Just a month ago, supporters of both Charlton Athletic and Nottingham Forest were desperate for the season to end. Apathy and anger rife as promising starts tailed off into abysmal winless runs, exposing the cracks within each club.
Such was the manner in which both side were playing, it seemed an impossibility that either would regain any sort of form. Forest furious that the promotions ambitions they deserve to have were not going to be anything like fulfilled; the Addicks beginning to worry about the threat of relegation to League One.
So the results picked up by both during the month of February have been little short of incredible.
The appointment of Dougie Freedman appeared an odd choice, but Stuart Pearce’s replacement has picked up five wins in six for the Midlands club. Guy Luzon should never have been made the boss of Charlton, but his simplified and organised approach has allowed the quality players in his side to express themselves.
And while doubts remain about how both clubs are run, especially in the case of the Addicks, fantastic on-the-pitch efforts have restored supporters’ faith.
It means neither side is approaching Tuesday’s game at The Valley with any sense of dread. Excitement, a previously alien emotion, returning.
LAST MEETING – NOTTINGHAM FOREST 1-1 CHARLTON ATHLETIC
A fantastic second half performance from Forest prevented Charlton from gaining three points that they looked unlikely to throw away after the opening 45.
Callum Harriott’s excellent strike gave the visitors the lead early on at the City Ground, and it would have been doubled just before the break had Igor Vetokele not wasted a glorious opening.
But the Addicks, composed and in control during the first half, were left shell-shocked by the manner in which Forest started the second period. Robert Tesche’s stunning long-distance effort giving the hosts the equaliser they deserved.
With momentum on their side, Forest might well have won the game, and only some pretty desperate defending from Charlton prevented Pearce’s side from taking all three points.
Nottingham Forest: WWWDWW
Few were suggesting that quality was lacking in Forest’s side. On paper, their squad has always been strong, their form throughout the early weeks of the season suggested they have it within themselves to beat any side in this division.
But something was not working under Pearce. Poor performances and worrying defeats meant even the most ardent admirers of the Forest legend were worried.
Alas, appointing Freedman, who had been a failure at Bolton, did not seem to be the answer. There was even some suggestion it was a downgrade – at least Pearce’s heart was in the right place.
Five wins and a draw later, however, and those doubts have subsided, at least for now. While those six games included just one against top half opposition, the out-of-form Bournemouth, that takes little away from the impressive nature of the turnaround under Freedman.
In fact, thoughts have now turned to a late play-off push. The gap between Forest and the top six is ten points, so that seems unlikely, but that it is even being talked about shows the impressive nature of their improvement.
The three goal win over Chris Powell’s Huddersfield was Charlton’s third victory in their last four. If you had told me I’d be writing something along those lines a few weeks ago, I’d have given you a sympathetic laugh and handed you a guide to away games in League One.
But the turnaround, although unpredictable and surprising, has been achieved in relatively simple fashion.
After toying with a few more complicated ideas and formations during his first few weeks in charge, Luzon’s decision to revert to a 4-4-2, which accommodates Charlton’s best players in their best positions, has, unsurprisingly, had a positive impact on the side.
Defensively, the Addicks are a lot more organised. Two banks of four providing the platform, the return of Stephen Henderson offering a sense of calm at the back and Roger Johnson’s leadership vital.
While going forward, most of which happens on the break, the Addicks have been, at times, stunning. Vetokele once again playing with confidence, Johann Berg Gudmundsson providing match-winning moments and Frederic Bulot’s emergence as a competent footballer having the impact a new signing might.
The most important figure in the upturn in form, however, is Tony Watt. His directness, drive and skill not only offering moments of individual brilliance, but allowing others to take advantage of defenders his movements have softened up.
Strength in depth in Forest’s squad could mean that Freedman will make changes to the side that beat Reading 3-0 on Saturday.
Among the players fighting to come into the side is Gary Gardner, who scored and impressed after coming off the bench at the Madjeski Stadium.
In fact, Forest will be without just three players for the trip to The Valley. Although key, Freedman has coped without long-term absentees Britt Assombalonga, Chris Cohen and former Charlton man Andy Reid.
Charlton could be without up to five first choice players on Tuesday, with the impressive win over Huddersfield coming at a cost.
Injury meant goal scorer Johann Berg Gudmundsson had to be substituted early on in the second half, while Chris Solly ended the game in some discomfort, leaving both as major doubts for the visit of Forest.
And with Johnnie Jackson, Rhoys Wiggins, and Tal Ben Haim, who was forced to sit out Saturday’s victory, there looks set to be some holes of considerable size to fill in Charlton’s XI.
Lawrie Wilson could come in for Solly at right-back, with the captain’s armband possibly snapped up by Henderson, while Callum Harriott may be the man to replace Gudmundsson, with Frederic Bulot moving to the right.
KEY BATTLE – TONY WATT LIGHTING UP THE GAME
The three goal victory over Huddersfield would have been a much tighter contest were it not for the brilliance of Watt.
For not only did Watt score two sublime goals, but his overall play prevented the Terriers’ backline from settling. Disorganised and constantly in a state of panic, their ability to get the ball forward calmly was hindered and they constantly seemed a little off-guard whenever an Addick moved forward.
It’s therefore fair to say that Watt was the difference. At the very least, the Scot was the difference between a decent Charlton performance, and a very good one.
That argument is strengthened when you consider how poor the Addicks were at Derby last week. With Watt isolated and frustrated, the overall attacking play was minimal.
And with in-form Forest possessing excellent centre-backs, especially the pacey and strong Jamaal Lascelles, there is a danger the Scot will again be stopped from influencing the game.
Repeating the intensity of the Huddersfield victory seems unlikely. Not only because the Addicks look set to be a couple of men light and the opposition stands to be stronger, but performing with such energy twice in four days is almost impossible.
Alas, I do not expect Charlton to roll over as they did in the defeat to Derby, especially with home advantage allowing them to be more adventurous. Charlton Athletic 1-1 Nottingham Forest