Friday, February 29, 2008

Blade Runners!

Charlton go into this weekends away game against Sheffield United no longer looking up the table, but most definitely looking back down over their shoulders. The devastating loss at Bloomfield Road last week may take some time to shrug off, as it almost certainly ended the clubs hopes of an automatic promotion spot. Now, Charlton have to retain and consolidate their play off position, having slipped to sixth place in the Championship after last weekends matches.

That will be no easy feat; a number of other clubs have gathered around the fifty point mark (Charlton have 52), and they now will be looking upwards at us having got close to the relative safety that this points total brings with a dozen games to go in the season. So instead of concentrating on the fixtures and results of Stoke, Bristol City, Watford and West Brom, Addicks fans will now be trying to find out how Plymouth, Hull, Ipswich, and Burnley are doing at the weekends.

It’s pretty easy to find out why Charlton have slipped back into the chasing pack – just three wins in the last 15 games is simply not promotion form. During those times, Alan Pardew has dumped the 4-5-1 formation that won away games but failed at home; tried out the runners in McLeod and Varney up front; seen centre forwards Iwelumo and Gray (top pic) fail to score a single goal; found a gem in left back Kelly Youga; brought in three loan players – Greg Halford, Lee Cook and Scott Sinclair; and seen the away form disintegrate while home form has improved.

While we fans understood that it would take time at the beginning of the season for this squad of new players to gel, it is less well understood why the team is not more settled and still trying to gel going into March. Alan Pardew, please let us know?

For the trip to Sheffield United, who Pardew picks is completely unknown, as the signing of another winger in Scott Sinclair (left, from Chelsea) has really upset team planning. Chelsea gave Sinclair options on whom he joined, preferring him to go to a positive club rather than a negative one (Leicester, who are fighting relegation…), but they will be expecting him to play each Charlton game between now and the end of the season. Otherwise, what was the point of him joining Charlton on loan. It is a very different loan singing to that of Halford or Cook, both of whom were on the fringes of their respective squads, and Charlton may well have options to buy both these players if they so wish once their loans are complete. That will not be the case for Sinclair, who is highly regarded, and has been a regular on the bench for the blues this year.

So where does Sinclair fit in - it's not as if we are short of wingers is it?

That really does depend what Pardew wants to do, not only in this game, but in the following home games against Bristol City and Preston. He could switch the formation back to a more solid looking 4-5-1 away from home, but that would intimate bringing in Jose Semedo, who hasn’t played much since December, to tighten up the midfield. How would Sinclair fit in then? Would Pards favourite Zheng Zhi be dropped, or played wide? Would in-form Luke Varney play up front on his own or would he be pushed wide? Presuming Darren Ambrose is retained (as he has been one player scoring goals regularly in 2008…), and Sinclair plays wide on one side, who plays on the opposite flank – Ambrose, Varney, Thomas, Cook, or Sam?

And if Pardew maintains the 4-4-2 formation, does this simply mean Ambrose and Sinclair in the wide positions, or does it mean that the versatile Sinclair will play either up front - alongside Gray, Iwelumo, or Varney - or behind them in a 4-5-1 variation?

To me, this signing has really complicated selection…and if it complicates things to me as a supporter, then it probably complicates it for the rest of the playing squad too.

This is a complete guess, but I think that this may be the side that Pardew sends out at Bramall Lane on Saturday –

Nicky Weaver
Greg Halford
Sam Sodje
Paddy McCarthy
Kelly Youga
Jose Semedo
Matt Holland
Zheng Zhi
Darren Ambrose
Scott Sinclair

Luke Varney

Subs from – Elliott, Moutaouakil, Fortune, Basey, Powell, Racon, Sam, Thomas, Cook, Iwelumo, Gray, McLeod

The above side would give a 4-5-1 formation with Sinclair playing wide and ZiZi behind Varney - a variation that did work earlier this sason. It would be full of pace, and able to expose the vast open spaces at Bramall Lane. With a United team tired after 120 minutes of FA Cup football on Teeside on Wednesday, it could exploit a weakness in the opposition.

Charlton’s defence took a physical pummelling last week at Blackpool, and then a verbal one from the manager too; I don’t know if Pards assertion that none of his previous teams had shipped five goals was true, but he certainly didn’t like it! Halford took stick personally, and Grant Basey also came in for criticism (albeit tempered by the fact that he is a teenager…); although Madjid Bougherra is still injured, the central defensive partnership of Fortune and McCarthy could be split after last weekends rout. I therefore expect to see Sam Sodje returned to the starting line up – he only dropped out through suspension followed by injury – and Kelly Youga will also return (after suspension). Out will go the young Basey and Fortune, who has never been a favourite of Pardew when the going gets tough. Halford may retain his place (one last chance?), mainly because his obvious error last week didn’t actually cost Charlton points whereas replacement option Yassin Moutaouakil’s own comical mistake at Scunthorpe did. What Pards will want to see is a reaction, and the right sort, from his defence. Errors equal goals conceded - CUT THEM OUT!

The home team will be loving this – they may be tired both mentally and physically after crashing out of the FA Cup, so will be hoping for an easy ride and a league win at the first time of asking at home for new manager Kevin Blackwell. The obvious danger man is ex-gay icon James Beattie, whose goalscoring has slowed since he was injured before Xmas; he is still probably the best centre forward in this league, so will be a complete handful for whoever plays in defence for the Addicks. Also to be closely watched are Rob Hulse, getting back to fitness after breaking his leg; Gary Speed (who always used to score against Charlton for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton!); and one time target, Michael Tonge. Hopefully they will all be tired or injured after the Boro game?

Pedro45 is so useless at predicting results – every time I think we might win, we get stuffed, and then when I mentally give up hope, we pull something out of the bag. In some ways, I hope that I can predict results correctly, but when I think we will lose 2-0, as I do in this match, I so hope that I am wrong. Scott Sinclair could be a bright new dawn, but will Pardew know where to play him? Maybe we should just play eight defenders, give Scotty the ball on the edge of our area, and let him beat everyone to score – he does that regularly doesn’t he?

My one-to-watch this week has to be Nicky Weaver (left). Now Darren Randolph is getting game time at Bury, Weaver doesn’t have much competition for a starting place – Rob Elliott not really being an option – and a number of the Blackpool goals last week came after Weaver failed to hold on to shots. Of course, he did well to save some of those shots initially, but the key is not putting the ball back into play and danger. The collective defence needs to protect Weaver (which didn’t happen at the Pleasure Beach!), and also deal with anything that does come back into play, so the overall blame is not on his shoulders, but he was a part of the conceding team. Weaver has won points for Charlton this year - none more so than at home against Stoke! – but we continually have to hope that he commands his area, and catches crosses cleanly. He will get plenty of practice this weekend, so I hope he comes through as he will be key to any points won.

The last two weeks have been a bit strange for the SE7 club – throwing away a two goal lead at home to Watford; a mid-season break in Spain, new signings bedding in; the youngsters doing well in the Youth Cup but slipping out heroically in the quarter finals; the directors pledging to cover the clubs financial shortfall; and the first team shipping five at the seaside. Now is the time for the men to stand up, as we desperately need to reverse the soft-touch away-day trend.

Up the Addicks!

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