In a fixture that has traditionally been slogged out in a way fitting to England’s lower tiers, two moments of quality involving players who had previously graced the Champions League earned Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday a share of the spoils.
The first was a piece of individual brilliance. Royston Drenthe’s career may have nosedived since leaving European giants Real Madrid, but the winger showed a touch of real class midway through the first half to glide past several men in red before firing powerfully beyond Stephen Henderson.
The lead given to the Owls by Drenthe was no less than they deserved, with the Addicks struggling to cope with Wednesday’s pace and constantly frustrating The Valley crowd with misplaced passes in the final third.
But Bob Peeters’ side responded well in the second half, with underperforming players returning to form and the introduction of the previously injured Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Igor Vetokele inspiring the Addicks to push forward.
With momentum building, you could sense it was coming, and their moment of quality resulted in a goal as equally deserved as their opponents’ was in the first period.
It was created by three players who had all the bruises to show the hard-fought nature of these encounters previously, with Johnnie Jackson receiving Chris Solly’s pass and sending Rhoys Wiggins free on a superb run down the left, and finished by one who was playing on Europe’s biggest stage just last season, Wiggins’s ball across the face of goal finished coolly by Vetokele.
In what had been an open game, played out by two sides looking to utilise the width of the pitch, the remainder of the contest reverted to a style resembling old encounters between Charlton and Wednesday.
In fact, even the normally seen controversy returned. Adthe Nuhiu was left fuming after colliding with Tal Ben Haim in Charlton’s area, while the assistant’s flag denied substitute Lawrie Wilson a late winner for Peeters’ resurgent side.
And, as is so often the case in games between these two, both sets of supporters could reasonably claim their side deserved to win. Wednesday would argue their first half domination should have been rewarded more handsomely; Charlton fans might suggest their efforts in the second deserved better than just a point.
A draw, in an afternoon where both sides were left with marginally more positives than negatives, a fair result. Champions League quality and overall play equally split at The Valley.
Despite Wednesday coming into the game without a goal in three, you could predict Charlton’s back four were going to face at least some periods of concern from the moment the team news was released.
Although Wiggins, injured for last Friday’s dour showing at Craven Cottage, returned, Stuart Gray had packed his side full of players possessing considerable pace; an asset the Addicks have often struggled against.
And almost immediately the speed with which the Owls could bomb forward caused Charlton all sorts of problems. Wiggins had no answer as Drenthe cruised past him, his resulting cross blocked behind for a corner.
There was also an aerial threat about Gray’s side, and only a crucial intervention from Andre Bikey prevented Joe Mattock from turning the resulting set-piece past Henderson.
Contrastingly, concerns were voiced about the hosts going forward. With Vetokele and Gudmundsson only fit enough for the bench, Peeters placed his faith in 17-year-old Karlan Ahearne-Grant to lead Charlton’s forward line.
It was, however, George Tucudean, operating far too wide in a 4-2-3-1 to be considered Ahearne-Grant’s strike partner, who had the home side’s first opening.
In a move reminiscent of the goal against Bolton Wanderers 11 days ago, a perfectly weighted ball over the top from Yoni Buyens, returning to the starting XI after suspension, picked out Tucudean perfectly. But the Romanian’s effort was tame, and never likely to seriously test a ‘keeper in the sort of form that Kieren Westwood is in.
And, during an open opening period, Charlton’s seemingly weak and disjointed attacking force were not restricted as much as some feared. In fact, after Franck Moussa’s blocked effort won his side a corner, Jordan Cousins had a glorious chance to put the Addicks ahead, but wastefully headed over when under no pressure from a Wednesday man.
The Owls immediately responded with a chance of their own, as Wiggins was again left bemused by Drenthe’s pace and trickery. The winger’s shot was struck so fiercely it drew a collective gasp from the Covered End, but a sigh of relief followed as the ball flew narrowly wide of Henderson’s far post.
But the effort did appear to shift Wednesday up a gear, and turn Charlton’s back four somewhat nervy. There was a greater threat about the way the Owls pressed forward, while too often the visitors were given the chance to get into strong positions by misplaced passes from a player in red.
In fact, the game’s growing pattern was epitomised the next time the dangerous Drenthe was able to embark on a run down the right.
With the Addicks losing possession high up the pitch, the ball was fed to the Dutchman, who weaved in and out of the half-hearted Charlton attempts to block him off. Although assisted by some tame defending, the run was emphatic, and rounded off by an equally forceful shot from distance that gave Henderson no chance.
Although the strike had given the Owls a 27th minute lead, few in the home ends were fretting yet. Such was the openness of the game, there was a strong belief Peeters’ side would soon have the chance to respond.
And when Ahearne-Grant, who had endured a frustrating afternoon, created some space for himself on the half hour, Charlton came close to the immediate response they craved. The teenage forward’s well struck effort forced the best out of Westwood, and only some desperate defending prevented Ahearne-Grant from latching onto the rebound.
Alas, the home crowd were left frustrated thereafter. The urgency of the opening few minutes had vanished, replaced with indecisiveness and awful execution. Moves forward were all too often wasted before the final third was reached, with the somewhat unbalanced formation hardly assisting as Charlton attempted to get back into the game.
Instead, it was Wednesday who looked the most likely to score as the half drew to a close, and they almost did so in controversial fashion right on the stroke of half-time.
After Moussa had seen a shot blocked and Ben Haim had summed up Charlton’s forward efforts by blasting horribly wide from range, Jordan Cousins found himself in a decent position on the right.
Seemingly tripped as he broke into the box, referee Andy D’Urso sparked outrage among home players and fans as he waved away their appeals and Wednesday were allowed to break.
Thankfully, after a lovely interchange sent Chris Maguire through on goal, justice was served with the Scot scuffing his strike wide. It didn’t calm Charlton fans, however, with D’Urso strongly booed off as he left the field for half-time.
Among those boos may have been some aimed at the performance of the Addicks, and there certainly needed to be an improvement on a first half display that largely lacked composure and penetration, if not effort.
Replacing Ahearne-Grant, the epitome of a player who had strived to make something happen for no reward, Gudmundsson’s introduction after the break set about improving Charlton’s lacklustre efforts in the final third.
Despite not having an immediate impact, Nuhiu’s header well saved by Henderson the first opening of the second period, the Addicks soon began to get into a dominant stride.
In fact, seven corners came Charlton’s way over a ten minute spell, with each of Jackson’s deliveries inviting , or at the very least forcing a Wednesday defender to head behind once more or clear desperately.
And on one such occasion where the ball was sent clear of the box by an Owl, it fell to the feet of Solly. Invoking memories of his wonder-goal at Bloomfield Road two years ago, the academy graduate’s sweetly struck shot flew agonisingly past the post.
But the atmosphere around The Valley was now improving, as were the performances of individuals who had struggled in the first half.
Ben Haim, who made you long for Michael Morrison at times in the opening 45, now looked a picture of composure, Jackson and Buyens were in control of the contest in the middle while Solly and Wiggins were completely nullifying Wednesday’s threat down the flanks. You had to keep reminding yourself that the same Drenthe of first half fame remained on the pitch.
So when Vetokele entered the fray with 25 minutes to play, there was a suggestion that the final piece of Charlton’s puzzle had now been found.
The Angolan immediately made an impact, first nodding onto Tucudean, whose bouncing volley forced Westwood into a fine tip over the bar, before heading just wide from the resulting corner.
But, with his introduction lifting the performance of the entire Charlton side further, Vetokele wouldn’t be kept at bay for long.
It was a forward move to match any the Addicks have conjured up this campaign. Solly’s pass to Jackson was crisp, and the skipper’s through ball was perfectly placed for Wiggins to make the most of it.
Impersonating his more prestigious countryman, the Welshman darted forward at pace, before leaving Liam Palmer for dead and cutting inside. His ball across the face of goal would have been inviting for the most goal-shy of forwards, and proved to be absolutely perfect for a prolific Vetokele.
His finish composed, the celebrations, such was the relief around The Valley, anything but. With 20 minutes to play, there was now every chance Peeters’ side could go onto win the game.
And almost immediately, the Covered End was left with heads in hands as their side came desperately close to taking the lead. Buyens’ ball picked out Jackson, whose movement belong to a nippy striker and not a 32-year-old grafter, at the back post, but no Addick could latch onto his well-placed ball back across the face of goal.
But Wednesday were not completely out of the game, either, despite withdrawing Drenthe and replacing him with the equally glamorous Gary Taylor-Fletcher.
Although it had been missing for much of the half, pace and width returned to their forward movements, and one such attack resulted in Ben Haim fresh-air kicking and taking Nuhiu to the ground inside Charlton’s box with him. Not for the first time this season, the Israeli may have gotten a little lucky.
In return, Wednesday too were made to feel a touch fortunate after the excellent Cousins played Vetokele through on goal. But, under pressure from Glenn Loovens, the forward could only awkwardly stab wide.
The final 15 minute or so became somewhat like the first. Relatively end-to-end, with Maguire scuffing wide and the ever-dominant presence of Nuhiu heading into Henderson’s palms before Wiggins blazed over, but without either side mounting a serious goal threat.
In fact, the only real goal threat of the final period of the game came at the start of four additional minutes. Wilson’s clinical finish had sent the Covered End into celebration, but such a reaction proved to be premature, with an offside call denying the curly-haired substitute from securing all three points for the Addicks.
In truth, Wilson was as deep into offside territory as you would need to go to reach the bottom layer of his well-populated head of hair.
Charlton had huffed and puffed in the second period, completely overturning the course of the game but, much like that offside call, were probably some way away from grabbing a winner. Few were suggesting at full-time that a draw wasn’t a fair result.
And most were also of the opinion that it was a point gained, rather than two dropped. If not for the complete turnaround in performance between the two halves, then to get something on the board following the 3-0 thumping at Fulham.
However, there was also a slight sense of frustrating. Why couldn’t the Addicks perform so impressively over the course of 90 minutes? Why do they have to find a response after half-time, instead of carrying a performance level through from the opening 45? Why aren’t Peeters’ side consistent?
There’s a few different answers to those questions, and the first allows me to give praise to the opposition.
Without ever looking like a side destined for promotion, Wednesday’s first half performance was not one belonging to a side without a win in seven before today. Guided by Drenthe, who was totally unplayable, the Owls were excellent, and possibly should have been two goals to the good before the break. There’s certainly enough quality there to suggest they won’t be looking for a win for much longer.
In the second half, however, the energy the visitors showed previously was absent. The Addicks were rarely put under threat, and were therefore able to grow into the game. Their task now a lot easier against a lesser performing side.
But, regardless of Wednesday’s efforts, it was an incredibly sloppy first half for the Addicks. Players didn’t perform, the defence looked incredibly fragile and there was no cutting edge going forward.
However, that was a performance without Charlton’s best two players.
That’s not to say that first half performance is completely excusable, playing Tucudean out wide was a strange move and left Ahearne-Grant isolated, while the amount of simple passes misplaced was incredibly frustrating, but there is always going to be a massive improvement with Gudmundsson and Vetokele on the pitch.
It may just have been a coincidence, or more closely related to some hair dryer treatment and a change of formation from Peeters, but the rest of the side as individuals certainly improved when the influential pair were brought on.
The most notable change was in the midfield, where Jackson and Buyens had struggled defensively in the opening 45, and rarely made worthwhile passes going forward. In the second, they were dominant, quick to regain possession and they recycle it on to another Addick and central to the groove that Charlton found themselves in.
Credit must also go to Wiggins, who recovered from a torrid first half dealing with Drenthe to put in an almost faultless performance on the left alongside Jordan Cousins. Where Wiggins had no answers for Drenthe, Wednesday’s back four could rarely deal with the full-back when he came forward.
And as a team, the passing was crisper, while the defence and midfield became more organised. It really was a complete contrast from the first half. If only this side could find some consistency, and a way to keep the key men fit.
I look back on today with the smallest amount of frustration, that more couldn’t have been done to grab a victory, but mostly with positive thoughts, knowing the levels this side can reach when every player is fit and firing.
Should Peeters’ best XI be available to him at an out of form Leeds on Tuesday, there is absolutely no reason why the Addicks cannot take advantage.