In the build up to Charlton’s trip to Selhurst Park, the message that Guy Luzon and his side understood the importance of a South East London derby was repeated again and again.
Luzon suggested he knew how much victory against Crystal Palace would mean to supporters, while several players reinforced his words by expressing their desire to play to their all in the League Cup third round tie.
And those who took to the Selhurst Park pitch to represent the Addicks certainly stuck to their words in the opening 45. Alan Pardew’s Premier League side superior in quality, dominating possession and regularly breaking forward with intent, but constantly halted by a determined Charlton defensive line. Effort not questionable.
What was questionable, however, was Luzon’s team selection. Patrick Bauer, Ahmed Kashi and Johann Berg Gudmundsson kept in reserve, in addition to the slightly out of sorts Tony Watt, with Charlton’s head coach unwilling to risk those fully fit key components of his side in case of injury.
It meant the second half capitulation that followed was both predictable and self-inflicted. The Addicks unable to successfully fight as the difference in class became more and more apparent, with Luzon suitably punished for underestimating the importance of this derby fixture.
For Charlton were already out of the contest by the time Gudmundsson was introduced. Frazier Campbell twisting and turning inside the box to poke beyond Nick Pope, before he was hauled down by Alou Diarra and Dwight Gayle added a second from the spot.
The Icelandic winger may have delivered the corner that briefly provided belief, with Naby Sarr heading through Wayne Hennessey’s hands, but it was merely false hope. Diarra adjudged to have fouled substitute Patrick Bamford inside the box, with a red card issued and Gayle again converting.
The forward still had time to complete his hat-trick, heading in from a corner, and the Eagles would have added further to their margin of victory were it not for Pope’s brilliance.
But the goalkeeper’s resilience mattered little to those hurting Charlton supporters in the away end. Luzon will argue his team selection will be justified with a win at Cardiff on Saturday, but that won’t sooth the pain of an 11th derby fixture without victory. The importance completely misunderstood.
Weak though it was, the XI that emerged from the Selhurst Park tunnel still received strong and passionate support from the visiting Addicks. Those in the away end did not deserve to be cheering on Sarr, Mikhail Kennedy and Karlan Ahearne-Grant in such a high-profile game, but they were determined to inspire them to perform beyond their perceived ability.
And it was Charlton who produced the game’s first effort on goal. Conor McAleny, making his first start for the club, driving forward and firing well wide from distance.
But that did not set the tone for the remainder of the half, as Palace quickly began to stamp their authority on the game. Gayle lifting a free-kick off-target, and Zaha, unmarked and in glorious position, ballooning a header from Lee Chung-Yong’s delivery well over the bar.
Their passing slick, while Charlton’s was erratic. Their composure on the ball reaffirming their class, while the touches of those in red and white full of panic. Zaha providing a constant threat down the flank, while Zakarya Bergdich struggled.
The Addicks, however, were unrelenting in their determination to hold off the threat of their superior opponents. It was desperate at times, with a heroic point blank block from Diarra needed to keep out a goal bound Campbell drive, but this resilient fight was enough to just about tame the Eagles.
Under no illusions about the difficulty of the task their side faced, there were cheers with each crunching tackle. Chris Solly flying into Pape Souare, Morgan Fox chipping away at Zaha, and Sarr offering much firmer resistance than he did during his league debut a week ago.
The longer Charlton successfully battled at the back, the greater their chances of taking something resembling pride from this derby clash. It doing no harm to their chances of taking a result from the game, either, as McAleny broke forward again and a flashed an effort much closer to goal than his first minute strike.
The rare shot in general direction of Palace’s goal, however, did not prove the catalyst for more or halt Palace’s persistent attacking play. The Addicks guilty of standing off Gayle, who shot comfortably wide.
But there was one more opening for Luzon’s side before the break, and this one that appeared much more promising than an ambitious drive from distance.
Having been unable to break down the left for the entirety of the half, Bergdich finally shrugged off Martin Kelly and fed the lively Ahearne-Grant. His resulting effort, however, was a tame one, curled within Hennessey’s reach despite being a few yards from goal.
Nonetheless, as the Eagles ended the half with Campbell again striking off-target by a large enough margin for Pope to be untroubled, the occasional breaks were merely a bonus to the defensive diligence. Charlton’s fight and resolve, in the face of an almost unrelenting Palace threat, incredibly encouraging.
The choice for Luzon, consequently, prior to the second period getting underway was one of two options. Continue to hope his troops would show the same amount of character and hold off Palace for as long as possible, or throw on Gudmundsson and co. in order to build upon the solid base that the first half efforts provided.
Given the nature of the derby clash, and the fact that Palace’s quality meant they would almost certainly eventually breakdown the Addicks, the latter option seemed the better way to go, in addition to correcting the misjudgement of selecting a weakened team.
Instead, the Israeli boss opted to keep things as they were, desperately hoping his side would find another ounce or two of fight to keep them in the contest for as long as possible.
But it took a little over five minutes for the first warning sign to emerge. Campbell unmarked in the middle, and glancing Zaha’s cross fractionally wide of the far post. The closest Charlton had come to falling behind.
Such an opening should have acted as a warning, to regain composure, keep track of those in the centre and deal with the increasingly lively Zaha. Instead, their resistance was weak as the Eagles swarmed forward once again, breaking through and gaining the lead a little less than a minute after Campbell’s narrow miss.
It could not have been simpler for the hosts. The ball worked up to Zaha with minimal fuss, before he exchanged passes with Gayle and fed Campbell as bodies in red and white stood statuesque. Although the ball was played to him with him his back to goal, and it monetarily appear to get away from him, the forward was able to find the space to turn and finish beyond a faultless Pope.
A determined 45 minutes undone in six second half minutes; a response as great as the passionate one from the away end required to give the Addicks a chance.
To their credit, they did not immediately cave in. Ahearne-Grant cutting inside and feeding Bergdich, but the Moroccan could only fire straight at Hennessey.
But it was two penalty calls that seemingly knocked any remaining hope, if not fight, out of Luzon’s side. Fury in the away end as McAleny appeared to be hauled down inside the box, but not in the opinion of referee Swarbrick.
And some light relief was offered as a celebrating Selhurst was silenced by the assistant’s flag. Campbell tucking in from an offside position following a corner awarded after a crucial Pope fingertip kept out Lee.
Campbell, however, was to have the last laugh. The former Cardiff forward driving into the box, and going over under a clumsy coming together with Diarra. There could be few complaints with the decision, only that the foul was not too dissimilar to the one that was seemingly committed on McAleny.
It matted little, though, as the sound of “Glad All Over” soon hid Charlton frustration. Gayle converting from the spot, leaving the Addicks in a position from which they not only had to listen to that god awful song and PA announcer encourage the celebrations, but from which defeat looked certain.
For the first time during the evening, the away end was anything less than very loud, as Pardew replaced the influential Campbell with Bamford. The former Derby and Boro loanee introducing himself with a wild strike from range that flew over the bar.
A lift needed, or at least something to get the miserable Addicks back behind their side, and that did not appear to be a corner that substitute Gudmundsson sprinted across to take.
But his delivery was superb, perfect for Sarr, and the French forward threw his head at the ball and got enough power behind it to force it through the hands of Hennessy. Unexpectedly, and somewhat undeservedly, Charlton had a lifeline and the away end was rocking once more.
Realistically, however, this tie would still end with Palace progressing. The goal not enough to inject extra spark in Charlton’s forward play, with Sarr’s second attempt to head a Gudmundsson corner goalwards much more tame, and Ahearne-Grant unable to nod McAleny’s delivery on-target.
So, with a little over 15 minutes to go, the introduction of Watt, replacing the Everton loanee, seemed pivotal. His energy, and ability to score a goal out of nothing, needed to come through if the Addicks were to, at the very least, extend the length of the contest.
But before the Scot had even touched the ball, his introduction had been made meaningless. Sarr indecisive on the edge of the box, Bamford taking over, and Diarra again clumsily dragging a player in Palace colours to the floor. A straight red the Frenchman’s punishment.
And Charlton’s was only extended as Gayle comfortably rolled the ball the opposite way to an early-diving Pope. With 14 minutes to play, this was most certainly game over. The away end beginning to empty and Yohan Cabaye being introduced only reaffirming that.
Watt, clawing back Adrian Marriapa and conceding a foul as he did, attempting to regain some pride with a signature run into the box, but firing wide in addition to Swarbrick penalising him.
In fact, the greater attempt to restore some pride was being made down the other end. Another fine stop from Pope denying Bamford from close range.
But there was little the goalkeeper could do from the resulting corner, as Gayle, a diminutive forward, was able to rise highest to glance beyond Pope for his hat-trick. The fight and resolve of the first half long since vanished.
Or at least vanished from all bar Pope. A wonderful, dipping effort from Cabaye superbly kept out, before he got himself up off the deck to deny Gayle from close range. Marvellous from a goalkeeper who did not cover himself in glory just over a week ago.
His best efforts, however, could do little to prevent the full-time whistle being met with a familiar feeling of despair. The Addicks outclassed by superior opposition, but so too were they punished for a questionable attitude taken towards a derby encounter.
And that is what makes tonight’s efforts particularly disappointing. The defeat was predictable, given Palace’s Premier League status and Premier League quality side, but I expected Luzon and his side to give their absolute all in order for a bit of derby pride to be gained.
With that in mind, they needed to give themselves the best chance of victory. The strongest possible team needed to play, and the fight was shown in the opening 45 needed to be replicated for the entire 90.
But the capitulation that followed was an almost direct result of the weak nature of the side. The Addicks unable to get forward on a consistent enough basis, or able to maintain possession, so as to give the back four a moment or two to breath. Diarra and co, having been so determined during the first half, were always likely to crack at some point in the face of unrelenting pressure.
The argument is that Luzon could not play his key players because he couldn’t risk them getting injured with the squad already paper thin and carrying a few nocks.
But then why is the squad so light as to not be able to cope with a derby fixture, and why wasn’t this game considered as important as a game against Cardiff that will long be forgotten when the Addicks finish marooned in mid-table?
It places an extraordinary amount of pressure on Luzon and his side to achieve victory on Saturday, with capitulation in a South East London derby taken in the hope Charlton will be 100% for the trip to Wales.
Even then, I feel incredibly disappointed that the importance of tonight, and what it means to supporters, was not understood by Luzon, or at least not reflected in his selection.
Feeling deflated following a derby defeat is becoming incredibly boring.