Friday, March 07, 2008

Press on after Preston

Life as a Charlton fan is never easy – we win, we lose, we draw; OK, not in that order but that’s pretty much the way of things at the moment, and it isn’t much fun when you want your team to be pushing on for promotion.

The dream, very realistic at the start of the season, of automatic promotion has all but gone. Only a completely out of character significant run of wins from the remaining ten games would get Charlton anywhere near the top two places by the end of the season, so it is fair to assume that we can forget about that remote possibility. Therefore, the hope is that we can consolidate our play off position, and finish the season with a little style and panache, and take that form and confidence forward into the nervy realms of heartbreak central.

The Charlton board, rocked by the news that Peter Varney is to step down as Chief Executive in the summer, have certainly backed the manager, and are making every effort to give Alan Pardew the opportunity to make sure we are in the play offs. This week, Leroy Lita has joined the squad from Reading on loan, and Charlton now have a full compliment of five Premiership loan players bolstering the squad.

With only long term absentees (Gibbs, Todorov), plus Majid Bougherra injured, Alan Pardew (left) has plenty of options when it comes to picking the team, at least on paper, and he has also hinted that he wants to shake the team up (again) as they looked a little tired in Tuesday nights draw at home to league leaders Bristol City. Pardew, through his buying and loaning policy really has dealt himself a strange hand, and he may well have plenty of sleepless nights worrying about who his best starting eleven, and substitutes, should be as we enter the last stretch in a long season. This completely contradicts where Charlton have been on other successful seasons, when previous managers tended to know who they wanted to play, how the tactics would be set to cover any eventuality, and who could come into the team to cover any injuries and suspensions. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a set starting eleven who could be relied upon, plus squad players who would come into the team and do any job that they were asked? Why we haven’t at this crucial time, the back-end of the season, is a question that only Mr Pardew can answer…

One area where we don’t have much choice is in goal – Nicky Weaver will play, and Rob Elliott will be on the bench. Weaver did OK on Tuesday night I thought, though my father said he thought from watching the goal on TV that he should have saved the header he conceded. Weaver is our best choice, and hopefully he can make more good saves than blunders over the last ten games, with plenty of clean sheets.

Charlton’s defence now has options in every position, and is apparently fairly solid at the moment, though it was only two games ago that they conceded five goals to Preston’s near neighbours Blackpool.

At right back, the choice is Greg Halford or Yassin Mourtaouakil; both have made recent errors in defence and attack, but it really comes down to whether you want the Frenchman’s attacking forward play or the Englishman’s long throws which relieve pressure when we are defending and add pressure to the opposition when we are attacking.

The left back slot was fairly nailed down by Kelly Youga until recently, but his display on Tuesday was lacklustre, and he could be in for a shock that will give reason for his hair to stand on end if Pardew decides to bring in the fit again Ben Thatcher and drop Youga. It is unlikely that either Chris Powell or Grant Basey will start the game.

The central defence does look fairly easy to pick; with Bougherra injured, Sam Sodje will play alongside Paddy McCarthy, with Jon Fortune a decent reserve if needed.

In midfield, we have seen two players run their collective hearts out for the Addicks over (someone said) the last eighteen games in tandem. Matt Holland is playing very well, and though he is definitely slower across the pitch than he used to be, he does still cover enormous lengths in each match, often covering and clearing up other player’s errors. Zheng Zhi has looked tired – he has probably never played anywhere near this many games in a season before, and Pards does seem reluctant to give him a rest when we have had the luxury of a winning lead (though opportunities have been rare it is fair to say…). The only realistically viable alternative in central midfield is Jose Semedo, a player who has always tried his best and given decent displays this season. Therry Racon may be able to play a similar role, but he hasn’t had much of a look in so far in 2008. Jose, therefore, could be key during the run in period, and should be used to help the team solidify the midfield area, connect the defence and midfield, especially whenever we have a second half lead. It may be a negative move, but we cannot keep throwing away winning positions through trying to play too attractive football! Fans only moan about boring football if they are winning consistently in that way – most supporters want to see their team win, by whatever means, and then hope the fancy stuff comes on the back of that.

Who plays out wide really depends on the formation Pardew decides on, and who he wants to play up front, so let’s deal with the strikers first.

Leroy Lita will play, of that there can be no doubt. Pards has signed him to play, score goals, and be the front man that we have (possibly) lacked all season. Lita is upset and has a point to prove having not been given much playing time at Reading, after scoring fifteen goals last season for the club. Hopefully he can take out that frustration on Championship defences this month. There is a slight worry that if he is initially successful, Charlton may not be able to keep him for the reminder of the season, but we have to ignore that threat and hope he does the business from day one.

If Pardew adopts a second striker for this game – which it would seem he has to – then the choice is between Chris Iwelumo, Andy Gray, Luke Varney, and loanee Scott Sinclair. On form, the only choice is Varney, and hopefully he will get back to how he was playing a month ago rather than the shadow that has been pushed out to the wing over the last two games.

That just leaves two further places to decide on, and these usually fall to wide players. Pardew has plenty of choices here too, though I do think he has little option but to go with in-form Darren Ambrose – who has scored four goals in his last four games – and Sinclair. The Chelsea youngster has a glowing reputation, and has come to Charlton to play games, not sit on the bench. He may be raw, but if we can start him, he may be able to get the pace of games quicker, and start to cause damage at the right end of the pitch. Otherwise, what was the point of having him at The Valley?

The other options are Lee Cook (Why did we sign him on loan - was it to check him out before a possible transfer next season?), who has done little in his month with the squad to justify his inclusion above others; Jerome Thomas – the big-time Charlie playing with the kids, and being shown up as a flash loser; or Lloyd Sam, who gave his all for thirty games, but has been found tired and a little wanting. None of these players really should be starting in place of Ambrose and Sinclair at the sharp end of the season. I don't think Pardew will be trying Varney out wide again, except as a tactical move when we are winning.

This is the team I hope Alan Pardew picks to play against Preston –

Nicky Weaver
Greg Halford
Sam Sodje
Paddy McCarthy
Kelly Youga
Matt Holland
Zheng Zhi
Darren Ambrose
Scott Sinclair
Luke Varney
Leroy Lita

Subs from – Elliott, Moutaouakil, Thatcher, Fortune, Basey, Powell, Racon, Semedo, Sam, Cook, Thomas, Iwelumo, Gray.

Preston have been in-form, and are fighting for their lives at the bottom end of the table. They now have a little breathing space over the bottom three clubs, but will be keen not to take their foot off the gas, and Charlton can expect a tough game. Manager Alan Irvine has done a good job since his first game in charge (when Charlton won at Deepdale in November), and the team have few stars (much like Bristol in fact!). Moweni used to play for Derby, and Beattie is on loan from West Brom, but no other players have much of a reputation in this division, yet, so we should beware!

This really is yet another one of those crucial matches for the Addicks – an expected win and we’ll all be happy and thinking about what may be; a defeat and we will all be cursing and thinking what might have been; a draw is no good to either club really, though Preston would probably take it right now if offered.

Pedro45’s score prediction is a nasty 1-1 draw; sure, we can all think back to the end of season game in 1974/5, when Bobby Goldthorpe and Killer won the day after Richie Bowman missed a penalty, but my mind (and memory) stretches further to 1968/9 when Bob Curtis and Harry Gregory both missed penalties in a 1-0 home defeat that condemned the Addicks to another season in the second division after finishing third.

My one–to-watch in this game has to be new signing Leroy Lita. The man with a bad scar on his right cheek will have to show the Addicks faithful that he is the right person for this promotion fight. We need him to show his aggression in the right areas of the pitch, and get shots off whenever he can. If he plays alongside Varney and Sinclair, the frontline pace is frightening, and hopefully it will be too much for the North Enders to cope with.

We need goals Leroy, and we think you are the man to provide them. Show us we are right! Be a hero! We need one right now...We need that win.

Come on you Reds!

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