As the ninth league game of the season approaches, Russell Slade’s Charlton Athletic remain stuck in something of a loop.
Promising flirtation with proving their worth as a genuine promotion contender, having picked themselves up from previous disappointment, before encouragement is crushed by an opposition highlighting their endless faults. A scenario that seems similar to my record with attracting the attention of females.
But Saturday’s trip to Oxford United, that follows the disgraceful capitulation in defeat to AFC Wimbledon and the positive if frustrating response in stalemate with Scunthorpe United, offers another opportunity for Slade’s men to escape this monotonous loop. To, at the very least, take a small step away from the doubt that surrounds them.
Of course, victory at the Kassam Stadium would not all of a sudden turn this group of unconvincing Addicks into certain top-six candidates. That in spite of Oxford’s impressive start to the season at home, which includes three victories and a draw from their four league games, suggesting Michael Appleton’s side have acclimatised well to the demands of League One following promotion.
There is, however, a desperate need for definitive momentum to grow. A win would assist in that, building on the encouraging signs at Glanford Park, but another stutter returns Slade’s men back to square one and keeps them trapped in this rather tiresome and unimpressive loop.
At the very least, there’s only so many more times that the Addicks can destroy their own foundations.
LAST MEETING – OXFORD UNITED 0-3 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (21/01/14)
A comprehensive victory at the Kassam Stadium in January 2014 meant Charlton finally progressed beyond a third round FA Cup tie that required two rearrangements and a replay.
The infamous pitch problems at The Valley, the consequence of a collapsed drainage system meaning poor weather could not be dealt with, resulting in the original tie between then Championship Charlton and League Two Oxford being postponed on both the Saturday it was supposed to be played on, and the midweek date that immediately followed.
Ten days passing before the fixture could finally take place, with the need for a replay coming after a Michael Morrison header and an emphatic Yann Kermorgant volley had rescued the Addicks from the embarrassment that John Mullins and Scott Davies’ first-half strikes threatened to inflict.
And it was Kermorgant who made sure no mistakes were made at the Kassam Stadium seven days later, as he fired the visitors in front. Marvellous hold-up play from Simon Church allowing the Welshman to tee up his strike partner, and the Frenchman firing home via a combination of goalkeeper and post.
Church central in the second goal, too, as the Wales international showed an uncharacteristic turn of pace to break into the box, and present an opportunity to Danny Green that even he couldn’t miss.
But the third was all about Kermorgant, as he marvellously curled a 30-yard free-kick into the top corner to seal progression. The sublime strike would be his final goal in Charlton colours, with the cult hero sold just over a week later. Cheers, Driesen.
The win, of course, the first in a memorable cup campaign. The literal highs of Chris Powell swinging on Hillsborough’s crossbar followed by the bleak lows of the defeat at Bramall Lane that denied the Addicks an opportunity to play at Wembley and led to the flat-capped manager’s dismissal.
In spite of boss Appleton claiming that his runners-up were the best side in League Two last season, there were some pre-season question marks as to how Oxford would handle the challenge of the third tier.
For following the sales of Kemar Roofe, who joined Leeds United, and Callum O’Dowda, to Bristol City, there was something of an expectation that might find considerably tougher in League One. At the very least, Appleton’s free-flowing attacking football would have to be reined in somewhat, with serious forward threats departing.
But, while resilience and determination has been utilised more often thnt fluent attacking play, the U’s have made a competitive beginning to life in the third tier. Credit due for achieving three victories and two draws from their opening eight games, and not being overwhelmed by League One regulars.
The concern for Appleton’s side, however, is their reliance on their home form. Three victories and a draw, including a 2-0 win over rivals Swindon Town, at the Kassam, but just a point, from Saturday’s goalless draw with MK Dons, gained away from home so far.
A need to take their impressive efforts in front of their own fans on the road to guarantee a comfortable, and possibly competitive, first season in League One following promotion.
To their credit, Slade’s side responded with a show of character and determination at Glanford Park on Tuesday night following the weak capitulation at home to AFC Wimbledon three days previously.
For Charlton, having been competitive for the duration for the first half against Scunthorpe, found themselves on top for much of the second period against the division’s table-toppers. A defiant Iron centre-back pairing, the occasional show of wastefulness in front of goal, and the width of the post preventing the Addicks from turning a point into three.
But, while the performance itself was encouraging and worthy of praise, it was not a result that could really be celebrated in the overall context of this underwhelming start to the season. Slade’s side, actually assisted by the occasional undeserved late goal, now four games without victory and languishing in the bottom half of the division.
Of course, the league table not something to worry about at this stage of the season, but it certainly frustrating when a top six budget, and therefore a top six finish, was promised. Their position in the table, with individuals frustrating, a collective flow still lacking, and questionable decisions being made by Slade, reflective of their performances.
The Addicks, at present, not looking like a side who will be able to pester the play-offs.
Oxford forward Wes Thomas faces a late fitness test ahead of the game against Charlton, having suffered a calf injury during the draw with MK Dons last weekend.
Thomas, who has scored three times this season, is likely to be replaced by Kane Hemmings should he not recover in time. The summer signing from Dundee himself spending time in the treatment room and missing the game at Stadium:MK last weekend, but is expected to be fit for Saturday.
Elsewhere, midfielder Joe Rothwell should be available despite suffering a recurrence of an ankle issue against the Dons, but centre-back Curtis Nelson, whose return to full training is still a week away, remains unavailable.
Charlton will be sweating over the fitness of Ricky Holmes after the winger missed the stalemate at Glanford Park with a back complaint.
Holmes, the most threatening creative force among this group of Addicks, might well have allowed Slade’s side to turn second half momentum into something more persistently potent had the summer signing been available in midweek, and he will certainly be missed once again should he not recover in time for the trip to Oxford.
But, having impressed off the bench once again, a start for Jordan Botaka might well help to prevent Holmes’ absence from being too detrimental to Charlton’s chances of victory. Bringing the winger into the starting XI would at least give Slade’s side greater balance than packing the side with centre-midfielders.
Elsewhere, Lee Novak is likely to return to the squad having been absent on Tuesday through illness alone, while Patrick Bauer should maintain his place at centre-back having made his first start since recovering from an injury sustained in December.
KEY BATTLE: BEING BRAVE, BEING BOLD, BRINGING ON BOTAKA
As Charlton lost attacking energy while holding the advantage against AFC Wimbledon last weekend, Slade instructed his side to retreat.
Sitting deeper, and losing structure, allowing the Dons into the game, and presenting them with an opportunity to win a game that, with 70 minutes played, they appeared to have no right to. The Addicks, and Slade, only having themselves to blame.
As Charlton built momentum during the second half of the stalemate with Scunthorpe, there remained a slight imbalance to the side. There no natural winger on the right hand side, and attacks restricted to utilising Ademola Lookman on the left.
Botaka, as he had done for the duration of the Dons defeat, sat twiddling his thumbs on the bench, with Slade unwilling to make the most of the clear advantage his side had and more definitively press for victory. The winger’s introduction, with seven minutes to play, having an immediate impact, with an opportunity created and a shot wastefully fired over the bar.
And should Saturday’s game at the Kassam enter a period where it appears Charlton are either retreating, and allowing Oxford to take control of the game, or in need of an additional attacking force, Slade cannot be cautious once again.
If Botaka again occupies the bench, almost certain to be the case if Holmes recovers from injury, then there is a need to unleash him with more time left in the game. To allow him to impress, and have a greater impact on the game, as he has done in the limited moments he was given against Fleetwood and the Iron.
And if not Botaka, then Slade must find another man or tactical shift that allows the Addicks to push for victory and keep the opposition pegged back. Something he has been too afraid, too cautious, to do in the previous week.
A need to build on Tuesday’s performance, with the addition of more definitive attacking intent. Cautious rather than confident, however. Oxford United 1-1 Charlton Athletic