There were celebrations in the Charlton end as the game headed towards its conclusion. But these weren’t the celebrations of a group of fans delirious after their side had scored a crucial goal; these were weary and hurting supporters, sarcastically cheering after a corner had been won by the Addicks.
That this was Charlton’s first corner of the second half perfectly illustrated just how poor the visitors had been, with their forward threat minimal if not absent. Mistakes were rife, there was no pace or urgency and the final third was an uncharted territory for the Addicks at the AMEX.
By contrast, the hosts, Brighton and Hove Albion, superbly exploited the space offered to them by their lacklustre opponents. Their quick passing, excellent movement and very real attacking threat were part of the perfect display of the sort of football many Charlton fans want their side to play.
You couldn’t blame the Addicks for cheering the winning of a corner; it was quite an achievement for the side often so static and failing to show any invention or creativity. Nor could you blame the Brighton fans for celebrating their third goal of the afternoon five minutes into stoppage time. The difference between the scenes in the away and home ends in those final few minutes was as big as the gap on the pitch.
As that third goal struck the net, hurting Addicks headed for the exists on mass; the distraught and angry reactions quite someway away from the dubitation of Tuesday night’s victory over Yeovil. Three times had they celebrated just a few days ago and Jose Riga had been applauded; now Charlton fans were arguing and fighting amongst themselves, whilst showing their displeasure to the performance and Riga’s interventions in the game.
The more fight and grit that is shown in midweek; the more disappointing and distressing the following weekend performance appears to be. For everything Riga gets right on a Tuesday, he seems incapable of doing anything right on a Saturday.
But the afternoon started well enough for the Addicks, with two welcome faces back in the 18-man squad.
One of those faces was masked as Lawrie Wilson, who had been so sorely missed in the 3-2 win over Yeovil, returned to the starting XI following an eye injury in Charlton’s only change.
There was also a man coming back from injury on the bench. Chris Solly had only made one further appearance after the reverse fixture between these two sides in December, but the young full-back had finally made a return to fitness. A huge boost for the Addicks.
However, the away side were without their man who briefly called the AMEX his home. Jonathan Obika, something of a threat off the bench, was not in the squad at all. By contrast, Brighton’s former Charlton man, Dale Stephens, started in the centre of the Seagulls’ five-man midfield.
Immediately, Stephens’ exciting midfield colleagues attempted to create something for the hosts. Kazenga Lua Lua, a regular tormentor of the Reds, cut inside from his left midfield position and flashed an effort comfortable over Ben Hamer’s bar. Manchester United loanee Jesse Lingard followed up with a similar strike and, whilst their efforts were ambitious and unthreatening, Brighton had quickly grabbed control of the game.
The Seagulls were first to every ball, with Marvin Sordell struggling in the target man role in Charlton’s 4-4-1-1 formation, whilst, when in possession, they were allowed far too much time on the ball and given the space to play the game they wanted.
Alas, for all Brighton’s passing play, the ball had rarely entered the box Charlton were defending in front of their vocal supporters. The few times it had, crosses from Solly March and Bruno had been met with sarcastic cheers from the 1869 Addicks as they fell straight into the hands of Hamer.
So the manner in which Brighton took the lead was all the more frustrating. Frustrating, but not unpredictable; the first goal has been gifted to the opponents for several consecutive Saturdays.
Under no pressure, Hamer played the ball out to the feet of Diego Poyet. It wasn’t the brightest idea, with the son of Brighton’s former manager immediately put under pressure, but the youngster hardly covered himself in glory, with Lua Lua dispossessing him without much of a fight.
To the roar of an expectant AMEX crowd, the Congolese winger drove forward with just Michael Morrison in his direct path to goal. A simple through ball took Charlton’s vice-captain out of the game and played in Lingard, whose composed finish put the Seagulls a goal up with 11 minutes played.
Skipper Johnnie Jackson led the inquest before Charlton kicked-off again, whilst the visiting supports flung arms and words at both Hamer and Poyet. Many were hoping for a repeat of last season’s spirited 0-0 draw at the AMEX; this was the worst possible start for the Addicks.
As has been noticeable in recent weeks, the atmosphere immediately turned with the conceding of the goal. Of course, there are always going to be remonstrations and disappointing, but that roar of inspiration from the Charlton fans was absent. Instead, the first smatterings of arguments, which would eventually boil over with a number of visiting fans kicked out the crowd, between Addicks began.
The Addicks on the pitch were just as disjointed as those in the stands, with Reza Ghoochannejhad’s blocked strike from the edge of the area all they had to show for their efforts.
Down the other end, Brighton, especially Lua Lua, continued to cause problems for Charlton’s back four. Stephens, completely dominating the centre of midfield early on, picked out Lua Lua and the winger’s pace was too much for Wilson to contend with. Only an excellent intervention from Hamer, racing off his line to block Lua Lua’s shot, prevented the Addicks from going two goals down.
Disgruntled supporters demanded a response, but it wasn’t forthcoming. The gulf between the sides continued to appear greater as the Addicks offered very little when going forward. Aimless long balls or static sideways passing was all Riga’s side could muster.
On the few moments Charlton found themselves in and around Brighton’s box, execution was severely lacking. An opportunity appeared to present itself to Sordell, but his route to goal was blocked off by Matthew Upson when a first time shot seemed the better option. This wasn’t the first or last time Sordell would frustrate his supporters.
The lack of real action forced to AMEX to stand in ground-wide hatred of Crystal Palace, but a frantic final few minutes saw the course of the game look to be swinging back one way, before strongly flinging back the other.
Jordan Cousins, one of the few men in red performing to an acceptable standard, won the ball in midfield superbly and drove forward with a route to goal opening up in front of him. But the academy graduate spotted Ghoochannejhad in space on the left and played the Iranian in. His shot took a wicked deflection off the Brighton defending tracking him, looping over Kasper Ankergren and leaving him rooted to the spot. The ‘keeper could only look on, and Charlton fans had begun to celebrate, but the ball flicked the bar and went behind.
It wouldn’t have been deserved, but it didn’t make the agonising pain of the miss any easier. Nor did the conclusion to Brighton’s next attack, as the hosts went two goals to the good with 44 minutes played.
It was just all so simple. The Seagulls went from back to front so quickly, with Lingard eventually feeding through Leonardo Ulloa to finish coolly past Hamer whilst Charlton’s back four appealed for offside.
And in what was not even a minute, Charlton’s season was summed up; a failure to finish and breaks not going the way of the Addicks will be at the top of factors to blame should the SE7 club fail to maintain their Championship status.
There were boos at half-time, followed by Charlton fans fighting amongst themselves; if ever a response was needed, it was now.
Of course, with Riga’s love of the early sub, a change was always going to be made, but the decision to take of Astrit Ajdaveric, making something happen for his side at least occasionally more than his teammates, and replace him with the out of form Callum Harriott was met with bemusement.
In fairness to the young winger, he did deliver an excellent cross at the start of the second period that forced Ankergren into an unconvincing parry away from his goal, but no Charlton player was alive to the loose ball and Brighton were able to clear.
That’s as productive as Charlton’s attacking threat was after half-time, with the Seagulls pressing forward like the side desperately in need of a goal or two. Lua Lua fired wide after again being played in by Stephens, cruelly booed by sections of the Charlton support, before only a slight deflection took Lingard’s effort wide of Hamer’s post.
Those were little more than half chances for Brighton, but their next opening on the hour really should have put them three up. Superb play from Ulloa, the creative target man Charlton so blatantly missed, sent Lingard through one-on-one with Hamer. All he had to do was slot past the ‘keeper, who had raced off his line, but instead the United youngster blasted over the bar. The first time many Charlton fans had raised a smile, in laughter, for quite some time.
That smile was raised further as the impressive Lua Lua left the field, replaced by Jake Forster-Caskey, and Solly made his long awaited return. As exciting as it was to see Solly back in a Charlton shirt, the decision to take a forward off, especially Ghoochannejhad as appose to Sordell, was a little odd.
It mattered little, however, as the game continued to follow the pattern it had done for its entirety with Albion well on top. A handful of efforts from distance were fired wide of Charlton’s goal, including a free-kick from Bruno that wasn’t too far away from curling in, but, as in the other recent defeats to strong opposition, Brighton didn’t need to get out of second gear with the Addicks so poor.
Simon Church replaced Jackson with ten minutes to go, and appeared to head out wide, but Charlton were so void of ideas that no substitution or tactical change would have made a positive impact on an already beaten side.
With that sort of mentality obvious, the third Brighton goal came as no surprise. Another excellent break forward saw Forster-Caskey picked out just inside the box, and his effort rifled past Hamer to condemn the Addicks to yet another 3-0 defeat.
Many Addicks had already left the away end as Roger East’s full-time whistle blew, but those that remained showed their displeasure at the appalling display. The boos were louder than the claps for those players who did come and applaud their supporters.
Just as some Charlton fans were starting to believe safety was on the horizon, this was a performance to remind you that our Championship status is far from secured.
Whilst Brighton were brilliant, and the Addicks at their best would have struggled, the display was sickening. Individually, no player can be happy with their performance and heads dropped far too quickly. As a team, there was no cohesion and at no point did Charlton appear capable for carving out a route to goal. Tactically, Riga got it oh so very wrong.
Some Charlton fans were attempting to convince whoever would listen that Poyet is better than Stephens before today. Unfortunately, Stephens’ class shone through with Poyet desperately struggling. That the academy graduate was so poor had a disastrous impact on the team as a whole; there was no composure or shape in midfield.
Whilst the difference in class between Charlton’s midfield and Brighton’s played a huge part in the game, the difference in effectiveness and quality of opposing strikers was also marked. Sordell barely brought a ball under his control all afternoon, whilst Ghoochannejhad, although offering a threat on at least a couple of occasions, was far too weak and backed out of several challenges. By contrast, Ulloa was superb, winning almost every ball and always looking for the next pass.
For Riga, the decision to go four in midfield was an odd one. Our wins have been built on the excellence of the back four and the three midfield men in front of them; taking Cousins out of that and pushing him out wide was suicidal, especially against a side who play football like Brighton do. Albion were free to dominate the midfield; the Addicks unable to get forward through the middle.
His subs were also rather odd, especially taking off Ajdaveric. With the Swede off, any hope of creativity went with him. He certainly didn’t look it, but the only logical explanation is that he was injured.
To top a dreadful day off at the AMEX, the behaviour of some Charlton fans was disgusting. Thankfully, I didn’t witness the events that occurred in the concourse at half-time, but I saw enough Charlton fans taken out of the ground to feel plenty of displeasure. I can’t think of much worse than fighting and arguing with your own inside the ground.
Some will argue that, especially with results going our way, today is almost irrelevant. In fact, a win on Tuesday will make it completely irrelevant. But that doesn’t make the manner of today’s defeat any easier to take; it simply wasn’t good enough from start to finish.