Wednesday, March 05, 2008

To the Point…

Charlton Athletic 1 Bristol City 1

It’s fair to say that I saw and got exactly what I asked for - belief, heart, skill, passion, endeavour, and effort - sadly, all of this came from an excellent Bristol City side.

I left the ground wondering if Charlton had played badly, or if City had played so well that they made Charlton look poor; I am still unsure of the right answer to this poser, though others will have firmer opinion either way.

When you look at Charlton’s team as individuals, both centre backs (Paddy McCarthy and Sam Sodje) performed manfully; the midfield (Matt Holland – who was Charlton’s man-of-the-match - and Zheng Zhi) ran themselves into the ground; and Chris Iwelumo and substitute Andy Gray (who replaced big Chris halfway through the second half) both did their best as centre forwards, with little protection (again) from the referee. Jerome Thomas had some good runs, and Darren Ambrose was always looking to find a way to get a shot on goal. Luke Varney did miss a couple of good chances, one in each half – a volley just before half time that he screwed wide, and a header from an Ambrose shot that flew over (Was it going in before Luke headed it? East Stand-ers will let me know…) but played most of the game wide right as instructed. Nicky Weaver had a busy game but wasn’t called to make that many flying saves. Only the full backs – Greg Halford and Kelly Youga – had poor games in my opinion, both not supporting effectively when they ventured forward, and both suffering from appalling distribution. The other substitutes – Scott Sinclair and Lee Cook – did little in the combined 25 minutes or so they were on the pitch.

So if none of the team played that badly, why did we look so ordinary, and second best?

As a team, Charlton had less work-ethic and connectivity than City – the back four were often unprotected by the midfield, and many times gaps between the two were exploited and punished by Gary Johnson’s team. After switching to 4-5-1 (once we took the lead), Iwelumo was a very lonely figure up front, and with him unable to hold the ball up (as well as Gray for instance) the ball just kept coming back toward the Charlton goal. The full backs tried to get forward, but both lacked pace or penetration, and as mentioned, their passing was abysmal. Charlton were just not “joined-up”, and therefore performed as a team of parts rather than one cognitive whole.

And Bristol City really tore into us as a result. It was not pretty viewing watching little triangles of play being worked along the wing, taking out various red shirted players before being presented into dangerous positions. How many times was Dele Adebola (a journeyman footballer if ever there was one…) allowed to win his own second ball? And how many times, surely a record, did one of their centre half’s “dummy” his way past an onrushing Charlton forward to allow himself time to clear (pass) the ball forward?

In fact, I (and I suspect Alan Pardew) was grateful to hear the final whistle in the end, knowing we had held on for a point. It was that much of a one-sided game toward the end.

Bristol City, in my opinion, were the best side that I have seen at The Valley this season, and fully justify there place at the top of this division. If their finishing had been anywhere near as good as their overall play (many times scuffed shots trickled through to Weaver…), Charlton would have suffered another severe thumping.

As it was, the game was drawn. Charlton actually started brightly, and took the lead inside the first ten minutes. A delightful move (possibly one of the best of the season ironically) saw the ball shifted inside to the advancing Darren Ambrose, who drove the ball into the far corner. Maybe Charlton then thought this would be a cakewalk, because slowly, Bristol came back into the game, and realised that they could cause major problems for the Addicks. They were not helped by Adebola being off the pitch for over five minutes getting stitched up after a clash of heads which resulted in him being turban-like for the rest of the game. After Varney’s miss just before half time, they probably had the belief they needed to come back into the game, while Charlton may have had doubts and knew that a two-goal half-time lead wasn’t good enough last time at The Valley against Watford.

Apart from a few breakouts, and corners, the second half was all played out in front of the covered end; gaps became more frequent, and shots (mainly poor ones) started to rain in on Weavers goal. The game cried out for Pardew to change the formation and relieve some of the pressure but, as mentioned in my preview where I said that the bench options would be key, we had no Jose Semedo to come on and do a job when we really needed him. And this to me was the biggest area of downfall – why did we need two additional wingers on the bench? We had Varney playing wide; Ambrose and Thomas also on the pitch, and yet Sinclair was paired with Cook on the sidelines. Thatcher provider the defensive cover, but he is not as flexible as Semedo, and unless he had switched to right back with Halford moving forward, Pardew was constrained by his self-inflicted options. Another lesson learned Al?

City scored from a corner – several of which had been very dangerously delivered – when McCombe flicked home. Toward the end, a desperate McCarthy intervention directed the ball past Weaver but just wide of the post. In the last couple of minutes, Referee Dowd gave Adebola some protection where he had given Iwelumo none, and ordered a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. It was floated over the wall, but luckily for Charlton it hit the bar and bounced down, before being scrambled clear. The visiting supporters thought it was in, but they were disappointed. The five minutes of added time just seemed to prolong the Addicks pain, and it was a relief when the game ending whistle was finally sounded.

The game that City played last night was one that Charlton should really aspire to if they want to get out of this league going in the right direction; it was neat, simple football, played mainly to feet. City had good footballers, many of whom are pretty unknown in Championship terms, let alone the Premiership, yet they made Charlton look like park players at times. The point won may turn out to be crucial, as this was a game where we didn’t really deserve anything.

It proved that there can be no resting on laurels if we are to make even the play offs themselves, let alone try to win promotion. Dare we say roll on Saturday, when we take on in-form Preston North End? It doesn’t bare thinking about for a couple of days at least…

At least we can look forward to some more forward presence now Leroy Lita has arrived on loan from Reading until the end of the season.

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