Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Training Ground Reopens

After a rather longer than expected break from the keyboard, I'm finally back from skiing and a whole host of other events in what's been a bit of a frenetic month.

If it's not stating the completely obvious, there's one thing that's hit me since I've been back – our transition from a side with a mathematical hope of automatic promotion to one now praying for nothing short of a miracle for a play-off place.

When I left home for the peaceful retreat of the Alps we were looking to cement an extended season by picking up at least one win against Ipswich or West Brom. However, the reality is that we've gifted 3 of our promotion rivals with an unforgivable tally of 7 points in the last few games.

The win against Plymouth the other week could have started a revival of our play-off hopes, but if we're to be honest with ourselves our season was practically dead and buried when Wolves put in that decisive third goal at The Valley in injury time.

Our only hope in the run-in was 12 points from 4 games and to hope that Palace and Wolves slipped up, but the poor show against lowly Southampton on Saturday merely underlined what a disappointment this season has now become.

The south coast side should have been there for the taking, and in fairness never really looked like posing a big threat on the Charlton goal. However, a midfield clearly lacking creativity simply couldn't find a way of finding the opportunities they so desperately needed.

Only Pardew can explain the reasoning for playing both Holland and Semedo, who are far too similar and lack a killer pass or shot. The decision to bring on Gray rather than Varney was also a puzzling one – despite Gray scoring, the pace of Varney would have put far more pressure on a Saints defence bereft of pace and more than happy to cope with the ball in the air.

At the time of writing West Brom have just taken the lead at Moleneux, but it's all too late now. The maximum tally for us is now 70 points, and unless Palace only win once and Ipswich and Wolves also slip up, it's simply not enough.

I'll still be at Loftus Road on Saturday – the games may not have finished yet, but sadly it'll take more than a binding performance in front of the Sellotape End to repair our tattered season.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Training Ground Off-Piste

I'll be heading to the French Alps by the time the players have come off the field at Portman Road on Saturday, so in my absence it's time for some reflection and insight for the coming week.

Firstly, the result against Burnley was obviously a disappointment, but promising by virtue of the fact that there did at least seem to be some fight left in the team. This will be invaluable for the Ipswich game, and perhaps this was a good time for 2 games away from The Valley.

Without the boo-boys on their backs, the players have often come up with some of the more gritty performances, and ones which will be much needed if we are to confirm a playoff place. If we can get a point tomorrow, I think the fans will be on-side come the visit of West Brom. We've always had a good atmosphere on the big matches at home, it mainly seems the frustration ebbs when we play the teams people feel we 'should beat'.

If we've learnt anything about this division so far, it's the clear fact that it was never going to be a cake-walk. I think it's fair to say we have one of the most technically gifted squad in the league, but that counts for nothing when you have teams that get stuck in and fight for points.

Part of our problem recently seems that we seem to be lacking a focal point for creativity. Reid was criticised for dictating the play, but that input right now appears to be sorely missed. That's no discredit to Matt Holland who's been fantastic as captain, but right now we seem like we're turning into a team of individuals rather than a team around a play-maker in Reid.

The team seems under pressure to deliver creativity from every man, whereas in reality this isn't necessary. The key components are a defender who is comfortable on the ball, a midfielder who can play a telling pass, and at least one winger who can take a man on and cross. Oh, and someone to poke the ball in the net.

Recently we've seen rampaging runs all over the place with no real end product - poor crosses, balls given away easily, players out of position – it's unnecessary. Keep it simple, keep the play flowing through a few key players, and take the pressure off the rest of the squad.

Sometimes it's all about keeping things simple, and based on his performances since the new year, Paddy McCarthy is the ideal example. He's not flash, he's not quick, but he is solid, tidy, and has been one of our most dependable players. If only we could get Bougherra back alongside him to provide the distribution, that would steady the productivity of the defence.

It doesn't need me to tell you how important this coming 7 days will be in defining our season, and I hope that when I get back we're still in a strong position. If results go against us we could be tenth after the West Brom game, which would leave us with a mountain to climb.

Personally, I find more fun in skiing down the things – let's hope the team can avoid the uphill battle.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Proceed With Caution

Another day, another match – for all those in tier one complaining about too many matches, it hits home just how many more games there are in the Championship.

I've got to the stage where I'm losing track of matches – in the Prem I hardly missed one. Once a week, regular as clockwork. It's getting so thick and fast in this division that I'm starting to forget we're even playing – last week I forgot my season ticket the day of the Bristol City game. It's nothing to do with the opposition either, as I've genuinely enjoyed this season more than our paint-dry Premier days.

Ironically, the two home games I've missed since the turn of the year were quite apt, as it appears the players didn't either. Colchester and Preston are my no-shows, and my skiing trip next week means I'll be missing out on the West Brom match as well.

It's all a bit frustrating really – the next 3 games are likely to tell us if we'll cruise the run in to the playoff places, or be scrapping for dear life in the last few games to stumble over the line.

Any match is important now, but it's a case of three 6-pointers in the coming fortnight. Burnley, Ipswich and West Brom are all teams aiming for the playoffs or more, and wins in these matches have the obvious effect of stopping the other teams scoring whilst you leapfrog closer to safety in the process.

So, in reflection, perhaps losing to the lower clubs hasn't been as disastrous as it could have been. In fact, we've only lost twice to top-half opposition since December, compared to beating four.

We do have an annoying tendency to play to the level of the opposition, but in the face of our forthcoming opponents, this may not be such a bad thing. Burnley are on a similar run to us and only 4 points behind, Ipswich are fantastic at home this season, and we all know about West Brom.

If we can sneak 5 points from these 3 matches, we'll have done well. The old adage of one win being better than 3 draws doesn't hold true here – if we can stand our ground against the teams around us, we've a good chance of cementing our place.

I'm in no-way advocating playing for 0-0 draws in these games, but I do advocate a more cautious, patient approach. Losing all 3 games is simply unthinkable, and would effectively kill our playoff hopes.

As ever, only time will tell – come 10 o'clock tomorrow night, the playoff picture could be a lot clearer.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Writing Blind

I'm taking a slightly unorthodox to today's match report – I'm currently sitting on a train to Manchester for my mate's 30th birthday and have absolutely no idea what's happening on the pitch against struggling Preston.

So, taking the spirit of all good card games, I'm taking a ballsy approach today – I'm writing this one 'blind'. I'll be at my mate's flat to post this later, and only at that point will I check the score to see how wildly inaccurate or smugly correct I've managed to judge it.

Onto the starting lineup then. Weaver as ever is a shoe-in between the sticks, and Pards will opt for the same back-four of Youga, McCarthy, Sodje and Halford. Its a return to 4-4-2 after Tuesday's draw, with an eye for pace up front.

Holland and Zhi continued their central pairing, with Ambrose and Scot Sinclair on the flanks. The forward threat came from Varney and new loan signing Leroy Lita, who wnet straight into the starting lineup on his Valley debut.

Charlton showed their attacking intent from the off – searching passes from Ambrose and Zhi found the forward pair in good attacking areas, but the lack of killer instinct shown in previous games was apparent as good chances went begging.

Preston played the classic away game, sitting back in their half in the hope of picking up a point. This frustrated the efforts of Charlton for much of the first-half, but things changed in the 35th minute.

A clever pass from Zhi found Sinclair in space on the wing, who needed no encouragement to run at the Preston defence. A burst of pace found the space to put in a curling cross, which was met emphatically by Varney at the far post to hit home for the opener.

The obvious relief for the home fans was blighted by memories of the last few home performances, but Charlton continued to press. The away side showed little in the way of attacking endeavour, but for all the Addicks' dominance, the closest they came to a second was a dipping effort from Ambrose that went just wide.

The second half threatened to go in an all too familiar fashion, as Preston came out looking a different side. The formation stayed the same, but there was more intent to win possession, and the long-balls were making the home defence look decidedly shaky.

One period of sustained pressure presented Preston with 3 corners in succession, forcing one excellent reaction save from Weaver in the resulting scramble.

Defence soon turned into attack, and a long throw from Weaver found Ambrose on the half-way line. A clever turn from the midfielder and a neat pass to Varney found the striker through on goal with only a defender and keeper to beat. Varney's shot was only parried by the keeper, and the ball kindly rolled into the path of Lita who made no mistake in opening his account at The Valley.

This effectively killed off the game, and with less than 25 minutes remaining Pardew reshuffled his pack. Lita came off for Semedo to shore up the midfield, which help stifle the resurgence of the away team. Preston had a good shout for a penalty when the ball appeared to hit Sodje's arm, but no decision was given.

Pardew introduced Thomas for Sinclair who had a reasonable game on his full debut, but was guilty of giving the ball away on occasion.

With the game petering away into a midfield battle, Iwelumo was brought on for Varney to help hold up the game and kill some time. The big striker played an important defensive role in the final minutes, twice heading the ball away from corners as Preston desperately tried to find a late entry back into the match.

The final whistle gave some much needed comfort to the home crowd, and helps to cement the case for a playoff place.

Back to the real world – it's five to four, I've just gone through Wolverhampton, and many of you reading this would have been preparing for the second half at this moment.

If the reality was anything like this report, perhaps I should stay on the trains during Saturday afternoons...

EDIT - Oh dear, not the best of days in the real world was it? 1-2, and we're in trouble...

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A Point Gained – Charlton 1, Bristol City 1

Charlton shared the spoils with Bristol City last night, but as the end of the season approaches, the home side may come to regret their nagging inability to hold a lead.

Although not as disappointing as the Watford result, the game followed a similar pattern. The Addicks, sporting a 4-5-1 formation, hassled the table-toppers relentlessly for the first 45 minutes in what was initially a successful bid to curtail their passing game.

Things started well, Ambrose coolly slotting home on 8 minutes after some great linkup play between Zheng Zhi and Kelly Youga. City looked shocked to be behind so soon, and Charlton kept up what was a frenetic pace at times.

The forward players were showing clear commitment and intent, and continually pressured the City back-line into making mistakes. Zhi was a constant threat with Ambrose in midfield, and the defence were rarely troubled.

One disappointment in the first half was the failure to capitalise on an injury to Adebola. The City striker was off the field for 10 minutes for treatment to a head wound, but there was no apparent direction or desire from Alan Pardew to press home the one-man advantage. At 1-0 up this would have been an ideal point to cement a victory, but it will join the other “what-ifs” of this season.

City came out far stronger in the second half, and played some great football – it was clear at this point why they are now top of this division. I can barely remember a single long-ball being played, which was in stark contrast to the tactically-tired approach from the home side.

The Addicks' best chance of the half came in bizarre fashion from Bristol defender McCombe. He sliced a clearance that bounced over his own keeper, and fortunately for him, his own net as well.

McCombe made no mistake at the other end minutes later though, as City picked up a deserved equaliser. Youga, who had an uncharacteristically average game, found himself caught out of position in a City attack, the resulting cross headed out for a corner by Ambrose. McCombe then made the home side pay for their inability to extend the lead by powering home a header for the leveller.

From this point there was only one team in it. The desire of the Charlton front-line to close down the defence was lacking, allowing City to forge space, keep the ball, and create chances for Adebola and the substitute Byfield.

In the final stages of the game City hit the bar, Youga and McCarthy both made match-saving tackles, and a ricochet off McCarthy almost found it's way into the net.

It’s probably fair to say that only Holland and McCarthy can come out with any particular praise for the home side. Ambrose was absent in the second half, Thomas still flatters to deceive, and I’m still not sure exactly what Andy Gray’s contribution is so far. I also feel we need Bougherra back in defence alongside McCarthy, as Sodje was guilty of poor distribution too many times.

Despite the disappointment of losing yet another lead, this has to be seen as a valuable point. Losing, as we easily could have, may have seen us slip out of the top 6 on Saturday. As it stands, we have a one-match buffer on the chasing pack, a lead which needs to be extended against Preston on Saturday.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

City Preview

Tonight’s clash sees the Addicks entertain Gary Johnson’s table-toppers, Bristol City.

I could use phrases in context with their league position such as ‘unlikely’, ‘over achieving’, ‘punching above their weight’, but that would be unfair to a hard-working side has quite simply attained their position on merit.

One thing I don’t expect to see a lot of tonight is goals. If you compare both teams results, neither of us are getting in a habit of picking up clear wins. Charlton have only had 8 league wins by 2 clear goals or more, and Bristol City just 4.

This points to a tough battle tonight, and one where not only scoring first but keeping hold of the lead will be particularly vital.

The Watford game really was a definition of the ‘game of two halves’ cliché – what Pardew’s side will need to rediscover tonight is the grit and determination displayed in that first half performance, and make it count for the whole ninety minutes.

Team-wise it looks likely than Scott Sinclair will make a full debut, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in with the rest of the squad.

Greg Halford’s position at right-back has demonstrated an exception to the rule that late additions find it difficult to gel, although Andy Gray’s relatively anonymous displays so far serve as a warning to upsetting the applecart.

From a personal viewpoint, I hope I can at least catch some of the first-half tonight. My magical memory powers (and clear reliance on a mobile phone calendar I failed to update) have let me down, and I’m sans-season ticket and warm clothing for tonight. A trip back to N4 to grab the ticket, yeti-coat and car, a mad dash through the Blackwall Tunnel, and a teeth-gnashing effort to find an SE7 parking space it is then…

Monday, 3 March 2008

Avoiding The Baggies

Saturday's result against Sheff Yoo was a welcome surprise after recent games, but I won't be getting carried away with hopes of automatic promotion. That proposition is long-gone in my opinion, and it could only take one slip-up and results go against us for the likes of Wolves and Hull to overtake us.

That said, a look down the BBC predictor gives me confidence of us finishing well in the top six, and with any luck that position will be wrapped up with a couple of games to go.

My main worry about the playoffs is simple – avoiding West Brom. The Baggies have gone through an indifferent patch recently, and despite playing the best football in the division they are starting to pay the price for not winning matches.

Stoke and Watford may not be the prettiest sides in this division by any means, but they've got a knack of picking up the results when it counts. Although they have 2 games in hand on Stoke, West Brom are still 4 points away from the automatic spots, and on recent form pegging back that gap shouldn't be taken for granted.

Crazy or not, my money is on Bristol City winning this division. Not what you'll want to be thinking with a visit to The Valley approaching in a couple of days, but they've been up there all season and haven't fallen away as many of us expected. Stoke got up here with a run, but City are there on merit of consistency, and I expect them to stay there.

Second is one from Stoke, West Brom and Watford. For West Brom to make it, they simply have to start winning the games they should be. Too many points have been dropped by them this season, and they run a real risk of missing out.

I've no fear at all of playing any of Watford, Stoke or Ipswich in the playoffs. On our day we're good enough to beat any of those teams. What I don't think we're capable of is pulling off a win against Tony Mowbray's side. If we get them over 2 legs, I fear the worst – I can't see us scoring enough at home to take a lead to The Hawthorns.

A one-off at Wembley would be our best bet, but avoiding them would be even better.