Six pointers this season were supposed to be fought with those sides hoping to achieve a top six finish come May. The sides that fell just short last season, those that improved over the summer, and those that suffered relegation from the Premier League.
For we were told a bid for the play-offs would be launched. The perceived calibre of those recruited, in addition to the extension of Jordan Cousins and Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s contracts, supported such a statement. The opening four games of the season, three of which were against sides that would consider anything but a top six finish a failure, made it seem something more than a statement.
But the first six pointer of the season, 12 games into it, is upon us, and Charlton are not playing a side who have suggested in the opening fixtures that they have top six ambitions.
In fact, rather than playing a relegated club and looking to compete with them for promotion, the Addicks face Preston North End – a promoted club who they seemingly are fighting with to avoid relegation.
A run of eight games without victory, seven of which have come in the league, giving supporters legitimate fears, after early season optimism, that their side will be facing a campaign of struggle. The quality of performance and amount of effort seen in those winless fixtures, not least in the tedious defeat to Reading on Saturday, only increasing such worries.
Such is the extent to which Charlton are currently underperforming, a victory against the Deepdale club, in need of a win of their own, would not immediately relieve fears and solve the issues faced.
But defeat, which is likely to create an uncomfortable if not poisonous atmosphere around The Valley, would be disastrous. A game the Addicks simply cannot afford to lose.
LAST MEETING – PRESTON NORTH END 2-2 CHARLTON ATHLETIC
Not even Graeme Alexander’s stoppage-time equaliser, on his final game in professional football after a 22-year career, ruined the party atmosphere in the Deepdale away end, as Charlton used their final trip of the 2011/12 season to celebrate being crowned League One champions.
After some rather enjoyable pre-game festivity, including a crossbar challenge between Alex Dyer and Chris Powell, it seemed as if events during the 90 minutes were to provide extra joy for the visiting Addicks. Danny Haynes and Dany N’Guessan giving Powell’s side a two goal lead after 35 minutes.
But Preston hit back 12 minutes after half-time, with Nicky Hunt volleying beyond John Sullivan after a corner was only half-cleared.
And Sullivan was beaten from distance again just beyond the 90th minute, when Alexander struck a dramatic free-kick to spark emotional scenes on the pitch and among the home supporters.
Few of a Preston persuasion were expecting their first season in the Championship since 2010/11 to be anything but a challenge. Few neutrals were not tipping them to be involved in a relegation battle.
And, unfortunately, North End have lived up to those pre-season expectations. No win in all competitions in eight, no win in the league in nine, and just one Championship victory all season. The eight points they’ve gained leaving them in 22nd place.
In truth, they have been somewhat unfortunate. Injuries to key players and conceding late equalisers have been particularly harmful to Simon Grayson’s side, and enough points to keep them away from the bottom three at this stage of this season would have been obtained without them.
But, as Charlton supporters are well aware, those sorts of excuses soon only increase the frustration. Improvement required from Preston, irrespective of any unfortunate circumstances, if they are to keep their necks above water.
There was hope that, irrespective of the fact their winless run continued, their comeback draw with Fulham would be the turning point. A show of character, a boost in confidence, some signs of quality.
Alas, the defeat at Reading at Saturday has completely destroyed the relative optimism created two weeks previously.
A defeat that appeared close in scoreline, with Nick Blackman’s winner coming only after Patrick Bauer had been sent off, but was far from it in performance. Two shots, a bizarre reaction to the red card from Luzon, and a lack of determination that suggested an acceptance of the defeat from the moment the Addicks were reduced to ten men.
Game number eight without victory, leaving Luzon’s side just two points from the bottom three at the point in the season where it is often said the table starts to take shape. At the very least, it’s concerning.
Hope is provided to Charlton with the return of key players from injuries, and two fixtures in the coming weeks against teams in similar positions, but it’s not unreasonable to feel the damage is so substantial that there is no quick fix.
Preston’s chances of ending their winless run are hindered by an injury crisis that is arguably more substantial than Charlton’s.
That particularly true in defence, particularly after skipper Tom Clarke suffered a shoulder injury during Saturday’s draw with Cardiff.
He joins fellow defenders Paul Huntington and former Addick Paddy McCarthy in the treatment room, with Ben Davies recalled from Southport in a bid to ease the injury issues.
So too are North End without several options in forward positions, heightened by the news that winger Chris Humphrey will be out for two months with a stress fracture.
Play-off final hero Jermaine Beckford is a long-term absentee, while the prolific Joe Garner serves the last of a three match ban following his sending off against Wolves.
Charlton will be without defensive talisman Bauer, who sits out the game through suspension following his dismissal against Reading on Saturday.
It leaves the Addicks in a fragile state at the back, with the unconvincing Naby Sarr the only natural option available to replace the German. The return of goalkeeper Stephen Henderson, who was on the bench at the Madjeski, particularly timely.
And so too could there be a forward figure returning, with Simon Makienok having completed a full day of training on Sunday. The 6’7 forward providing the Addicks with something different, and hopefully helping Tony Watt, likely to come back into the starting XI, to return to some sort of form.
KEY BATTLE: QUICKEST OFF THE MARK
At this stage of the season, it could be said that to suggest a game is a must win is hyperbole. With 34 games still to play for both sides after Tuesday night’s clash, three points are not as sacred as they are with four games to play, and there remains plenty of time for issues to be addressed.
But there is no getting away from the feeling that defeat for either side would be extremely damaging. Preston further questioning if they can compete in the Championship, and Charlton entering the state of crisis that they are on the verge of. Player and supporter confidence lowered to a point that would require something emphatic to heal it.
As such, a nervy and cagey affair is likely. Not least giving the fact that North End drew a blank at Cardiff on Saturday, and the Addicks managed two shots at Reading.
So scoring first, given both sides’ nerves and faults, appears crucial. With Grayson’s side taking no points from losing positions this season, and Charlton just two, that first goal appeals particularly important.
Throwing caution to the wind, and attempting to strike first, could be a gamble worth taking.
Incredibly hard to feel positive, irrespective of the quality of the opposition. Not winning doesn’t bare thinking about, though. Charlton Athletic 2-1 Preston North End