There is an argument that the international break came at exactly the right time for Charlton Athletic, irrespective of the impressive performance in victory over Sheffield Wednesday in their final fixture before it.
For the break remained desperately needed by all. Supporters wanting time away from a club that continues to be in a state of crisis. Interim-but-not-actually-interim head coach Karel Fraeye having a period of time during which he could attempt to instil his beliefs into the side. The chance for some physically and mentally exhausted players to recharge.
But so too could it be suggested that the two week gap without Championship football has harmed the Addicks. The confidence and momentum gained from that Wednesday win potentially lost without a fixture following closely after. At the very least, there has not been the opportunity to show that was more than just a one off.
In the eyes of most, the ‘real’ Charlton remains the side that went 12 games without a win, and not the one that emphatically beat an in-form Owls side. The one without cohesion, confidence or attacking threat, and not the one that pressed, played with energy, and scored three very good goals.
As such, there is a considerable amount of pressure on the Addicks to prove themselves at St Andrew’s on Saturday. Unquestionably a tough trip, with Gary Rowett’s Birmingham City surpassing the pre-season expectations many had of them and flirting with the prospect of promotion, but the strength of the opposition will provide no excuse.
Especially given what remains almost universal feelings of some form of disillusionment with the state of the club, supporters require another positive performance from their side on Saturday. Fraeye’s men need to show the international break has benefited them, and not blocked the faint hope of progression that exists.
LAST MEETING – BIRMINGHAM CITY 1-0 CHARLTON ATHLETIC
Lloyd Dyer’s late strike meant the Addicks left St Andrew’s in April with the defeat their performance deserved.
Without anything to play for, Charlton’s efforts were somewhat half-hearted, and the Blues should have capitalised on the sluggishness of their opponents long before Dyer’s 82nd minute strike.
In fact, only Stephen Henderson’s constant interventions, and some wayward Birmingham finishing, kept the scores level for such a long period. The goalkeeper tipping Robert Tesche’s effort onto the bar, and fortunate that Diego Fabbrini could only stab wide when Demarai Gray presented him with a glorious opening.
While Roger Johnson struggled, Michael Morrison remained composed. The Blues continuing to carve out decent openings, while Charlton were restricted to isolated periods of play in and around Birmingham’s box.
So there could be no feeling of injustice when Dyer finally gave the hosts the lead, and ultimately victory. There could, however, be complaints about Charlton’s defending, as those in red stood off the Watford loanee and allowed him to drill an effort into the bottom corner.
That the Addicks in the away end, long frustrated by the nature of the game, had their applause for former vice-captain Morrison returned at full-time a small crumb of comfit.
Though Chris Hughton’s Brighton remain unbeaten, Steve Clarke’s Reading have excelled, and Carlos Carvalhal’s Sheffield Wednesday have been impressive in both league and cup, it is arguably Rowett that has been the most impressive manager so far in this Championship season.
The one-time Charlton defender, having built a reputation for himself through his transformation of Burton Albion and cemented it by taking the Blues from 23rd when he took over in October to 10th at the end of last season, has received much of the credit for his Birmingham side being able to enter the international break sitting sixth in the table.
For his squad, in terms of depth and individual quality, cannot match those belonging to other clubs with promotion ambitions. The confusing and frustrating situation regarding the club’s ownership, with a takeover still being sought, restricting the club in the transfer market.
But Rowett has built a cohesive and quality unit with the players available to him, able to play excellent counter-attacking football. Morrison defiant at the back, Gray creative and potent out wide, and Clayton Donaldson the focal point in attack.
And though the 5-2 demolition of Fulham at Craven Cottage prior to the international break was their first in four games, six victories had been recorded in the nine before that mini-winless run. Rowett’s management meaning the Blues are outdoing clubs with much larger financial clout.
For 90 minutes, those on the pitch finally provided some joy to suffering supporter. The Addicks dominating an in-form Sheffield Wednesday side with an excellent team performance, and recording a deserved 3-1 win.
A winless run of 12 brought to an end, a goal scored after five games without the opposition’s net rippling, and an enjoyable Valley atmosphere experienced for the first time in a number of weeks.
But was telling that as the Addicks celebrated their first win since August, there was still a chant of “we want Roland out” from the Covered End.
For though the victory over Wednesday was mightily impressive, it did little to change emotions among supporters who had earlier protested against the mismanagement of their club. Roland Duchatelet and Katrien Meire continuing to encourage apathy and anger, while the unjustifiably appointed Fraeye is incredibly hard to support.
Much more needed, on and off the pitch, for fans to feel a healthy connection with their club again.
Birmingham will be without David Cotterill after the winger sustained a knee injury in the goalless draw with Blackburn two games prior to the international break.
It was originally hoped that Cotterill, who missed the victory over Fulham and was also forced to withdraw from the Wales squad picked to face the Netherlands, would have an outside chance of being fit for the clash with the Addicks, but it now appears that the wide man will be absent for around a month.
The Welshman’s injury could hand another opportunity to promising youngster Viv Solomon-Otabor, who scored his first goal for the Blues against Fulham and has been compared to fellow academy graduate Gray by boss Rowett.
Elsewhere, Birmingham’s centre-back pairing is likely to feature two players who have spent time at The Valley previously in their careers. Jonathon Spector a squad player during a loan spell in the 2005/06 season, while Morrison earning cult status for playing his part in Chris Powell’s successful side.
Ricardo Vaz Te could be in the Charlton squad for the first time after joining the club during the international break.
The former West Ham forward, who was a free agent after leaving Turkish side Akhisar Belediyespor, provides a much needed additional option in attack following the news that Igor Vetokele will be absent for an extended period of time.
The Angolan, who last played for the Addicks against Blackburn in September, recently had a groin operation, and won’t return until after the Christmas period.
And there are additional concerns for Charlton in attack, with Tony Watt’s gym-related Instagram photos indicating he remains unfit, while Reza Ghoochannejhad is a doubt after sitting through a gruelling 25 hour flight. With a late decision being made on Chris Solly, who came off injured against the Owls, Charlton’s small squad will be stretched to the limit.
Fraeye will also be without El-Hadji Ba, who picked up his fifth yellow card of the season in the victory over Sheffield Wednesday. He’ll be replaced by Jordan Cousins, should the academy graduate have recovered from the knock that kept him out of the Wednesday win and Fraeye opt to continue with his diamond formation.
KEY BATTLE: BREAKING DOWN BIRMINGHAM’S BREAKAWAYS
It is through clinical counter-attacking style that Birmingham have managed to, against expectation, weave their way into the top six. Rowett a rare highly-rated boss in modern times who does not favour possession over potency.
Such a system, however, is not unstoppable. There are two ways the Addicks could halt the Blues’ breakaways.
The first being to sit deep, and force a side that capitalises on gaps presented to them by the opposition to create unassisted space and openings. Given Charlton’s reluctance to keep cleansheets – just one all season – that seems like a tactic that is unlikely to be successful. Pressure will ultimately be invited.
The second is to replicate the pressing and energy that was so crucial in the victory over Wednesday. The cohesive and determined effort, which stopped the visitors playing and ultimately allowed Charlton some attacking dominance, was in complete contrast to the miserable sluggishness of the previous 12 games.
Applying pressure higher up the pitch could well leave gaps, perfect for Birmingham to exploit, and replicating the performance seen at The Valley will be incredibly difficult away from home. The Addicks without an away win since March.
But if it is done as successfully as it was against the Owls, you could certainly suggest that it is a better option than simply sitting back and attempting to frustrate the Blues.
A tough game for the Addicks, whether they were travelling to St Andrew’s in form or not. Injuries don’t make it any easier. Birmingham City 2-0 Charlton Athletic