THE talk ahead of Sheffield Wednesday’s final game of 2016 had all been about Fernando Forestieri.
Perhaps understandably so considering both the events surrounding last August’s trip to Norwich City and the transfer window being just hours away from reopening, his absence from the squad sparked wild rumours that the Argentinian could be on his way from Hillsborough.
Club officials quickly moved to stress this was not the case and that Forestieri had picked up a muscle injury on Boxing Day, a point head coach Carlos Carvalhal forcibly underlined after seeing Adam Reach rescue a point with a stoppage-time equaliser.
Wednesday’s talisman is expected to return today at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and that will surely come as a big relief to what is expected to be Hillsborough’s biggest crowd of the season.
Certainly, the Owls are a much poorer side without Forestieri as was underlined by the stumbling efforts on New Year’s Eve that, but for Reach’s last-gasp strike, would have ended in deserved defeat.
Without Forestieri, Wednesday were predictable and leaden-footed.
Only Barry Bannan, following a switch to the left flank after half-time, posed any semblance of a threat to a Preston side still reeling from a 4-1 thrashing by Leeds United just five days earlier.
Steven Fletcher and Atdhe Nuhiu, Carvalhal’s preferred strike force in the absence of Forestieri and the injured Gary Hooper, barely had a touch in the first half. A re-think then saw Nuhiu taken off at the interval and Reach pushed up front, but Wednesday still offered little until that late, late strike from Reach with what was Wednesday’s first effort on target all afternoon.
A midfield that, Bannan apart once moved into a wider role as part of that half-time re-jig, is far too alike did not help the visitors’ cause, but there was no escaping the feeling that things would have been very different had Forestieri been available. Hence the concerns surrounding the absence of someone who went AWOL before that trip to Norwich amid reported interest from Derby County.
“Fernando is injured,” said Carvalhal before elaborating further on Forestieri’s future in response to an enquiry as to whether he will be leaving. “I am absolutely sure that is not the case. I can guarantee that. You know, in the past, I have never lied.
“What I say is true. That is the case now. We hope he can recover for Monday and that is important because it gives us more options.”
That Forestieri will return today to a team still occupying a play-off place is thanks to the refusal of Reach to be denied during a ‘94th-minute’ goalmouth scramble.
After having a left-foot effort blocked by a scrum of white shirts as the ball pinballed around the six-yard area, the wideman was handed a second opportunity.
This time, Reach swung his right foot and the connection was so sweet that there was nothing a scrambling Preston defence could do to prevent the ball hitting the back of the net.
It was harsh on North End, who had gone ahead 13 minutes from time when the impressive Greg Cunningham once again wriggled clear on the left before drilling a low cross that Sam Hutchinson could only turn into his own net.
Coming on the back of Kieren Westwood having been called into action several times to save the Owls, Preston’s lead was deserved but, thanks to Reach, one that was not destined to last.
With Wigan Athletic holding Derby County to a goalless draw at the I-Pro Stadium, it was enough to keep Wednesday in the top six, but their goal-scorer insists that should not be the end of the club’s ambitions this season.
“We have done well, but there is always room for improvement,” said Reach. “With the strength of our squad, we should be chasing the top two.
“A lot of the top teams dropped points – Derby, Huddersfield and so on – so it was a bit of an opportunity missed. We were all slightly disappointed afterwards not to capitalise on the opportunity.
“For me, it has been a great 12 months. I am at a great club and looking forward to really pushing on with Sheffield Wednesday. Hopefully, that means Premier League.”
Carvalhal’s men start 2017 sitting 10 points adrift of second-placed Brighton & Hove Albion but the 23-year-old added: “I don’t think it has to be play-offs. We are more than capable of finishing in the top two. We went to (leaders) Newcastle and beat them to prove that.
“It is not over. There are 20-odd games left and you can quickly find yourselves moving up the table. It is going to be an interesting second half of the season.”
If a tilt at the top two is to become a reality in the new year, three points against a badly out of form Wolves today is imperative.
Carvalhal plans changes ahead of a second game in a little over 48 hours.
“This time of year is difficult for all coaches,” added the Portuguese. “This is something that happens only in England. The rules of UEFA say the players must have a minimum 72 hours between games, but here in England it is different.
“The danger is that players are in very high risk of injuries. It is maybe time for the medical departments to make reports about this.
“It is not injuries after the second game, but the chance of injuries one or two weeks later.
“If I could, I would change 11 players. Any coach in the world would say the same.
“Over the weekend, we analyse our soldiers. See who is dead or alive. We will try and manage that.”