Well who would’ve ever thought Nottingham Forest would be here? After a similarly-improbable run to the FA Cup quarterfinal a year ago, and just a few short weeks after they were viewed as a lock for relegation, the tricky trees find themselves in the League Cup semifinal against English footballing giants Manchester United. The red devils themselves just suffered their first setback in quite some time, a league loss after a heartbreaking 90th-minute goal by Arsenal. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks for the first half of this intriguing, two-legged domestic cup semifinal.
Nottingham Forest vs. Manchester United Odds
Even at home, Forest are significant underdogs, with their end of the moneyline set at +425. Meanwhile, the draw is +280 while United are favored at -145. For goalscoring, a total of 2.5 yields almost even odds; the over is -115 while the under is -110.
Nottingham Forest vs. Manchester United Prediction & Pick
The greatest, twofold shame of this match is the absence of Dean Henderson. The loanee from none other than Manchester United has been unquestionably Forest’s best player in their return to the Premier League, and was the hero in the penalty shootout that saw them through to this stage of the competition. He’s also been a key contributor to Forest’s recent solid form- two wins two draws, including a big draw with Chelsea and finally a road win- which has seen them lifted from prime relegation candidates to the relative safety of 13th place. Alas, the English shot-stopper is injured, with a thigh tear that will keep him sidelined for over a month. Had that not been the case, there would have been much buzz around United’s refusal to allow him to play in the matchup, a decision that is their right to make as per the terms of his loan agreement. Wayne Hennessey has been good enough in relief, but he doesn’t elevate the team the way Henderson does.
Meanwhile, United might be wishing Henderson was still on their side, after a truly brutal showing between the sticks for David De Gea in the Arsenal match. Jokes aside, the Spanish veteran has mostly been good this season, although I’m sure fans would be happy to see less goals find the back of his net in big matches like the one against the Gunners. While United had nosed their way back into the league title race about a week ago, they’re now 11 points behind Arsenal, despite having played an extra game, and are in an essential tie for third place- just three points within the threshold for making the Champions League. It’s looking like another trophyless season for United in the league, while the FA Cup and Europa League both still have a good amount of strong teams remaining; United’s best hope by far for their first silverware in quite some time is this very tournament.
Let’s start with what I am confident about; betting over 2.5 for -115. Forest, despite their form since Christmas or so, have allowed the second-most goals in the league, and are now missing their star keeper. Earlier this season, Hennessey was forced to play at Old Trafford in the league, due to Henderson’s loan deal once again, and despite Forest failing to score, United covered the total all by themselves in a 3-0 win. Now of course that game was at United’s house while this one is at Forest’s City Ground, but I still believe that this game will see some goalscoring, maybe from both sides this time. For the moneyline, I do think that United at anything tighter than -200 is pretty decent value so I’m going to lean towards United -145 as my pick on the moneyline. It’s just hard to pick the big underdogs missing their best player; so many major upsets have hinged on a goalie having the night of his life, a prospect that feels much less likely with Henderson sidelined for this one. But this one is worth tuning in for- after knocking out Arsenal in the FA cup a year ago, and nearly doing the same to eventual winners Liverpool, Forest have already eliminated Tottenham in this competition, so they’re no strangers to upsets.
United Attack vs. Forest Defense
Even in the loss to Arsenal, Marcus Rashford stayed red-hot as he scored an absolute stunner to open the scoring. Since returning from World Cup duty, the winger has scored in every league game except for one, as well one in the FA cup and three in two matches in this competition. Suffice it to say, the United fan-favorite is in his best form in quite some time, as he’s experiencing a true rejuvenation after what seemed like a lull in his promising ascendant arc. It’s once again unlikely that we’ll see Anthony Martial in this match, and if we do it’s extremely probable that it would have to be off of the bench. So, Wout Weghorst will get another crack at opening his Red Devils account, if gaffer Erik Ten Hag pulls out the first-team lineup for this one. Lastly, Antony will likely start on the wing opposite Rashford, although it’s not impossible to imagine Ten Hag rotating his lineup to a certain degree in this one. While they’re not technically forwards, the midfield duo of Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen don’t do a ton of defensive work, and have also been integral in attacking buildup for United this year; look for them to have a big day against a mediocre Forest midfield if they both start.
Forest’s defense is, to say the least, a liability. Captain Joe Worrall is a decent and consistent presence at centre-back, but the positives don’t go much further for the Reds’ skipper, or his central defensive partner. Scott McKenna, who should have been a steady partner for Worrall, has been pretty dreadful this year, and is losing playing time to Ivorian summer addition Willy Boly; either or both could appear against United. One bright spot for Nottingham’s defense has been Serge Aurier, who is excelling on both ends of the pitch in his return to Premier League play after a stint with Villarreal. He’s supplemented strong defensive play with a key goal against Chelsea, as well as consistently positive dribbles and passing. On the other side of the formation, fellow bigger-club veteran Renan Lodi, on loan from Atletico Madrid, has been a relative letdown during his time on Trentside. This defense is starting to come together, but it’s still got a long way to go, and could be in for a rough one against United’s talented attacking group.
Forest Attack vs. United Defense
For Forest, it’s not a striker-based attack either. Taiwo Awoniyi has been quite solid up top for the Garibaldi, but he’s hurt and unavailable, probably for about another month. Chris Wood was unspectacular in his club debut against Bournemouth, and Sam Surridge did come off of the bench to score that big equalizer in the same match, but has generally not been at his best for Nottingham this season. With Awoniyi out, the definite active highlights of Nottingham’s attack are their pair of wingers, or attacking midfielders, depending on what the lineup sheet says, Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson. Neither has particularly lit up the stat sheet- they’re tied for the team lead with just 6 Prem goal contributions each (4 goals 2 assists for Johnson, and the exact opposite for Gibbs-White) but both have clearly been amongst Forest’s best nearly every time the team has taken the pitch. Gibbs-White in general is a consistent star student when it comes to the infamous “eye test”, while Johnson recently bagged a huge brace in a 2-0 win over Leicester that could prove important in Forest’s quest for Prem survival. Johnson actually also bagged a brace in this competition against Blackburn, so he can be described fully as a man in form. Nottingham’s attack isn’t the best in England by any stretch, but it’s a heck of a lot better than their defense, and clearly their best chance at staying in this match.
Lastly, we’ve come to Man United’s defense, which is finally no longer reliant upon the infinitely-memed Harry Maguire. Instead, on most nights they’re trotting out a centre-back duo of World Champions. Raphaël Varane, of France and previously, Real Madrid, has begun to settle in nicely at his new club, and has established himself in the lineup. He’s joined by Lisandro Martínez, who of course just picked up his World Cup trophy this winter in Qatar with Argentina. He’s been something of an overnight star after following manager Erik ten Hag from Ajax, and might be getting a bit overrated but is surely not too small for the Premier League. The fullback pairing has also become pretty static, especially with the promising Diogo Dalot shelved with an injury. On the right side is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who is finally looking like he’s somewhat worth the money, and Luke Shaw who is putting in perhaps the best in a string of very strong Premier League campaigns. This defense can be solid, but they’ve been error prone at times- let’s see if they can be consistent against a Nottingham attack that is probably a good bit less talented than those the Red Devils have recently faced.