It’s almost as if Charlton Athletic’s opening day victory over Queens Park Rangers appeared in a different season to the one the reverse fixture will feature in.
For it’s hard to believe that the enthusiasm that was to be had following that August win existed in the same campaign as the hopelessness that exists now. Talk, however unrealistic, of a play-off push following the two-goal beating of the recently relegated side replaced by an acceptance of relegation with six games still to play.
Hard to stomach that what was a promising start to the season, which included whispers that Roland Duchatelet’s regime had learnt from their previous mistakes, has been followed by unrelenting crisis on and off the pitch.
In fact, only in recent weeks have the Addicks been able to emulate those early season efforts. Not even the discovery of some relatively decent form and commendable fight enough to make Charlton’s chances of making up the still-growing gap between themselves and safety realistic, or provide any solace to the damage and pain caused by Duchatelet.
And while QPR, with mid-table obscurity meaning their early season expectations have been replaced by disappointment, have nothing realistic to play for, they can at least plan for next season. Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink can prepare his side for the next Championship campaign in his side’s remaining six game. They can create the sort of excitement that Charlton supporters thought existed when their side gained that opening day victory.
The Addicks, on the other hand, have to endure what appears a fruitless slog. They might well still be fighting, but the battle is lost, and the lack of genuine strategy and direction means only Duchatelet listening to offers for the club would create any sort of meaningful optimism for the future.
That early season positivity really can’t have occurred in this current campaign.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 2-0 QUEENS PARK RANGERS
The Addicks begun their 2015/16 Championship season with an excellent performance in victory over QPR at The Valley.
After a somewhat nervy first half, with Nick Pope needing to be at his best to deny Tjaronn Chery, the half-time introduction of Tony Watt inspired Guy Luzon.
It immediately obvious that the Scot was in one of his unplayable moods, and it took just seven minutes for him to put the Addicks in front. Driving into the box, cutting inside and firing beyond Rob Green’s desperate attempt to keep his effort out.
And the extent of Charlton’s second-half dominance was shown in the scoreline with 18 minutes to play, as Watt teed up Morgan Fox to finish superbly from the edge of the box. His first senior goal securing a superb start to the season for Luzon’s men.
For QPR to be sat 11th with six games to play, 15 points off the play-offs, constitutes a season of relative failure. Their status, squad and expenditure meant a more serious push for the top six, and an attempt to make an immediate return to the Premier League, was demanded.
But under Chris Ramsey, interim boss Neil Warnock and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the R’s have struggled to maintain any sort of form. Back-to-back wins recorded just twice this season, and more draws (16) than anyone else in the division holding the West London side back.
There is, however, a desire to be patient and keep faith with Hasselbaink. Undoubtedly increasing after the 3-0 win over rivals Brentford last month.
And there have been some positive signs under the stewardship of the former Charlton striker, if his arrival has not had the dramatic impact some would have liked.
The R’s have, at least, become hard to beat, suffering just three league defeats since Hasselbaink took charge. That reaffirmed with Chery’s late equaliser stealing a point from Elland Road in midweek.
Flickers of life from a dying animal, but not nearly enough to suggest it will survive. Despite claiming 11 points from their previous six games, and beginning to play with something that resembles a bit of fight, the Addicks are effectively eight points from safety with six games to play.
In fact, the form of those sides around Charlton in the Championship table means the gap between themselves and safety is growing. That a performance that warranted victory on Tuesday night against Ipswich at Portman Road only gave the Addicks a point, while Fulham beat Preston, makes survival seem even less likely.
For Charlton’s eventual relegation will not be an unfair reward based on their efforts in their final few games of the season, but a deserved punishment for the destruction Duchatelet’s regime has caused, the horrendous leadership of Karel Fraeye, and poor and gutless performances for large parts of the campaign.
This show of fight from Jose Riga’s side unquestionably nice to see, but it’s providing little solace.
Jamie Mackie will be absent for QPR after suffering a hamstring injury during Tuesday night’s draw with Leeds that, in the words of boss Hasselbaink, “doesn’t look good”.
The Scotland international missed three months of the season after suffering a similar injury in the 4-0 defeat to Fulham at the end of September, and now looks set for a season-ending lay-off. Sebastian Polter, who replaced Mackie 24 minutes into the contest at Elland Road in midweek, the man likely to come into QPR’s starting XI.
Chery is also pushing to start, having scored the equalising penalty against Leeds, while Jack Robinson, appearing on the bench on Tuesday after over a year out with a serious knee injury, could make his R’s debut.
Charlton could be without Johann Berg Gudmundsson after the winger was involved in a nasty clash of heads during Tuesday’s goalless draw with Ipswich.
The Iceland international has since Tweeted he hopes to be okay in a few days’ time, but whether that means he’ll be fit to feature at Loftus Road remains to be seen.
And there are also worries about the fitness of Alou Diarra, who was in some discomfort come the conclusion of the contest at Portman Road. The Frenchman, already playing through the pain barrier having not fully recovered from the crack bone in his foot that kept him out for several weeks, was bundled off the pitch as stoppage-time approached, and only returning deep into it with a squirm and hobble.
But Igor Vetokele, seemingly benched in midweek given his fitness issues, could make a return to Charlton’s starting XI. Though harsh to drop Yaya Sanogo after he proved a handful against the Tractor Boys, Vetokele must start if fit enough to.
Elsewhere, Yun Suk-Young will be unavailable to play his parent club, while Patrick Bauer may return to the matchday squad having made an appearance for the U21s at the start of the week.
KEY BATTLE – BATTLING HARD, WITH OR WITHOUT DIARRA
Though going forward the Addicks have impressed in recent weeks, it has been the return from injury of Diarra that has been the catalyst behind this upturn in form.
The experienced Frenchman has provided some much-needed resolve and fight in midfield, battling for every ball and breaking up opposition attacks with regularity.
The sight of him hobbling around in the closing stages of the draw with Ipswich on Tuesday, therefore, was quite a worrying one. Riga’s side will undoubtedly be much weaker should Diarra not be fit to face the R’s.
Nonetheless, his absence would be no excuse for the Addicks to suddenly lose their resolve. Johnnie Jackson would likely partner Jordan Cousins in the middle, and they must provide the determined fight that Diarra has been able to against Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Ipswich.
That particularly true with QPR’s midfield likely to feature Massimo Luongo and Alejandro Faurlin. Two talented and tenacious central players.
Regardless of the level of fight and determination shown, it’s unlikely to have any realistic impact on Charlton’s chances of the Addicks staying up, but going down with a bit of pride is a touch better than dropping to League One following a series of capitulations.
New found fight makes it difficult to believe we’ll cave in, but uncertain we’ll be able to do enough to claim victory. QPR 1-1 Charlton Athletic