Home fans had booed their team off at the break, trailing to a Taiwo Awoniyi goal for Steve Cooper’s side and looking no nearer in the first half to finding a solution to the lack of firepower that has derailed their season.
Then, in the space of seven second-half minutes, Sterling transformed the match. First a deflected shot bounced up into the corner after he was set up by Trevoh Chalobah, then he let rip with a brilliant solo goal that evoked the England forward at his electric best.
Yet instead of pressing on, Chelsea folded. Non-existent marking left Awoniyi free to head home and extinguish the lead four minutes later.
We keep fighting. Until the end ❤️ pic.twitter.com/ur0j4GXzaF
— Nottingham Forest (@NFFC) May 13, 2023
It ensured Forest stayed three points clear in their bid to beat the drop, and meant Frank Lampard’s long wait for a victory at this ground on his return as boss will go to the season’s final game.
They took the lead soon after and it was Lodi again the provider, though Edouard Mendy – returning in goal for Chelsea – was badly at fault. The ball into the penalty spot did not look unduly threatening, but as the keeper raced from his goal Awoniyi climbed above two defenders to get to it first and head into an unguarded net.
It seemed to shake Chelsea to life, and they went close to levelling immediately when Sterling’s effort was blocked by the recovering Joe Worrall. Noni Madueke, increasingly influential in recent games despite the team’s indifferent form, showed excellent balance and feet on the right whenever he got on the ball, bursting through Forest with speed and skill.
On the other flank, Lewis Hall nominally at left-back showed barrels of attacking intent when Chelsea were in possession. He got forward after 30 minutes and, after making space with a clever shimmy, crossed for Joao Felix to dive into a header that was brilliantly held on the stretch by Keylor Navas.
Moussa Niakhate was an inch away from making it two for Forest in the first moments of the second half, he stretched out a leg to meet a flicked-on corner at the back post but could not make the contact required.
Chelsea did not need another warning. The equaliser arrived on 51 minutes, and Sterling owed his goal to good link-up play between Madueke and Chalobah. The pair worked their way in behind Forest and into a channel down the right, giving Chalobah the time and space to pick out a pass which Sterling swept home first time via a deflection off the stricken Ryan Yates.
Chelsea looked to ride the wave of noise that the goal had drawn from Stamford Bridge. Felix tried to catch out Navas with a driven effort from range that dropped onto the roof of the net, then Sterling took the roof off the stadium with his and Chelsea’s second.
There seemed to be little on when the ball was worked to him 12 yards out on a wide angle, but in a deft movement he took it under control, opened his body and shot perfectly beyond the dive of Navas. It was Sterling at his long-forgotten best.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) May 13, 2023
It should have been a catalyst to drive Chelsea on to a rare home win. Instead, it invited a meekly predictable implosion. Orel Mangala’s cross into the centre of the box for Forest was an inviting one, and no one in blue had gone with Awoniyi who stunned home fans into silence with a firmly planted header.
Chelsea’s frustration started to show. Felix was booked for simulation, and attacks began to break down before the final third. Still Forest carried a threat, Lodi hit a bending drive that swung outwards and fractionally past the post.
Sterling had a chance to complete his hat-trick, racing forward to get on the end of Hakim Ziyech’s searching ball but lifting his header up and over the bar as he arrived.
There were few chances for either side after that, as Forest claimed a point that could prove of incalculable value.