Sunday 29 April 2007

What Next?

There's not much useful to say about yesterday quite frankly. We all know the result and the implications, we all know it's not over yet, and we all know that we have to win at least one of our remaining two matches to stand any chance of staying up. A win and a draw could be enough if two of Fulham/Wigan/West Ham blow it. One probably will, but two is asking a lot.

It is too soon for the obituaries, apportioning of blame, and assessments of who stays/who goes. There's time enough for that if we lose to Spurs. But we do have to accept that, having got ourselves into a position, prior to the Man City away game or the Reading home game, where staying up was a better than even chance, we have if not blown it proven to be not up to the task. When the heat really came on we have been found wanting. There have been suggestions that the decision to encourage so many supporters to go to Blackburn might prove counter-productive by increasing the pressure on the players. Fact is players with character make pressure an advantage, not something to be scared of. For us it did help to expose our shortcomings.

Are there any lessons for the Spurs game? I was surprised that Pardew went with Hreidarsson and Thatcher from the start. I'm not aware of an injury to Diawara, but things could hardly have turned out worse if he played. We didn't get to grips with Roberts all afternoon and, while we can have complaints that many fouls on Thomas in particular went unpunished, Thatcher's loss of discipline cost us dearly. For Spurs presumably HH will have to move to left back. There must be a doubt about El Karkouri being fit after yesterday's injury, so we could be looking at a Diawara/Bougherra combination, unless Young or Faye are moved to central defence.

Song looked tired yesterday. Holland deserves all the plaudits for his performance and attitude, although as a friend pointed out there was a Pythonesque Holy Grail quality about his efforts in the final few minutes as all around him had crumbled. Marcus Bent had another ineffective game, the only surprise being he wasn't clutching his hamstring when substituted, while Ambrose was largely absent. Against Spurs we can't expect to control central midfield, so my inclination would be to start with Thomas and Rommadahl and try to shore up the centre with Holland and another ball-winner (this was my feeling for the Blackburn game too). Maybe Kishishev can come back after Leeds' relegation (I'm only half-joking).

We have to sit and watch the results over the weekend. But that is clearly an advantage as the current mood of resignation would probably see us throw in the towel if we played at the same time as the other relegation-battlers. If the results go our way - and that means defeats for Fulham today and on Saturday, plus home defeats for West Ham and/or Wigan - and we go into the Spurs game with a shout. At least nobody is going to be saying 'it's in our own hands'.

Thursday 26 April 2007

4,000 Goals In Blackburn Lancashire ...

Well, it would rather change the goal difference equation. The centre of Blackburn on a Saturday night is one of the world's more depressing places. But Birmingham city centre is hardly lovely either - and I have nothing but fond memories of that place, based on the jig back to the railway station from St Andrews after the play-off final. Hopefully after this weekend we all feel the same way about Blackburn.

As for the team on Saturday, I'm worried that in recent games - against Reading (due largely to injuries) and Sheff Utd (due to the starting line-up and substitutions) - we have lost all balance and have as a result been unable to have any control over midfield and to apply any sustained pressure on the opposition. We all know we have to win on Saturday but that doesn't mean being gung-ho from the start.

I think there are decisions to be made by Pardew, based on what he sees as the key strengths of the team. For example, a decision to start with Thomas (who had a shocker against Sheff Utd) and Rommadahl (who was blocked out after the first half an hour by tactical changes) and to attack down the flanks to me implies that you opt for ball-winners in central midfield, to give the wide men the supply they need. This could mean starting with Holland and Faye. A little tough on Song, but it's all about combinations (and with this set-up ZZ would have more space to exploit behind Bent). It's not being defensive, just playing to your strengths.

If on the other hand Thomas or Rommadahl is dropped (please not both, Hughes and Ambrose as wide men should not be an option), Ambrose would switch back out wide, pointing to Holland or Faye alongside Song in the centre. I don't think the experiment of Ambrose playing as a de facto second striker worked.

We also need to be able to change the structure of the team if Pl;an A isn't working - or if it has worked and we need to close out the game. This means having Bent(M), if fit, or Hasselbaink, possibly both, available - maybe even Lisbie. It also means having someone capable of changing the game from midfield, either going forward or defending.

My team:

Carson, Young, Thatcher/Hreidarsson, El Karkouri, Diawara, Thomas, Holland, Faye, Rommadahl, Zheng Zhi, Bent(D). Subs: Randolph, Hreidarsson/Bougherra, Song, and two of Bent(M)/Hasselbaink/Lisbie.

Sunday 22 April 2007


There is only one saving grace from yesterday: Fulham's failure to beat Blackburn at home. To my mind that keeps us alive, by keeping the points total needed at least within the bounds of what is possible.

Should Fulham lose their next two games (Liverpool and Arsenal), they'll be on 36 going into the final day (away at Middlesbro for them). On that basis 39 points for us would be enough to end above them even if they beat Boro - this implies two wins out of three for us and a better goal difference than Fulham (after two defeats from three for them). If we win two of our remaining three that would be enough also to end above West Ham, assuming they lose their last match away at Man Utd.

So now its a case of us probably needing to win two from the remaining three. A win and a couple of draws could be enough, depending on other results. I think we have to hope Wigan beat West Ham and let them go, along with Sheff Utd, who will surely beat Watford at home. If Wigan do beat West Ham the best the Hammers can do (assuming defeat to Man Utd) is 35 points, so they would be down. So as long as Fulham lose to Arsenal and Liverpool it is possible that 37 (or even 36) points would be enough to survive, if Boro don't go on their holidays early.

Of course, we still have to eek out a win: and Blackburn ain't going to be easy for a team that has not won its past four (winnable) games. So what lessons from yesterday for the final fixtures?

The line-up for yesterday's game was adventurous to the point of being foolhardy. Selecting two wingers really means (I believe) that you opt for ball-winners in central midfield. Instead we had Song and ZZ, with Ambrose operating as a virtual second forward. If Ambrose's header had gone in it would have been a master-stroke. But it didn't and it wasn't. ZZ looked rather lost and Song not really effective, the result being that we didn't get enough of the ball to feed the wingers, especially after Sheffield altered their set-up after Rommadahl roasted their full-back for the first 20 minutes. The formation asked too much of Song and ZZ.

Where I think Pardew erred was in not bringing on Holland as soon as we scored (whether or not he should have started). We would have lost little removing Ambrose then, leaving ZZ to operate a little further forward and with the pace to catch Sheffield on the break. Instead we panicked. The match then turned on a minute when we should have had a two-on-one breakaway, only to concede the equaliser seconds later, with substitutions about to be made. There was still enough time, but bringing on HH and playing him up front seemed like panic and just did not work.

Nobody likes the way Sheff Utd play, not even their fans. But they have won their two 'cup finals' (beating West Ham and not losing to us) and we cannot begrudge them staying up. They had more character and leaders on the pitch than we did.

So it's not all lost, but of course the odds are getting daunting. I'll be taking the trip to Blackburn more in hope than expectation. Can we remind them that we gave them the three points they needed at the end of last season?

Wednesday 18 April 2007

To Be Or Not To Be ....

There seems to be a developing debate between two camps of Charlton supporters: those who believe that our duty between now and the end of the season (or until relegation becomes a mathematical certainty) is to bolster confidence and belief by communicating only 'positive thoughts', and those who believe that it is only realistic to talk in terms of relegation being probable.

It's easy for any divide to widen over the next few days: the former start to accuse the latter of 'throwing in the towel' and 'not doing their bit'; the latter, perhaps feeling on the defensive, starting to discuss 'where it all went wrong' and who is to blame. That is something to be avoided as we all - management, players and supporters - aim to peak on Saturday (and hopefully again the Saturday after).

It does seem important for the manager to convey an air of relaxation and confidence, whatever he is feeling inside, as this is communicated to the players and does seem to have an effect. For the supporters what is said/written over the next few days is much less important than how they communicate on Saturday afternoon. I would ask everyone going to take a moment before the game to consider what might help the players on the pitch and what might not - or to put it in simple terms groaning at every misplaced pass is off the agenda. The players are going to be under enough pressure as it is.

Surely it doesn't need to be said that: (i) we are currently favourites to go down, along with Watford and West Ham; (ii) this does not mean we are going down, only that at the moment the odds are against us staying up; and (iii) discussing the odds isn't being unduly negative. In my time I've seen Charlton get promoted (four times) and relegated (three times). I don't really believe whether I was 'positive' or 'negative' decided the outcome. I don't think it will be crucial this time around either; and at the moment I don't have a clue whether or not we will stay up.

I do know that come Saturday afternoon I will be screaming nothing but support. Friday night is reserved for calling in favours (or more realistically offering markers) from any deity that might be of use in swinging the odds in our favour.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

In Our Own Hands: Cobblers

Ouch. We all know how much that one hurt, especially when you're watching the game on Guandong sports with a five minute delay. It just serves to underline that 0-0 draws against Man City and Reading were not really enough.

Nobody's throwing in the towel, but we are rightly favourites to join Watford and West Ham. And without wishing to sound like the merchant of doom it's possible to outline perfectly viable scenarios under which - even assuming we beat Sheff Utd on Saturday - we need 42 points to stay up (Sheff Utd beat Watford at home and Villa away, get a point against Wigan; Wigan beat West Ham and Middlesbro at home; Fulham beat Blackburn at home and Middlesbro away).

Having previously threatened to throw something through the window if someone talks any more about passion, I'm now going to have to strangle anyone who says 'it's in our own hands'. Of course it bloody well is. And the same goes for all bar Watford. Any other team around the bottom which wins all their remaining games will stay up. The phrase is only useful when it comes to the last couple of games; it's effectively meaningless if everyone can say it without fear of contradiction. So, if you feel like saying it's in our own hands, please don't.

All we can do now is take each game as it comes - ha, a cliche which is relevant. We simply have to beat Sheff Utd on Saturday and at the same time hope against hope that Fulham fail to beat Blackburn at home. If these two things (one of which is by the way out of our hands) happen the odds will have shifted again and we would have a good shout.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

Whisper It Softly

Oh merde. First, the positive slant: if six games ago we had been offered three wins and three draws and to be outside the bottom three we would have grabbed it. Perhaps this is the most important consideration. But six games ago our chances of staying up were perhaps 30%. They have increased, but whereas before the Man City and Reading games I would have said they were better than even I would now say 40% - in other words I think we are back fighting against the odds.

A win over either Man City or Reading (of course both would have done nicely) was in my view near essential. After the 0-0 at the Council Tax stadium the need for a win last night was obvious. The mitigating factor was two enforced substitutions and a third near enforced which, as Pardew acknowledged, disrupted the game plan. They meant that we were not able to change the formation in a calculated way. And in the end a draw nobody would say that we deserved to win (which is not to say that the last-minute scrambled winner would not have been gratefully accepted).

I've done my calculations and, whisper it softly, we're coming up short. I have us getting draws away at Everton and Blackburn and beating Sheff Utd at home, to get to 37 points going into the final two games, with us then above Wigan (36), Sheff Utd (35), West Ham (34) and Watford (26). But by my reckoning it could well go pear-shaped over the 5/7 May weekend, with Wigan to beat Middlesboro at home and Sheff Utd to beat Aston Villa at home. If we lose to Tottenham at home we would be back in the bottom three ahead of the trip to Liverpool.

By my (revised) reckoning 39 points might be enough depending on goal difference, 40 would almost certainly be enough. That means 7/8 points from the last five games: three wins or two wins and 1 or 2 draws. Beating Sheff Utd is now a prerequisite to have a chance, but where does the other win come from? Barring something wonderful away at Everton or Blackburn - and in both games we will probably set out our stall not to lose - it looks to me like we will have to either beat Spurs at home (and we will at least know what we have to do now the game has been put back) or hope for a Liverpool reserve team at Anfield.

Last night felt like a defeat and in the cold light of day, even though Pardew is sensibly upbeat, it still does.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Updates: Clear As Mud

Three points closer to the promised land, but with Man City gifted another three points and with so many games to come between clubs involved at the bottom (now about half the division) predicting the end-result is no easier. The next home game for Sheff Utd could be crucial, to see if anyone can score for them now that Hulse is out. If they lose Warnock will have a tough time maintaining the impression of being relaxed.

It looked to me as though the players were feeling the pressure on Saturday. Hopefully the result eased some of that. Pardew on TV gave a good impression of someone who knew that fortune had smiled on him; I'm sure that with 10 minutes left on Saturday he would have taken 0-0. What was that about lucky generals?

Three points from the next two games has to be seen as the minimum requirement, with four acceptable and six magnificent. Three in the bag on Friday would have the added bonus of bringing City in reach (they are not safe yet, given their remaining fixtures); hopefully Reading losing to Spurs will encourage them to get the holiday brochures out early, although this might be wishful thinking.

Maybe it's best to focus not on who is likely to accompany Watford but on who you would like to see go down. Wigan and Sheff Utd would seem to me to be ideal (not least as a quick trip through the Blackwall Tunnel beats the M1 any day. But after their team and performance against Man City it would be poetic justice to see Boro take the fall. The only way that injustice can be balanced is for Liverpool to put out their youth team for the final game (I'm cheering for them tonight).