The first of what would appear to be five season defining fixtures for Charlton Athletic sees Scunthorpe United travel to SE7.
While it no cause for shock to see Sheffield United and Bolton Wanderers, clubs who arguably belong above the third tier, that the Iron have slotted themselves between the two relative big boys of League One has shocked many.
Of course, Scunthorpe do have a past in the Championship, playing in the division as recently as 2011, but have rarely threatened a return since. In fact, one of the seasons since their relegation from the second tier has been spent in League Two.
But Graham Alexander’s side are in the top two on merit, and certainly not to be underestimated. A blend of rugged League One regulars, whose playing styles aren’t too dissimilar to what Alexander offered in his playing days, and a touch of quality to give them the edge going forward. Many a side undone by Stephen Dawson’s tough tackling and Josh Morris’ goals.
The Addicks, however, need not fear their opponents. Be wary, of course, but not fear. The width of the post denying Charlton three points at Glanford Park in September, and Ademola Lookman’s brilliance knocking the Iron out of The FA Cup in November. The Addicks, though then managed by Russell Slade, were arguably the better side on both occasions.
Alas, to use those games as evidence for another positive Charlton result would probably be a little naïve. Partly because Karl Robinson now leads the Addicks, and partly because Lookman is an Addick no more, but more to do with key absentees. Particularly the glaring Josh Magennis-shaped hole that now exists.
A difficult game, in circumstances made more difficult by absentees, but this is what the Addicks need to get used to over the next few weeks. And very quickly if their chances of finishing in the top six are to extend beyond February.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 3-1 SCUNTHORPE UNITED (05/11/2016)
Two goals from the now departed Lookman helped the Addicks to progress to the second round of The FA Cup, knocking a relatively full-strength Scunthorpe out of the competition.
Lookman making the most of his unexpected early introduction to the contest, replacing Ricky Holmes with 27 minutes played. The winger withdrawn having sustained a foot injury that would ultimately keep him out until the start of January.
The teenager’s stunning strike giving Slade’s side the lead 11 minutes before half-time. A delivery into the box cleared straight to Lookman, the Iron standing off him, and the winger finding the top corner of Luke Daniels’ goal with a fine curling effort.
And the Addicks, who had been placed under a reasonable amount of pressure by the visitors in the game’s opening stages, somewhat surprisingly found themselves two ahead before the break. Johnnie Jackson, striking a timid Scunthorpe clearance back in the direction from which it came, with a characteristically cool finish.
The game, however, not yet won. And Charlton really only had themselves to blame for allowing the Iron back into the game, as an uncontested Tom Hopper was allowed to head beyond Declan Rudd following a short corner routine.
But with seven minutes to play, Lookman sealed his side’s progression to the second round. Fredrik Ulvestad’s pass perfectly timed and weighted, allowing the teenager to convert in calm fashion.
More often than not, a club that have exceeding expectations throughout a period of the campaign will have some sort of slump eventually.
And if Scunthorpe’s slump was to be found in December, then the Iron can consider themselves rather fortunate. A 3-0 victory over Millwall their only win over the course of six games between the final weekend of November and the first of January.
Losses away at promotion rivals Rochdale and Bolton, both by a single goal, cause for frustration and not at all suggesting the Iron didn’t deserve to be among the division’s top sides. Draws with Bradford and Peterborough, two other sides with top six ambitions, important.
For defeat at Bolton, with their winner coming in stoppage-time, is now Scunthorpe’s only loss in their previous six league games. Back-to-back victories over Bury and Northampton totally dismissing the idea that Alexander’s men were in danger of falling away.
In fact, that 2-1 victory over Northampton last weekend have a very familiar feel to it. A tenth goal of the campaign for Kevin van Veen, and an 18th for Josh Morris. With goal-scoring tallies like that, it no wonder the Iron have a firm grip on an automatic promotion position.
Frustration the feeling around SE7 following the conclusion of Saturday’s goalless derby draw with Millwall.
Frustration as a result of Keith Stroud’s decision to disallow a perfectly legitimate Patrick Bauer goal. Frustration as a result of the overall performance, with Millwall creating the better chances over the course of 90 minutes. Frustration as a result of the amount of bodies made unavailable for the fixtures to follow.
There have, unquestionably, been worse afternoons and evenings against Millwall, but that of no comfort to those Addicks frustrated with another clash against their rivals where almost everything seemed to go against them.
And frustration something that has been felt for much of this season among Charlton supporters, highlighted by the fact their side sit seven points off the top six.
There have been better moments, and the victory over Bristol Rovers that preceded the stalemate with the Lions was undoubtedly one of them. A Magennis hat-trick, and Robinson’s system seemingly taking shape.
But it seems typical of this campaign that that has been followed by an injury to Magennis, and Robinson’s system being left in an uncomfortable state ahead of arguably Charlton’s most crucial run of fixtures.
Scunthorpe’s most recent signings are pushing for a place in the starting XI, having appeared off the bench during the victory over Northampton last weekend.
But Craig Davies, Ivan Toney and Matt Crooks are likely to have their chance to impress again limited, with those who currently hold first team places in the Iron’s side hard to displace. Forwards Davies and Toney mostly likely to come in, with Hopper, scorer of just one league goal since August, looking over his shoulder.
Davies and Toney’s chances of starting are increased by the absence of Paddy Madden, who remains side-lined by a groin injury. A similar story for full-back Conor Townsend, while David Mirfin, despite featuring in a behind-closed-doors friendly in midweek following a foot injury, is unlikely to be fully fit in time for Saturday’s contest.
Better news for Scott Wiseman, however, who should be available after missing the trip to Sixfields with a hamstring injury.
Just as Charlton’s injury crisis showed signs of nearing a conclusion, a few more damaged bodies have taken up residence in the treatment room.
The most concerning of which is Magennis, who looks set to be absent for a month with the ankle injury sustained during the draw with Millwall. Though Lee Novak, a forward in similar mould to the Northern Ireland international, is nearing a return, there no one within Robinson’s squad who can replace the presence and impact Magennis so often has. A talismanic figure lost.
So much so that the forward’s absence may force Robinson into a change in formation. Even if Novak is available, he’s unlikely to be fit enough to start, while Tony Watt and Nicky Ajose, left out of the 18 last weekend, are not the sort of strikers suited to playing up top on their own.
Though while one impressive summer signing will be unavailable, another is pushing for his first start since suffering a foot injury in the FA Cup victory over Scunthorpe. Ricky Holmes making an appearance from the bench against the Lions, and could come into the starting XI on the left side of midfield.
That particularly likely with Lewis Page likely to absent as a result of the injury he sustained last Saturday. Given that Jay Dasilva struggled, to the extent that he was substituted off having been substituted on midway through the first half, Adam Chicksen looks set to drop to left-back, with Holmes starting on the wing.
Further reshuffling at the back will be required as a consequence of Jorge Teixeira’s mindless dismissal following full-time last weekend. The nightmare of Roger Johnson starting not impossible, but Ezri Konsa dropping to centre-back Robinson’s most sensible choice. Fredrik Ulvestad, Johnnie Jackson (if fit) and Jake Forster-Caskey available to replace Konsa in the centre should the boss stick with five in midfield.
Jason Pearce (groin), Jordan Botaka (international duty) and Ahmed Kashi (Achilles) the other Addicks unavailable for this weekend.
KEY BATTLE – RESHAPING THE SIDE WITHOUT ITS MAIN ATTACKING THREAT, WHILE ATTEMPTING TO STOP THE OPPOSITION’S ATTACKING THREATS
There two reasons why Robinson’s fist pump to the Covered End and Magennis’ tunnel jump come full-time of the victory over Bristol Rovers felt important. A celebratory moment in itself, but also a suggestion that Robinson had found the way for his Charlton side to play.
Magennis marvellous in the lone striker role, the best of Andrew Crofts seen alongside Konsa and Joe Aribo in a central midfield trio, and those in wide positions attacking without fear. There fluency, and there threat.
But it not an overreaction to suggest Magennis’ injury has thrown this growing feeling of comfort to one of particularly uncomfortable discomfort. Novak the only man properly suited to playing up top on his own, and he unlikely to be fully fit for Saturday, with Watt and Ajose likely to be prohibited if played in such a position.
It creates quite the dilemma for Robinson. Play two in attack, and disrupt a formula that was beginning to impress, or stick with the formula in the hope it will work without it’s focal point. Either way, Charlton are going to have discover a new way of producing in the final third without Magennis’ presence.
All this while attempting to contend with the division’s top scorers, and the division’s top scorer. Morris’ 17 league goals helping the Iron to clock up 53 goals during this campaign.
Not particularly ideal, therefore, that there will be enforced changes at the back while a solution to this attacking conundrum is being considered.
Teixeira’s suspension and Page’s injury easier to solve than what’s to be addressed further up the pitch, with Konsa probably dropping deeper and Chicksen likely to get the nod at full-back, but most certainly an annoyance. Not least with a centre-back pairing that has conceded twice in four games being broken up.
The focus might well be on working out how best to set up offensively, but how to keep Alexander’s men at bay is equally important. Saturday a very real test of Robinson’s managerial nous.
A full-strength team, and in particular Magennis being available, and I’d possess a reasonable degree of confidence. Enough to think three points were more than possible. But fear a lack of fluidity in attack will see us placed under considerable pressure. Do well to escape with a point. Charlton Athletic 1-1 Scunthorpe United