It’s easy to look ahead to the challenge of facing two top six sides in five days with fear and trepidation. For if Charlton Athletic fail to record victory, or at least compete, against opponents with similar ambitions, then their ability to fulfil those ambitions becomes rightfully questioned. The growing confidence and optimism gained from consecutive wins is punctured.
Grinding out a single-goal victory over Doncaster Rovers, with a performance that was far from flawless, displayed defensive determination and a strong character. But the trip to Oxford United on Tuesday, and the subsequent journey to Bradford City on Saturday, will provide a greater test of the Addicks’ overall quality, as much as it will their character. An overall quality that must be seen in its entirety.
Tuesday’s opponents new entrants to League One’s top six, having stolen victory late on in an competitive contest with Bristol Rovers at the weekend. A third win a succession for Pep Clotet side, who appear to be finding their stride. A threatening mix of the core of those involved the club’s progression in recent years, and bodies pulled in via the wide range of contacts Garry Monk’s former assistant manager has at his disposal.
However, to approach both the trip to Kassam and Valley Parade is a stance that Charlton don’t need to take. And it would not be brazen to see them as exciting opportunities. A chance for Karl Robinson’s side to definitively stamp down their status as promotion contenders, and leave the rest of the division looking upon them with concerned interest.
They have self-belief to their name, and stumbling into a state of concern about the prospects of facing two top six sides takes that away from them without the opposition needed to test it. They have the self-belief, and the required quality, to get at both Oxford and Bradford and cause them problems. Promising performances, and a couple of points, would be encouraging, but the Addicks will believe they’re capable of more.
A big week. Possible the most important week of the season so far, given the confidence and optimism that could either be built upon or crippled. But the challenge should be savoured.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 0-1 OXFORD UNITED (21/02/2017)
Charlton’s sluggish and tame performance meant they had no response to Conor McAleny’s early goal, with the former Addick giving Oxford all three points at The Valley in February.
The evening might have been very different for Karl Robinson’s side had luck been on Nathan Byrne’s side. The Wigan Athletic loanee seeing a dipping, swerving effort from the edge of the box bouncing back off the crossbar at some velocity with visiting goalkeeper Simon Eastwood. Only three minutes played but the possibility at least that momentum lied with the hosts
Alas, with 12 gone, McAleny, who played six games as an Addick in 2015 while on loan from Everton, was allowed to come forward unchallenged. Red shirts watched without acting as he found himself 30 yards from goal, having drove from just inside the Charlton half. His resulting effort something of a daisy cutter, but enough to defeat Declan Rudd, and give the U’s the lead.
Momentum now most certainly not with Robinson’s men, crushed and without response to a set-back as has so often been the case. Oxford needing only to remain composed and organised to deal with a Charlton side already appearing frustrated and desperate. A second and they might as well have walked off the pitch, nearly provided by Phil Edwards as the unmarked defender headed over the bar.
If nothing else, questions were asked in the second half, both of the match officials and a little more of the visiting backline. Ricky Holmes, having collected Tony Watt’s cut back, bundled over by Ryan Ledson inside the box in such a way that an attacking team deems a clear penalty and a defending team would march through the streets claiming outrage. Referee Ward unmoved.
And while the deficit remained at one, an equaliser was not impossible while Holmes and Arsenal loanee Stephy Mavididi threatened. The latter dancing into the box from the left flank and firing a fierce strike towards goal through a sea of bodies, only to strike the bottom of the post. It didn’t deserve to be Charlton’s night, but the sense that it wouldn’t be was growing.
The sense that it wouldn’t be confirmed with 20 minutes to play. Chris Solly allowing the ball to get away from him, and subsequently lunging in on John Lundstram with both feet, right in front of the referee’s eyes. The full-back given a straight red card.
There was, however, one last chance for the Addicks to salvage a point they probably didn’t deserve. Goalkeeper Rudd in the tangle of bodies that waited for Mavididi to deliver a stoppage-time corner, ultimately won by Bauer. His header goalbound, but Ledson in position to clear off the line.
The final whistle immediately following. Maybe Charlton could claim misfortune. But their performance was one that warranted little reward.
The performance that earned victory over Doncaster Rovers wasn’t exactly pretty, and nor was referee Robert Lewis’ being concussed by the shoulder of Josh Magennis, but both were ultimately rather enjoyable.
For too often during Charlton’s run of four games without victory, too often in recent times, have pressurised situations resulted in the conceding of cheap goals or simply capitulation. The game undoubtedly should have been killed off, with chances wasted and Donny allowed back into the game via sluggishness from the home side, and so the pressure the Addicks faced was somewhat self-inflicted. But ten minutes of stoppage-time, ten nervy minutes for supporters, were dealt with defiantly and calmly by a defensive line unwilling to be beaten.
A performance in some contrast to the high intensity and fluent one that saw Fleetwood downed three weeks earlier, but a performance that is sometimes required in order to gain three points. A performance that means, all of a sudden, four grim performances without victory has become four games without defeat. Two of those games without defeat not exactly to be celebrated, but there a platform nonetheless for the Addicks, and confidence and optimism is growing.
Replacing the trustworthy figure of Michael Appleton, departing the Kassam after promotion from League Two and an eighth-place finish in League One last season to become Leicester City’s assistant boss, with Clotet was also going to be a little bit of a gamble. Monk’s sidekick, without much managerial experience and none in England, allowed to roam free. A bold attempt to push a progressing club further forward, with the niggling doubt it might not work out.
The early signs, however, are that Clotet is getting things right. Concern that the wheels were falling off with three successive defeats following a promising start, but three successive victories have more than balanced out those concerns. A 4-1 win at London Road over Peterborough United, AFC Wimbledon beaten by three, and jubilation as Alex Mowatt stole three points for the U’s in an incredibly competitive contest at the Memorial Stadium.
It’s a run made all the more impressive by the fact just about every forward they have with a pulse currently has some sort of body part that doesn’t function correctly. Arguably a sign that Clotet has the side well-drilled. And with the quality that exists in his side’s midfield, that is to be expected.
Of course, the three successive defeats will hang for a little while. Caution, rather than concern, that Clotet’s leadership isn’t faultless as a consequence. But Oxford certainly appear in a positive position.
Oxford are expected to remain without forward Gino van Kessel, who missed Saturday’s victory over Bristol Rovers with a hamstring injury.
Van Kessel, on loan from Slavia Prague, sustained the injury during the win over AFC Wimbledon, preventing him from going away on international duty with Curacao in addition to playing at the weekend, and he one of several forwards with injury concerns for the U’s.
A torn hamstring means Albanian Agon Mehmeti will definitely be out, while Tuesday is likely to come too soon for former Addick Jon Obika and winger-cum-forward Rob Hall, who are both nearing a return from groin injuries.
Former Swansea full-back Dwight Tiendalli (hamstring) is also a doubt for Clotet’s side, while midfielder Ivo Pekalski (knee), who is yet to make his Oxford debut having joined in the summer, remains a long-term absentee.
Mark Marshall should return to the Charlton squad having missed Saturday’s victory over Doncaster with a niggle.
The summer signing only made his debut for the Addicks during the win over Fleetwood two weeks ago, having recovered from a knee injury sustained in pre-season. But the knock that kept him out of the weekend win was unrelated to his previous injury, and a quick return to the squad for the winger is likely.
Having options of Marshall’s quality in reserve particularly important in a week where two sides in the top six are to be played away from home. The possibility, too, that Robinson may look to rotate his side. Ben Reeves make a second successive appearance from the bench on Saturday, replacing a rather anonymous Billy Clarke, and the summer signing will be pushing for his first league start.
Elsewhere, Jason Pearce’s long-term knee injury means he remains on the sidelines, while Lewis Page remains some way away from full fitness having recovered from an ankle injury.
KEY BATTLE – A CLASH BETWEEN TWO QUALITY CENTRES
There have been pleasing aspects about the previous two victories, with absent qualities returning to this Charlton side, but one of the most important ones is a calmness, control and composure in the centre of midfield.
Even Ahmed Kashi was below par during the run of four games without victory, with his passing particularly questionable, but he and Jake Forster-Caskey have largely been back to their best against Fleetwood and Doncaster. One breaks up play with stunning regularity, the other sets the more attacking midfielder frees. In a side where the likes of Ricky Holmes, Josh Magennis and Tariq Fosu are celebrated, the importance of the gritty centre is not lost.
In fact, one of the reasons they can do their job so successfully is because of the quality of what’s in front. Neither rarely need to take themselves out of position, sitting slightly deeper in preparation for when the ball is lot. Billy Clarke doing a fine job this campaign in the central attacking midfield role.
But they will face a midfield on Tuesday night that can certainly compete with the Addicks’. The quality of which arguably to be reaffirmed by the fact match-winner Mowatt, a player whose ability has previous been displayed in the Championship with Leeds United and Barnsley, only appeared from the bench with 20 minutes to play. And Mowatt, at 22, embodies the overall nature of it; young but excellent.
Ryan Ledson, a 20-year-old previously at Everton who has become the midfield leader after departures in the summer, both a battling and creative presence, Josh Ruffles (23) doing more of the gritty work, while Jack Payne (22), exceptional with Southend United at this level and doing well enough with Huddersfield Town in the Championship, sits just ahead of them.
The importance of both sets of midfields vital. Possibly more so to Oxford, given the quality of what Charlton have out wide, but the Addicks crumble defensively without an on-song Kashi and Forster-Caskey. Much of what Clotet’s side does comes through their quality in the centre, and their do doubt an on-song Kashi and Forster-Caskey is required.
Tough one, as is the away game to follow at Bradford City. Two points from these two games, with two strong performances to give with them? Promising. Oxford United 1-1 Charlton Athletic