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Preview: Walsall V Charlton Athletic

Port Vale’s late equaliser from the penalty spot to deny Charlton all three points at Vale Park, a sluggish group of Addicks having no response to Ollie Banks’ early opener for Oldham Athletic  at Boundary Park, and the performance against Shrewsbury Town at New Meadow that led to Karl Robinson suggesting that 40% of his squad didn’t care enough. Oh, and the pathetic defeat to Millwall at The Den. Midweek away games were rarely much fun last season.

And as Charlton prepare for their first midweek game away from The Valley during this campaign, there’s a fair amount of pressure on them to produce greater reward than many of their Tuesday ventures did last season.

For having delivered three substandard performances in as many games, there is an ever-growing sense of concern among supporters of the Addicks that quickly needs to be blunted. Optimism fading, as the impressive early-season performances are replaced by sluggish and disjointed efforts, while a lack of trust in Robinson’s men to rediscover their previous form is appearing. Something inspiring required, to reinstil belief.

Attempting to obstruct Charlton from getting their season back on track is Walsall. A side with pressures of their own, or more specifically on boss Jon Whitney, but one that come into the game on the back of a few promising results. A draw with Peterborough United and victory over Oxford United reflective of the fact the Saddlers do have the quality to win games of football.

But they’re the sort of side who would struggle to contain a group of Addicks who did rediscover the fluent play, supported by defensive determination, that got the season off to such an impressive start. Like the Gillingham and Bury games before this one, it’s winnable. Unlike the Gillingham and Bury games before this one, the true quality of Robinson’s men needs to be displayed once more.

And needs to be displayed in the sort of fixture that so often brought about heavy sighs of disappointment, and subsequently long and gloomy trips home, last season. A win on the road in midweek required.

LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1-1 WALSALL (11/03/2017)

Tony Watt, having previously gone without a goal in Charlton colours for the best part of 19 months, scored for the second time in four days to earn the Addicks a point when Walsall visited The Valley in March.

Robinson’s men going into the game on the back of their first victory in nine, secured in stoppage-time via a Watt penalty, but the early indications were not to suggest that the 2-1 win over Scunthorpe United had completely revitalised a beleaguered outfit.

In fact, Charlton continued to look like a fragile side that lacked confidence and self-belief. They sat deep, too afraid to challenge the dominance of Erhun Oztumer in the middle, and allowed Walsall to come at them without showing any reasonable threat of their own. Joe Edwards played through down the left by Oztumer, and Simeon Jackson somehow managing to turn the resulting delivery over the bar from a glorious position.

Only good fortune preventing the Addicks falling behind for much of the half but, with a minute of it remaining, the punishment they had long deserved would finally be inflicted. Jackson, exploiting a horrendously high Charlton line, latching onto a volleyed Kieron Morris clearance, racing through on goal, and converting coolly beyond Rudd. Impressively awful.

A second-half response required, and Watt’s right foot delivered with 61 minutes played. The Scot’s first-time finish rifling beyond Neil Etheridge from a tight angle after Joe Aribo had squirmed the ball to him. Punishment for Walsall’s wastefulness more than reward for Charlton’s efforts, but it instilled energy and confidence into Robinson’s men.

So much so that, for a period, it was the men in red creating the best chances to win the game, with a Watt volley and a deflected Aribo strike requiring intervention from Etheridge.

But ultimately, the game ended in a similar fashion to how it started, with the Addicks requiring some good fortune to maintain parity. Amadou Bakayako horribly scuffing an effort wide having been played into an excellent position by Oztumer, and George Dobson just failing to get what would have been a decisive touch on Jason McCarthy’s low cross. Walsall supporters left to question quite how their side had not collected three points, while Charlton fans took rather large sighs of relief.

FORM

Walsall: WDLLWD

Having not won away from home since Boxing Day 2016, Walsall’s first victory on the road in 16 attempts will no doubt act as a massive confidence boost for Whitney’s men.

A side that have typically lacked fluency, and as the ability to take control of a game, under Whitney’s management were dominant at the Kassam Stadium. The second goal given to them by Tyler Roberts just after half-time, adding to Erhun Oztumer’s first-half conversion of Joe Edwards’ cross, a more than warranted reward for their efforts. Not even Ryan Ledson’s 78th-minute penalty, halving Walsall’s advantage, took away their control of the contest.

And it following a commendable draw with Peterborough United, in which the Saddlers led for 34 minutes following the influential Oztumer’s strike gave them the advantage.

The sort of results so desperately required after a 5-1 thrashing at Rotherham at the start of the month that placed further doubts over whether Whitney was the right man to lead Walsall forward. The club stagnating somewhat, a 14th-place finish last season failing to impress, and one victory in the final ten games of the campaign meaning there was pressure on the boss to prove himself at the start of this one. Something he hasn’t quite done.

But there no question that a draw with Peterborough and victory over Oxford are results to build upon.

Charlton: DLLWWW

It the opening 35 minutes at The Valley on Saturday that was so alarming. A group of players in red who looked completely lost, completely baffled as to what to do when the ball was at their feet, and repeating the same sloppy mistakes. They stood and watched as a Bury side, without a win in seven, not only took the lead but continued to have control of the contest.

The immediate response to Jermaine Beckford’s goal, albeit a rather impressive strike, non-existent. As has been the general response to the defeats against Wigan Athletic and Gillingham. The Addicks weak, sluggish, and lacking cohesion.

And while there was eventually a response of sorts, it was tame. Josh Magennis’ equaliser the catalyst for it, but the introduction of energy and intent was not matched by end product. Robinson’s men blunting their own attacks, making wrong decisions or running into dead ends. We did enough to win the game, suggested Robinson, and three points might have been claimed had Joe Murphy not saved from Magennis’ header in stoppage-time, but that felt like an extremely twisted take on a performance that reaffirmed plenty of cracks.

It in some contrast to the impressive efforts seen in five of the first six league games of the season, and that is what is making these incredibly sluggish and sloppy efforts most frustrating. For this side has shown there is a great deal more to it. But at present they are not showing that, and beginning to highlight concerns over a lack of ‘Plan B’, a lack of depth, and simply the general quality of the side.

Is the Charlton seen in the previous three games more akin to the one that will be seen throughout the season, or is the Charlton seen in the early weeks of the campaign just hiding, and that is what we’ll be treated to as the months follow? The performances and results in the coming weeks will provide an answer.

THE OPPOSITION

Walsall boss Whitney switched from three-at-the-back to four at the weekend, and might well choose to play the same side in the same shape following their impressive victory over Oxford United.

A back four of Nicky Devlin, Luke Leahy, James Wilson and Jon Guthrie provided more reliable protection to goalkeeper Mark Gillespie, greater freedom was offered to wingers Kieron Morris and Zeli Ismail, while Erhun Oztumer and Tyler Roberts ultimately made the difference.

Whitney does, however, have the luxury of a fully fit side to choose from, and may well make changes to conquer a different opponent or to deal with the three-day gap between fixtures. Shaun Donnellan, Amadou Bakayoko and Dan Agyei among those on the bench for Walsall at the weekend, while Florent Cuvelier and Simeon Jackson didn’t even make the 18.

The Saddlers squad is also likely to feature Liam Kinsella, son of former Addick Mark.

THE ADDICKS

Charlton will welcome back Ricky Holmes after the influential winger missed the draw with Bury through suspension.

Holmes, who was forced to sit out against the Shakers having collected five yellow cards this season, will undoubtedly come straight back into the side, with Karlan Ahearne-Grant unlikely to retain his place in the starting XI.

But there are concerns that a squad that is already short on numbers will be missing key players at the Bescot. Billy Clarke fell awkwardly during the second-half of Saturday’s draw with Bury, and despite attempting to continue was ultimately withdrawn, while Jason Pearce was seen leaving the ground on crutches after Robinson seemingly had Naby Sarr prepared to replace him without doing so for the final 20 minutes of the game. Losing an important creative force and the side’s defensive leader would be huge blows.

In addition, Mark Marshall (knee) remains unavailable, fitness concerns mean Ben Reeves continues to be protected by Robinson, and both Lewis Page (ankle) and Harry Lennon (groin) are long-term absentees.

KEY BATTLE – OZTUMER V HOLMES

Having Ricky Holmes in your side is an escape clause. In situations where you’re struggling to put together passes, simply force the ball towards the winger, and watch him force the opposition onto the back foot. That sort of ability was so desperately missed on Saturday.

Karlan Ahearne-Grant and Tariq Fosu attempted to drive Charlton forward in the second half, but it was all pace and no bite. They ran into dead ends, delivered aimlessly, or made the wrong decisions. Holmes, in similar circumstances, more often than not glides forwards, creates openings, and forces opposition defences into retreating further and further in order to contain him.

A gradual way in which he changes matches, but so too does Holmes have the ability to provide a moment that wins a game. A quality, given the current sluggishness with which the Addicks are playing, which is welcomed back into the side equally as much. You need only watch his goal against Oldham Athletic earlier on this season, as I’m sure you’ve all done about 6,548 times on repeat already, to be reminded of that.

However, Walsall can also boast a player with the ability to change, and potentially win, a game on his own. Erhun Oztumer, despite being the only professional footballer smaller than Chris Solly, is sublime with his feet, able to dictate play from behind the front man, and capable of scoring extraordinary goals. Whitney’s side would be incredibly weak without him.

He showed his talents at The Valley last season, central to Walsall’s domination of the game, and already has five goals in all competitions this season. Two more than Holmes’ tally of three, though his influence on the Addicks, of course, goes far beyond his ability to convert.

And given Charlton’s recent sluggishness and Walsall’s indifferent quality, it might well be the impact that those two creative and match-winning talents have on the game that will prove decisive.

PREDICTION

There can surely only be improvement on the overall performance on Saturday, but it’s difficult to feel confident of victory on the basis of the three most recent displays. Walsall 1-1 Charlton Athletic

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