the finish was nothing but quality, via the right foot of Sterling. As the ball spun back off the woodwork, our No17 watched it drop patiently before unleashing an unstoppable half-volley high into the net. It was a composed strike to end his wait for a Premier League goal, having not found the net in that competition since the end of August.
After the opening goal things settled back into the pattern of the game’s opening moments, as Chelsea controlled possession in Nottingham Forest’s half but had to be wary of the home team’s counter-attacks. Steve Cooper’s side had a clear plan to try and use Johnson’s pace to get in behind our centre-backs early.
Thiago Silva had just about enough experience to keep him at bay in the first half, though, despite the 17-year age difference. The Welsh forward’s frustration at that fact was increasingly obvious in a couple of desperate fouls on the Brazilian and a theatrical dive under a challenge from Mason Mount on the touchline, with replays showing there was no contact.
The closest either side came to adding to the scoreline before the break was a scuffed effort by Pulisic which rolled tamely straight to Henderson, leaving us with just a narrow one-goal lead to show for our dominant possession in the first half.
Forest fight back
There seemed to be a lot more urgency about the home team when they came out after half-time, though, working much harder to win the ball back quicker and committing players to their attacks, with the first opening of the second half falling the way of Taiwo Awoniyi, although Kepa was again able to save at his near post in relative comfort.
In a sign of the change of momentum our keeper was soon in action again, although Johnson should have tested him much more after getting free down the right and shooting straight at the Spaniard.
The biggest scare yet arrived 10 minutes into the second period and plenty of those inside the City Ground thought Forest had equalised. When one of their increasingly frequent attacks ended with a Ryan Yates pass breaking loose towards Gibbs-White on the edge of the area, he smashed a shot towards goal. It crashed down off the underside of the crossbar with Kepa rooted, leaving the crowd holding their breath as the referee glanced at his watch, but the goal-line technology signalled it hadn’t crossed the line and Chelsea were let off with a warning.
Potter had clearly been left unhappy with what he’d seen since half-time and decided to make his first change, with Kovacic coming on to replace Zakaria for his first Chelsea appearance since the World Cup.
However, before the Croatian had a chance to make his mark on the game, Nottingham Forest had levelled. The equaliser came from a corner, which Havertz got to first but his header looped up into the air. It dropped into a scramble and ricocheted favourably to the feet of Aurier, who couldn’t miss from six yards out.
We regained some of our footing in the game after that goal, but it was still a long way from the control we had enjoyed before half-time, with Potter turning to his bench again in a trio of attacking substitutions, introducing Hakim Ziyech, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Conor Gallagher in an attempt to retake the lead in the remaining 15 minutes.
For a moment it looked like those changes might pay off with two subs combining, as Ziyech curled a dangerous angled cross towards the back post, but Aubameyang couldn’t quite get to it at close range under pressure from Aurier, before the ball also evaded Pulisic behind him to bounce harmlessly behind.
Chelsea arguably ended the game on top, showing the greater urgency, but we couldn’t find the goal we needed to bring all three points back to London from our trip to the City Ground.
A busy start to the year means Chelsea are back in action in a mouthwatering double header in four days' time. First we host Manchester City in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge at 8pm on Thursday 5 January, then we face the same opponents at 4.30pm on Sunday 8 January, on this occasion away at the Etihad Stadium in the FA Cup third round.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Koulibaly, Thiago Silva, Cucurella; Zakaria (Kovacic 61), Jorginho (Gallagher 73); Sterling (Ziyech 73), Mount (Aubameyang 73), Pulisic (Chukwuemeka 87); Havertz
Unused subs: Bettinelli, Hall, Chalobah, Hutchinson
Scorer: Sterling 16
Booked: Azpilicueta 53, Gallagher 90
Nottingham Forest (4-3-3): Henderson; Aurier, Worrall (c), Boly, Lodi; Mangala (Colback 78), Freuler, Yates; Gibbs-White, Johnson (Surridge 82), Awoniyi (Williams 88)
Unused subs: Hennessey, Toffolo, Cook, McKenna, O’Brien, Dennis
Scorer: Aurier 63
Booked: Yates 43, Lodi 90+3
Referee: Peter Bankes