The excitement that comes with the release of the coming season’s fixtures was somewhat tainted for Charlton supporters in June.
For they were handed an incredibly tough start to their 2015/16 campaign. Four of the first five games coming against sides expected to be in and around the top six come May.
And the toughest of those appeared to be pencilled in for the second Saturday of the season. A trip to the iPro Stadium, to a play a Derby side that has been strengthened considerably over the summer, a prospect which brought fear.
But Charlton’s excellent start to this season means supporters will be heading up north without trepidation. Not quite confident of victory, but excited to see how their new look side fairs against one of the Championship title favourites who are yet to find their best form.
Of course, facing Derby has not suddenly become less testing in the space of a week. They boast one of the best squads in the division, led by an exciting young coach in Paul Clement, and, irrespective of their failings at the end of last season, can be unstoppable at home.
But with the Addicks excelling and the Rams starting the season sluggishly, there may be no better time to attempt to take points from the ground many will know as Pride Park.
LAST MEETING – DERBY COUNTY 2-0 CHARLTON ATHLETIC
With four defeats at the iPro in the previous three seasons, Charlton have been on the receiving end of a ruthless home performance from Derby enough to know how testing Saturday’s trip will be.
In fact, their hopes of taking anything form the game at Pride Park in February were over with just 17 minutes played. Former Addick Darren Bent crossing for Jeff Hendrick to finish, before Hendrick slid Jesse Lingard in to double Derby’s lead.
And while the Rams were unable to add further to their lead, their dominance was such that four or five goals would not have flattered them. This coming at a time when the Addicks had just begun their run of seven wins from nine, and were playing with promise.
The only solace for Charlton supporters who had travelled up to Derby for the Tuesday night fixture was that Bent was receptive of their applause. The Valley hero making a deliberate effort to acknowledge the visiting supporters.
For a side who had much expected of them prior to the season getting underway, it’s fair to say Derby’s first week of 2015/16 has been a little underwhelming.
A disappointing performance, with a rotated but strong side, in defeat to League Two Portsmouth in the League Cup on Wednesday night came after a goalless league draw with Bolton, which could have so easily ended in defeat given that the Trotters hit the woodwork on several occasions at the Macron Stadium.
It therefore suggests that Derby haven’t quite found their stride under Clement as of yet.
However, given the quality in their side, its general balance, and the seemingly high levels of Clement’s managerial ability, the Rams will not remain sluggish for long. When it clicks, which it might well do in their first home game of the season, matching them will not be an easy task for any opposition in the division.
The Addicks are certainly not a one man team, but they become something really rather exciting with Tony Watt in the side.
For their Watt-less first half display against QPR was tentative. Passing slow, creative minimal, and pressure applied by the opposition given Charlton’s lack of consistent forward threat.
But once he was introduced, the pattern of the game completely changed. His runs and movement testing the R’s backline, creating space for his teammates, and the catalyst for confidence spreading.
His opening goal followed by quicker passing and energetic pressing that prevented QPR from settling back into any sort of stride. Heads in blue and white dropping long before Morgan Fox doubled Charlton’s lead.
Impressive, too, was he against Dagenham & Redbridge on Tuesday. While the Daggers were otherwise holding their own, he was the most obvious difference in quality between the two sides.
Should Watt, for who there is a fitness concern, excel at the iPro, then the Addicks have every chance.
Derby will be without midfield pair Craig Bryson and Will Hughes for the visit of Charlton.
Bryson will be absent for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, while England U21 international Hughes is likely to miss much of the season after suffering cruciate ligament damage in Saturday’s draw with Bolton.
Given that the Rams exclusively play three in midfield, injuries to two key central men is hardly ideal. George Thorne likely to be joined by Hendrick, with either Chris Baird, primarily a defender, or Simon Dawkins, more suited to playing out wide, completing the line-up in the middle.
But one man unlikely to start on Saturday is former Addick Bent. With the prolific striker on the bench last weekend, it seems Chris Martin is the many who will occupy the central forward position for now.
Charlton will be hopeful that talismanic forward Watt will be fit to start at the iPro after picking up a knock in Tuesday’s League Cup win over Dagenham.
The Scot limped away from tackles on several occasions during the first half, and was withdrawn relatively early on in the second to protect him with Saturday’s game in mind.
Elsewhere, individuals that excelled during the cup victory will be hoping that their efforts were enough to convince boss Luzon that they deserve a start in the Championship.
Johnnie Jackson issued a timely reminder that he is not just an inspirational leader, but a composed figure in the centre of midfield, Cristian Ceballos impressed with some clever touches down each wing, and Zakaraya Bergdich scored his first goal for the club.
But, given how impressive Charlton were after half-time against QPR, changes from the side that began the second half are unlikely. Watt, if fit, will start ahead of Karlan Ahearne-Grant.
With the Addicks still without Stephen Henderson, Franck Moussa and Igor Vetokele, the only other possible alteration could see Jordan Cousins move back inside to accommodate Ceballos. But doing so would see either El Hadji-Ba or Ahmed Kashi dropped in extremely harsh fashion. A conundrum between rewarding hard work and improving the balance of the side.
KEY BATTLE – PREVENTING THE RAMS FROM RAMPAGING
While it would be easy to suggest the Addicks are capable of taking the game to Derby, given the manner in which they dominated QPR in Saturday’s second half, it would be slightly naïve to think such complete control could be replicated at the iPro.
For the Rams, should they find the rhythm they have seemingly lacked at the start of this campaign, will dictate the tempo of the game. Their passing game has, in the past, been unstoppable.
The task for the Addicks, therefore, is to prevent Derby from taking control of the contest, and in turn ruthless disposing of them as they have done in the past.
This can be done in one of two ways. The first is to be adventurous, attempt to continuously test their back four, and prevent the side in general from settling. In other words, pray that Watt is fit and then give him the ball.
The second, should creating chances prove difficult, is to press with intensity and energy for 90 minutes. Derby more likely to punish a sluggish start than QPR, so Ba, Kashi or whoever is chosen to play in the centre will need to be resilient from the off.
While outplaying the Rams may not be possible, the Addicks are certainly capable of going toe-to-toe with them.
Irrespective of what has been a sluggish start to the season for Derby, this remains a very tough test for Luzon’s side, and there would be no shame in defeat. I do, however, expect the confidence-filled Addicks to run the Rams close, especially if Watt is fit. Derby County 2-1 Charlton Athletic