There’s no trophy to be claimed at Kingsmeadow this weekend, but Charlton Athletic midfielder Andrew Crofts isn’t wrong when he suggests the trip to AFC Wimbledon is the first of 18 cup ties for the Addicks.
A horrible and overused cliché, so much so that I feel a little ashamed to be repeating it, but Crofts certainly has a point. In the sense that nothing less than victory will do in the majority of the 18 fixtures between now and the end of the season, 18 cup finals await Karl Robinson’s side.
Six points and six teams separating Charlton from the top six. A mountain to climb, and a steep one at that, but not yet impossible. A run of victories required, but that a run of victories that is only likely to be achieved with a positive result this weekend.
For momentum and confidence hangs by a thread. Looking at the table doesn’t do much for either of those, but it more so the consideration that Fleetwood’s late equaliser at The Valley last weekend might have a greater impact on the Addicks than simply the dropping of two points. The belief gained following the win over Bolton Wanderers most certainly dented.
And the perilous nature of Charlton’s position is further summed up with a quick look down the table at where Saturday’s opponents lie. The Dons on a poor run of form, and their flirtation with the top six most definitely over, but they only three points behind the Addicks. An opponent without the same immediate goals of Robinson’s men might well be level with them come the end of this weekend.
Victory, as such, couldn’t be more vital. To reassert belief, to prevent the crushing of any sort of hope, and to keep alive the idea that these 18 cup finals might actually lead to a genuine cup final come May.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1-2 AFC WIMBLEDON
A second-half Charlton capitulation, impressive even by the standards of the Addicks, gifted AFC Wimbledon a dramatic victory at The Valley in September.
The hosts taking control of the contest from as early as the 8th minute, with the visitors standing off Ademola Lookman on the edge of their own area and allowing him a chance to cut inside. The teenager duly punishing their error of judgement, rifling the ball beyond James Shea in the Dons goal.
And for much of the afternoon in SE7, it appeared as if Lookman’s effort was to be enough for Charlton to claim three points. Russell Slade’s side not delivering a flowing and dominant performance, but doing enough to remain comfortably in command.
Comfort that would, undoubtedly, been increased had the Addicks found the second goal they had long been pushing for. A stunning miss from Nicky Ajose towards the end of the first half, and a good save from Shea to keep out a Ricky Holmes volley midway through the second, preventing Slade’s men from killing the game off.
Wastefulness that they would live to regret as, with 12 minutes remaining, the Dons found their equaliser. An equaliser that, with the Addicks dropping deeper and deeper and beginning to lose defensive composure, Charlton had effectively brought upon themselves. Chris Solly and Lookman standing off Dominic Poleon, the forward somehow finding a way through the two bodies in red, and finishing emphatically.
The response to losing their lead frantic, and it clear to see that heads had dropped among those representing the Addicks. Momentum most certainly with the Dons.
It little surprise therefore that, with five minutes to play, Tyrone Barnett towered above Charlton’s defence to connect with Barry Fuller’s delivery and head powerfully beyond Declan Rudd.
Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in the game’s final 12 minutes. A quite remarkable capitulation.
AFC Wimbledon: LDLWDD
There was a time when it appeared Neal Ardley’s side were targeting a second successive promotion. Victory over Peterborough United at the end of October lifted the Dons into the play-offs, while, having beaten Port Vale 4-0, they sat only three points outside the top six as recently as December 17th.
But Saturday’s 4-0 defeat to Sheffield United provides a reflection of the suggestion that AFC Wimbledon’s season is in danger of fading to a rather uncomfortable conclusion.
Of course, there no shame in suffering defeat at Bramall Lane, and the Dons are under no threat whatsoever of being drawn into the relegation battle. But the defeat becomes more damaging when you consider its part of a run of just two league victories in ten games.
And within the period in which that run has taken place features the FA Cup replay defeat to Sutton United. That the non-league side would go on to beat Leeds United in the next round not healing AFC wounds.
A comfortable mid-table finish for this incarnation of Wimbledon in their first season in League One would unquestionably be a success. But picking up a few more points between now and April wouldn’t go amiss.
It quite an odd situation, this. The Addicks six games unbeaten, but it not really something to celebrate.
For though there have been impressive performances during this run, and applause for Robinson and his side is warranted, it still not enough to put Charlton into a position where achieving a top six finish seems plausible.
That partly down to the gap that already existed between the Addicks and top six, but also as a result of the frustrating events of last Saturday. A draw that felt like a defeat not only because Fleetwood struck an equaliser so late on, but also because of what it meant to this rather optimistic play-off push. Given the impact of that draw, it would seem fitting if an ‘L’ featured at the start of Charlton’s recent form.
And as such, already is this run of six games unbeaten resigned to history. The focus immediately turning to the run of six victories in six games that is desperately needed for Robinson’s men to mount serious pressure on the top six.
This run of six won’t mean much without an even greater run of six following.
Sean Kelly looks set to keep his place at left-back with Jon Meades yet to recover from an ankle injury that has kept the Welshman out for over a month.
Meades’ injury, and the tried and tested nature of the rest of the AFC’s defensive line, means changes at the back are unlikely despite conceding four goals last weekend. Former Addick Barry Fuller an almost ever-present at right-back, while Chris Robertson is unlikely to dislodge Darrius Charles and Paul Robinson at centre-back.
Changes in midfield, however, not to be ruled out. Particularly with Dean Parrett, absent for the trip to Bramall Lane, nearing a return from injury. The possibility that Parrett could form a former Charlton loanee partnership in the centre of the Dons’ midfield, with Tom Soares, signed from Bury during the January window, making his debut for the club last weekend.
Elsewhere, George Francomb and Poleon, having appeared off the bench during the defeat to the Blades, will be pushing for a place in the starting XI. Not least Poleon, who will be hoping to score against the Addicks for a second time this season.
Josh Magennis looks set to return for the Addicks, having made a quicker than expected recovery from what initially appeared a serious ankle injury.
The forward, who hasn’t made an appearance since being stretchered off during the goalless draw with Millwall at The Valley, has been a talismanic figure during this campaign, and is a vital influence in Robinson’s one-up-top formation.
His return would see Tony Watt drop to the bench, which is rather cruel on the maverick Scot when his work rate and effort in recent weeks is considered. But there no doubt Magennis is more suited to the lone striker role.
However, there could be a place in the side for Watt on the right wing. Not a familiar position for the Scot, but he does possess the attributes to prove a threat out wide. Jordan Botaka the only genuine option available to Robinson to replace the suspended Nathan Byrne.
Lewis Page is also suspended, serving the second game of his two-match ban following his dismissal at Bolton, but Adam Chicksen should be fine to resume duties at left-back having come off feeling ill last week, while Jake Forster-Caskey should be fit to start having been withdrawn against Fleetwood as a precaution.
Elsewhere, Fredrik Ulvestad is nearing a return to fitness and could be involved given that Byrne’s suspension creates an extra space in the squad for a loanee, but Jason Pearce remains absent.
KEY BATTLE – MANAGING MAGENNIS
League One undoubtedly boasts more potent strikers, but there are few forwards in this division who provide defenders with such a torrid time as Magennis.
The Northern Ireland international possesses so many additional attributes that mean he shouldn’t simply be labelled a target man, but it’s those target man attributes that make him such a threat. His hold up play is marvellous, unbelievably strong, and a persistent threat in the air. Throw in the fact he’s very good with the ball at his feet, and you’ve got yourself the perfect figure to fill the lone forward role.
From an AFC Wimbledon perspective, therefore, it’s quite unfortunate timing that the return of this talismanic target man comes a week after their defence capitulated and conceded four at Bramall Lane. Not really the sort of figure that they want to be re-finding their collective feet against.
Magennis, therefore, likely to have a very important say in this fixture. In fact, he could determine the outcome of the game in its opening moments. A backline lacking confidence bullied by the forward, a Charlton goal scored as a consequence, and there no recovery for Ardley’s men.
Vitally important for the Dons, therefore, that Magennis is maintained, and prevented from being the crusher of fragile confidence that he can be. Though I’d much prefer they let the bloody brilliant bloke control the game.
Jason Euell’s dream of a draw between his two former sides crushed by a marvellous Magennis display. AFC Wimbledon 0-2 Charlton Athletic