It wasn’t just Middlesbrough fans who were celebrating Adam Reach’s headed equaliser against Liverpool on Tuesday night, nor were those that aren’t too fond of the Anfield club the only others showing their delight. Somewhat unexpectedly, Charlton fans reacted with a fist pump from their sofas.
For with that goal, the hope that Boro, Charlton’s opponents on Saturday, would be facing the arduous task of playing 120 minutes four days before they played the Addicks increased.
And while most inside Anfield groaned as the full-time whistle blew and the nuisance of extra-time began, Charlton fans pencilled themselves in an advantage for this weekend’s clash.
Having not been involved in the League Cup this week, a fresh and fit Charlton side will be welcoming a considerably drained Middlesbrough to The Valley.
But it’s possibly though fear that supporters of the South East London club have overstated the importance of a somewhat rotated Boro side exerting themselves heavily in the lead up to Saturday’s game.
After a steady start to the season, Aitor Karanka’s men have clicked into gear in recent weeks, possessing a serious goal threat and performing with some style; their performance at Anfield also more than credible.
The Addicks, however, have let performance levels slip over the past few games, only maintaining their unbeaten start to the campaign thanks to a sizable amount of good fortune.
It’s with that in mind that believing Middlesbrough’s mammoth efforts on Tuesday will have a serious impact on the result at The Valley is really the only way most Addicks can convince themselves they’re favourites for the game.
Regardless, the unbeaten run, having already suffered serious bruising, is at its greatest risk of perishing this weekend.
LAST MEETING – MIDDLESBROUGH 1-0 CHARLTON ATHLETIC
Charlton supporters were given their first viewing of a man who would grow to become a legend in SE7. A legend in the sense that his efforts would have legendary comedy value.
Winner of an award for being a bloke what was good at stopping balls going into the goal in Ligue 1, Frenchman Yohann Thuram showed he wasn’t actually very good at stopping balls going in the goal during his debut at The Riverside in January.
In addition to some woeful distribution and generally looking poorly positioned throughout the game, the Standard Liege loanee allowed Emmanuel Ledesma’s soft shot to trickle past him, which would prove to be the winning goal.
Simon Church saw a goal wrongly disallowed in the second half and, after Rhoys Wiggins received a straight red for a reckless lunge, Dale Stephens forced an excellent save out of Shay Given with the game’s final kick in whatt proved to be frustrating afternoon for the Addicks.
In fact, games against Boro have rarely been anything but for Charlton. The Addicks are without a win in eight against Saturday’s opponents, a run that takes in the 4-2 FA Cup Quarter-Final replay defeat in 2006 and the 4-1 defeat in 2012 that saw Salim Kerkar fill in at left-back. Salim Kerkar. Left-back. Shudder.
Widely tipped to be there or there abouts come May, three defeats in their first five games, including one to then crisis club Leeds, left many experts hastily clicking the edit button on their pre-season predictions.
But Karanka’s men have shown why they were so highly rated before the season began since the beginning of September, winning three consecutive league games and showing both ability and character in their penalty shoot-out defeat to Liverpool on Tuesday.
It’s that performance against the Reds, in addition to a 4-0 mauling of Brentford last weekend, that has led many to believe Boro, and their forwards, have found their feet.
In the opening weeks of the season, Bob Peeters and his Charlton side filled our excitable minds with hope that The Valley would be the home of fearless attacking football this season.
Instead, recent evidence suggests the opposite may be closer to the truth.
Although regularly taking the lead, often against the run of play, the Addicks have found it tough to double that lead, instead choosing to sit back and attempt to cling on desperately, a tactic that has largely proved unsuccessful.
In fact, there’s been an element of good fortune about the five points Charlton have ground out in the past two weeks, with the opposition dominating the second half in all three games. The performance against Rotherham last Saturday, with the Addicks very poor after half-time, was particularly worrying.
While the unbeaten run continues, one win in five league games is less than impressive.
Having made six changes from the weekend win over Brentford for their League Cup tie with Liverpool, a reasonable number of Middlesbrough’s side will be completely fresh for their trip to The Valley.
But, given the performance at Anfield, Karanka has a number of healthy selection dilemmas to find the answers to.
The most troubling of which is up top, where Kike, Jelle Vossen and Patrick Bamford can all claim they’re worthy of a starting birth. Bamford and Vossen, who started against Brentford last week, would appear to be in pole position.
Two certainties, however, are that Adam Clayton, who started against Liverpool but not against Brentford, will come into the side for the suspended Dean Whitehead, and Jamal Blackman, who did his best Thuram impression at Anfield, will be replaced by Dimitrios konstantopoulos in goal.
Calls for Michael Morrison to be recalled have been at their loudest this week, and the centre back may well make his first league start of the season on Saturday.
Morrison, a near ever present in the previous three campaigns, has found his chances limited this season thanks to the form of Andre Bikey and Tal Ben Haim.
However, Ben Haim has been less than impressive in the weeks before and after the international break, topped off by a costly error in the draw with Rotherham last weekend, so his place in the side is no longer secure.
Elsewhere, Peeters has a fully fit, if small, squad available, with the only other selection debate surrounding who will partner Igor Vetokele in attack.
Frank Moussa failed to impress against the Millers, while George Tucudean has largely struggled since joining from Standard Liege, so Simon Church will be hoping it’s his turn to be tried alongside Vetokele. A recall for Tucudean, however, seems most likely.
KEY BATTLE – CHRIS SOLLY AND RHOYS WIGGINS VS BORO’S WIDE THREAT
For all the talk of Middlesbrough’s forward threat, it’s in wide positions where they are most potent.
Supplemented by the sort of passing football you would expect from a side led by a Spaniard, chances are often created for the likes of Bamford, Kike and Vossen through Boro’s pace and ability to deliver a testing cross from either flank.
Therefore, neutralising the threat provided by Albert Adomah and Emilio Nsue, in addition to full-backs George Friend and Ryan Fredericks, will be vital if Charlton are to prevent the visitors from running riot.
Thankfully for the Addicks, the men tasked with keeping Boro’s wide men at bay are more than up to the task.
Chris Solly, after missing much of last season with a troubling knee injury, has been in excellent form, while Rhoys Wiggins, after a somewhat uncomfortable start to the campaign, has looked somewhere near his best in recent weeks.
Unfortunately, it’s an inconvenient truth that The Addicks will have to suffer a league defeat at some point. Given Boro’s form and Charlton’s recent performances, Middlesbrough look likely to be the side who will administer that first defeat of the season.
Charlton Athletic 1-3 Middlesbrough