The visit of Peterborough United to The Valley on Saturday does not only signal the start of the festive football schedule in earnest, but so too the first game in a run of fixtures that stands to define Charlton Athletic’s season.
The hectic Christmas period of fixtures is where the immediate attention lies, with three games against sides either in or around the play-offs topped off with a trip to The Den, but the reverse fixture against Millwall and games against the division’s current top two follow in January.
Eight league games will have been played by the conclusion of the trip to the Macron Stadium at the end of next month, and those eight games are likely to reveal whether Karl Robinson’s side are serious top six contenders, or merely resigned to floating about in mid-table for the remainder of the campaign.
With Katrien Meire promising the minimum of a top six finish, not that her promises are of much value, it of paramount importance that the Addicks don’t simply stutter through this period. A real opportunity for Charlton to put an indifferent first half of the season behind them, if persistent displays of quality can be found.
In fact, a win over Posh, who currently occupy the final play-off place, would move Robinson’s men within a point of them. A failure to record victory likely to see Charlton slip into the bottom half.
And the visitors, who come into the game on the back over a 5-2 victory over Chesterfield last weekend and five victories in their previous seven league games, will prove a stern test.
A chance for Charlton to define themselves, and one that is not to be wasted.
LAST MEETING – PETERBOROUGH UNITED 1-4 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (25/08/2015)
An outrageous effort from Ahmed Kashi, lobbing goalkeeper Ben Alnwick from the best part of 50 yards, was the highlight as Charlton recorded a convincing League Cup victory over Peterborough at London Road last season.
The Addicks were already two goals to the good by the time Kashi spotted the former Charlton goalkeeper well off his line. Mikhail Kennedy converting from close range three minutes into his professional debut, before the young winger won a penalty at the start of the second half which was converted by Karlan Ahearne-Grant.
But though it was pleasing to see the academy graduates seize a first-team opportunity, it was most definitely Kashi who grabbed all the attention. The Algerian picking up possession just inside the Posh half, taking a single stride forward, and perfectly guiding the ball over a stranded Alnwick.
A fourth from Igor Vetokele, finishing from Ollie Muldoon’s delivery on his return from injury, added further gloss to Charlton’s win, before Peterborough grabbed a consolation through Jermaine Anderson’s stoppage-time header.
Guy Luzon’s side going onto face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in the third round, where they would embarrass themselves in a 4-1 defeat.
Though so often to be found challenging for a place in League One’s top six, Peterborough were undoubtedly something of an enigma as this got underway. And not simply because last season saw Posh finish 13th in the third tier – their lowest finish since 2007/09, and the fifth consecutive campaign where they have finished lower than the previous.
A chairman in Darragh MacAnthony who has taken the club forward, but who seems to place more value on making profit from transfers than footballing success. A cult hero in Grant McCann leading the side, but one without much managerial experience. A talented squad, but a very young one.
However, an impressive run of results since the middle of October has suggested that Posh can be legitimate challengers this season. A run of six league games without a victory followed by six wins in nine. Bolton Wanderers among those beaten, while a 5-2 defeat was inflicted on improving Chesterfield at London Road last weekend.
McCann, with several exciting forward players to hand, playing the attack-minded football that has been part of Peterborough’s identity for several seasons. Chris Forrester, Marcus Maddison and Gwion Edwards among those who have impressed.
Robinson might still be searching for his first win as Charlton boss, and a rotated side may have crashed out of the FA Cup in midweek with a pretty tame extra-time defeat to MK Dons, but the efforts of a full-strength side against Bradford City suggests a first victory isn’t far away.
A first half performance of real quality at Valley Parade, which saw an unplayable Josh Magennis go agonisingly close to putting the Addicks in front on several occasions, followed by a battling effort from a fatigued side in the second period, supported by some superb saves by Dillon Phillips, earning Charlton a commendable point.
However, to say the side that showed both quality and character against the Bantams was full-strength is wildly incorrect. Something of an injury crisis harming Robinson’s squad, with five regular starters unavailable last weekend and a sixth, in the shape of Jason Pearce, needing to be withdrawn four minutes into the game.
A few of those, and the drained players that were allowed to rest in midweek, look set to return this weekend, and as such Robinson might well have the resources available to gain his first three points in SE7.
The impressive Maddison is likely to return to Peterborough’s starting line-up after missing Saturday’s win over Chesterfield with a recurrent ankle injury.
McCann, however, may have some thinking do over who sits out to allow the attacking midfielder to come back into the side. Paul Taylor, who replaced Maddison at the weekend, scored once and provided two assists at the weekend and immediately withdrawing him would seemingly be a little harsh.
18-year-old Leonardo Da Silva Lopes has impressed this season, but logic suggests the Portuguese is the most likely to miss out.
Elsewhere, Lee Angol is available after serving a suspension having been sent off in the FA Cup draw with Notts County, and Brad Inman is likely to feature in the matchday squad again after returning from a broken leg last weekend, but long-term absentee Anderson remains unavailable.
Charlton’s packed treatment room gained another visitor in midweek after Lee Novak was withdrawn 30 minutes into the FA Cup replay defeat to MK Dons.
Novak’s injury coming on the same day that Jason Pearce revealed what was initially thought to be a concerning groin strain was actually something more serious, and the centre-back will be out for three months. The pair keeping Chris Solly, Ricky Holmes and Declan Rudd, who is nearing fitness, company in the treatment room.
But Ademola Lookman and Morgan Fox, having missed Saturday’s draw through illness, returned on Tuesday, while Patrick Bauer will be available again having served his suspension for the red card he received at Bradford.
Elsewhere, those rested at Stadium MK on Tuesday will hopefully return to the side fresher and fitter. Andrew Crofts and Fredrik Ulvestad likely to reunite in the centre of midfield, and the talismanic Magennis set to work harder in 90 minutes than I have in my entire life combined once again.
KEY BATTLE – MAKING THE EARLY INTENSITY COUNT
Though Robinson awaits his first victory, and has seen his side score just once in his three games in charge, a positive attempt to instil a higher intensity, attacking brand of football into the Addicks can already be seen.
The first-half effort in Yorkshire last weekend did not warrant the nil it achieved. Vibrant attacking play, mixed with the raw aggression of Magennis, seeing the Addicks dominate for a large period of the half, and come agonisingly close to gaining the advantage on several occasions. There at least three premature celebrations, and a rather emphatic cry for a penalty, in the away end.
But the result of such an energetic effort in first period was that the visitors to Valley Parade were seemingly exhausted in the second. Having pressed persistently, been first to every ball, and showed quality going forward, the Addicks were forced to sit deeper, unsuccessfully chasing after loose balls, and lacking the energy in attack that had previously been seen.
A real fighting effort to secure the point, but the side evidently feeling the effects of their first-half performance regardless.
As such, it has to be questioned as to whether the Addicks are capable of performing in such an impressive manner for the duration of the game. A high-intensity first 45 followed by wilted bodies fighting for their lives in the second is a risky strategy. A strategy Charlton will adapt to, in terms of being able to perform to such a level for longer, but that adaption will take time.
And with Peterborough’s main strength being their pacey and creative attacking midfielders causing problems on the break, a drained side may find themselves in a spot of bother should this weekend be a repeat of last.
Quite simply, therefore, it’s important the Addicks make the most of that early intensity. No criticism of last week’s efforts, given that it was simply misfortune that Robinson’s men failed to score, but getting a lead to protect is vital.
An interesting match-up between two sides who will look to play a similar style of football. One learning to adapt to their new boss, and the other both settled and confident. No reason why the Addicks can’t record victory, but another draw seems the most likely outcome. Charlton Athletic 1-1 Peterborough United