Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Bristol Tops Valley Hit List

Charlton play Bristol City tonight, in another crucial Championship match in this weird and wonderful season. City are top of the league, and with just eleven games to go, must feel that they have a very real chance of either automatic promotion, or at worst, a play off place. Charlton, on the other hand, know that a defeat puts them right back where they were before the weekend – looking over their shoulders at the chasing teams - whereas a win gives them a real chance of pressuring those teams still above them in the division.

I have already stated that I don’t think that Charlton have enough games left to catch three of the four teams currently above them and win automatic promotion but, as is consistently proven, what do I know? The last ten days results have seen previous leaders Stoke well beaten twice, and Watford also drop points; West Brom seem to be quite inconsistent too, and there has been no discernable change in the gap between Charlton and the top of the league for quite a while now. What us Addicks fans need is for there to be a positive change, with Charlton closing in on those top teams, and the only way that is going to happen is if Charlton can string a few wins together between now and the first week in May.

That is no easy outcome; after taking on the league leaders tonight, Charlton meet relegation haunted Preston on Saturday, and then meet five teams also vying for play off (and possibly promotion) places – Burnley, Ipswich, West Brom, Wolves, and Plymouth. After that, the season ends with four games against relatively secure currently mid-table sides, so it is these next seven games that will go a long way to decide where the Addicks ply their trade next season – Premiership or Championship.

So to tonight’s match: Alan Pardew has a pretty good record when putting out teams to play the leagues top clubs in 2008 – Stoke were beaten at The Valley, and West Brom and Watford both had to come from behind to secure fortuitous draws. Charlton have also performed very well under floodlights in 2008, with two wins and no goals conceded. Pards will be hoping that these omens continue.

Our manager will almost certainly pick the same starting eleven that won well at Sheffield United on Saturday, with the only likely change being the formation employed during the initial stages of the match.

Nicky Weaver will start in goal, and Rob Elliott will be on the bench as goalkeeping back-up. In defence, the on-loan Greg Halford and Sam Sodje (left) can expect to be retained after contributing to the scoreline at Bramall Lane (one with an assist, one with a goal), and the resurgent Paddy McCarthy and Kelly Youga will defend with their lives too.

The midfield has been consistently settled, although there is a case for Zheng Zhi to get a rest at some point (preferably when we are 4-0 up…?); Matty Holland and Darren Ambrose will provide additional legs to help out the Chinaman. On the left wing, Jerome Thomas seems to have done enough to maintain his place, therefore keeping on-loan Scott Sinclair warming the bench for an hour again.

Up front, Chris Iwelumo will probably retain his place after scoring on Saturday – his first goal for ten weeks – especially as Andy Gray has been ill. That leaves in-form Luke Varney to play, but switch up alongside big Chris rather than stay out on the wing where he was deployed tactically in a 4-5-1 formation on Saturday.

With most of the rest of the team now fit again, the subs bench will be an interesting choice for Pards, especially as he will need to meet the needs of the team (in any situation) rather than that of players who may feel that they should be there.

This is the likely team that Alan Pardew will send in to battle tonight –

Nicky Weaver
Greg Halford
Sam Sodje
Paddy McCarthy
Kelly Youga
Matt Holland
Zheng Zhi
Darren Ambrose
Jerome Thomas
Luke Varney
Chris Iwelumo

Subs from – Elliott, Moutaouakil, Fortune, Basey, Powell, Racon, Semedo, Sam, Cook, Sinclair, Gray.

Bristol will come to The Valley full of confidence after being unbeaten for a month, but they have lost their last two trips to the capital earlier this year. City are in their first season in the Championship after finishing as runners-up in League One last year and therefore on a bit of a roller-coaster.

Manager Johnson told BBC Radio Bristol: "It's a big one, for the fact that Charlton are still really a Premiership side. They're still getting the parachute payments, they're still paying the players Premiership money, Premiership stadium and support and it's a good test for us. Every time we come up against a test the lads seem to do well. But Charlton we've got to keep away from us as far as points are concerned, so any result for us down at the Valley would be a good result because it means that Charlton haven't gained any ground on us."

That sort of rallying cry should work in Charlton’s favour too – if they think we are big, let’s show them we are! We have seen plenty of other club managers try to use the parachute money argument to justify why they get beaten by the Addicks (Pulis of Stoke the prime example…), so it’s not new, not key, and won’t make any difference. He's also got lot's of it wrong, mind you, with few of the team still on top money when compared to the overall salary levels of last season.
My one-to-watch tonight is going to be Zheng Zhi. Settled in a midfield role where he is encouraged to get forward, ZiZi is due a goal (or two) as he hasn’t scored for nine Charlton games. He hasn’t been playing badly, but he has looked a little tired on recent occasions. Amazingly, this can be when he is at his most dangerous, often scoring in the second half when he has looked to be out on his feet by half-time. The midweek trip to Dubai to play (and score) for China a month ago wouldn’t have helped him much, but hopefully that is now out of his bones and he can go on a bit of a run in the goalscoring charts and haul himself up to the top goalscorer position for the Addicks before the end of the season.

Pedro45 would love Charlton to win tonight, and really put pressure on the top clubs; in simple terms, if we win every game between now and May, we will be Champions. Sadly, this is Charlton we are talking about, and the likelihood of that is remote; too many times a good win away is followed by a poor loss at home, and Pedro45’s score prediction is a 2-1 reverse tonight. All is not lost however, as my score predictions are, it is fair to say, somewhat erratic, and probably worse than Killer’s were last year (though even he finished with an end-of-season flurry to leave him in the black…). I hope I am wrong and we can expect another good night under the Valley lights.

This really is the crunch end of the season, and whatever the result tonight will still leave plenty to play for. A win for either team may make things a lot clearer though, and hopefully it will be the red shirts that take all three points on offer. That outcome will be helped if the crowd maintain their recent home support, and get right behind the team from the start, or even beforehand! The Valley crowd can influence games in a positive and negative way, and it is up to us all to keep the whingeing down to a minimum, support the players on show, urge them on in a positive manner, and do “our bit” to bring about the right result. We have to show belief, heart, skill, passion, endeavour, and effort – if we do all of that, and the players do too (!), then we can bring about the win that we all want and need.

Come on you Reds!

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I hope you are not referring to Coventry City as a 'secure mid-table side'. They have a relegation battle on their hands as a consequence of 'Dowie devastation'.
They are as secure as anyone with Coleman-Balls in charge, but a lot more so than Preston, Colchester, Scunthorpe, and Sheffield Wednesday.
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