Thursday 28 August 2008

Keep Your Distance, Linvoy

Funny how easily you get out of the habit of penning anything. This may have been down to work commitments and holidays, plus the feeling that it was difficult to get a handle on prospects for the season until the procession of players exiting had more or less come to a close and one or two new faces had arrived – and before actually seeing a game. Maybe we all just run dry sometimes. Whatever. As I’m out of practise there’s no theme to this post, just a series of random observations.

Linvoy Primus. Seems he’s not coming after all (OK, I've just seen according to the BBC that he is on his way after all, on a three-month loan). What a bloody relief that is. Richard Rufus is of course an Addicks legend and his early retirement is still a source of overall regret. But at least since he hung up his boots we have been able to live without (to the best of my knowledge) an out-and-out born again bloody born-again God-squader. The stream of athletes/footballers who declare that they have ‘given their life to Jesus’ is depressing (note to Kaka, stay in Italy, you’re just not wanted here) and needs to be stopped. Why do they seem to think this is something positive? I would much rather Andy Gray and Luke Varney come out and say ‘I’ve sold my soul to the other lot in return for a guaranteed 20-plus a season while I’m at Charlton’. Now that’s what I’d call commitment.

Barring a change of heart on the part of ‘Arry (am I the only person left in this country who thinks he comes across as a charmless nerd?) it seems we have to look elsewhere for another central defender. Presumably Sonko’s sending off and Duberry’s injury mean it is even less likely that Reading will allow Sam Sodje to leave. There’s no point speculating on who might come in, just the hope that if Zheng Zhi does depart before the window closes we have the opportunity to draft in one or two. I would have thought Jose Semedo could provide some cover at centre-back if necessary (well, he’s covering for almost every other position). But it would be nice to know exactly why we let McCarthy leave (we know why Bougherra went) if we have to pay to bring in a replacement.

The only other departure I actually regret, taking on board the club’s financial position, is that of Iwelumo, especially with Marcus Bent finally offloaded. In my simplistic way of looking at the game you have to have a few options and possible combinations. One of those for the forwards is bringing on the big lump when you’re behind and chasing the game with 20 minutes left (Liverpool got away with it last night, but if I was a fan I would have been wondering where was Crouch when you needed him?). I don’t know whether Stuart Fleetwood is seen as that sort of option, but my first impression from the Athletic friendly was that isn’t his game. Assuming Varney and Gray remain first choice, Svetoslav Todorov when fully fit looks like the other option to Gray (I can’t see how they could play together), while Chris Dickson and Fleetwood would seem to provide the alternatives alongside Gray as and when needed. Presumably Izale McLeod will come back into contention at some stage. But these three at least are really untested at Championship level. Consequently reports linking us with Helguson might seem strange given the money presumably involved, but from the perspective of striking options it wouldn’t look completely daft.

Just how Gray and Varney might react to another forward being brought in would be another matter. Gray was meant to be the man to revive a flagging promotion bid, only for Lita to arrive shortly after. None of it worked out. It’s another reason why I wish they would scrap the transfer window. Why is it necessary to push clubs into thinking about covering for possible requirements over the next four months? Similar thinking regarding Jonathan Fortune. It is clear that Pardew will for the foreseeable future play Mark Hudson in every game. Primus was not going to be coming here to warm the bench. To be fair it’s a bit of a clue when you’re given the number 24.

And for those who have been eagerly awaiting news of Lyon Duchere following their dramatic promotion last season to CFA Groupe B (and who can’t be bothered to look it up elsewhere), I am pleased to report a satisfactory start to their life in the French equivalent of a regional third division. After three games they sit 10th out of 18 with a win, a draw and a loss. The season opener produced an uncharacteristically high-scoring contest, a 4-3 defeat away at Toulon, before something like business as before as Agde were turned over 1-0 back at Lyon. The third match was away at Villefrance-sur-Saone, the team they were promoted with from CFA2. The result was a 1-1 draw, with La Duch probably a little disappointed not to take all three points having taken the lead and with their opponents having a man sent off.

Next up on Saturday is a home game against Jura Sud, a team which has lost its first three games. High hopes then for a surge towards the top. I had hoped to coordinate my visits to Lyon to try to take in some games this season, but I’ve made a poor start. My next trip to France sees Lyon Duchere playing away at Andrezieux. Now what are the chances of my persuading my French partner that what she really wants to do on a Saturday is to drive over to Andrezieux for a football match? I suppose finding out where it is would be a good first move; first look seems as if it might be close to Saint Etienne, which is reasonably close. It could prove to be my first away game of the season; well, I’m ashamed to say that (due to work commitments) there’s more chance of me getting to that game than to away at Preston on Saturday.

Saturday 23 August 2008

Welcome Back Team Spirit

Having sacrificed the Swansea and Watford games for the death-defying roads of Chios and the sweltering heat of Athens, I was wondering what to expect today, with the Athletico friendly having thrown up more questions than answers and the interim having confirmed the departures of Faye and Thomas, plus the long-term injury to Racon. More than anything else (with the possible exception of a decent seat for the new season ticket) I wanted to see a return of real team spirit. OK, more than anything else I wanted three points, but after that team spirit. After that an indication that we have combinations in key areas that look capable of gelling into a team that can mount a promotion challenge. Then came all the subsidiary desires, such as a referee and assistants capable of making reasonable decisions. In the event we got most of the above.

First off it should be said that referee Mason and his assistants might have got every decision right this afternoon. It may have been correct to award Reading a penalty for a soft challenge in the box; it may have been correct to give us a penalty for the challenge on Varney which could have been outside the box (although having given a penalty for what is deemed a professional foul why no card for the Reading defender, who was clearly beaten for pace? What’s good for Youga .....); there may have been a reason for deciding on two extra minutes at the end of the first half, during which there were no substitutions and no injuries, allowing the time for Reading to pull one back; there may have been a push on the Reading forward for their second penalty; Weaver may have moved to necessitate a retake; and Bouazza may have been onside to volley in our fourth goal. It’s just that each debatable decision mounts up and by the time of the penalty retake we were all prepared to see every decision as wrong. The belated award of a free kick for one of numerous foul challenges on Andy Gray and the sending off of Sonko (when Mason should have allowed play to continue) didn’t really even up the score. But it doesn’t matter ‘cos we won.

The game could easily have turned out differently; indeed, it proved to be a hard one to call all the way through, at least until the last five minutes, with a number of key moments. Reading created enough chances to have scored more, without Mason’s assistance, including a penalty which came crashing back off the bar. But in the end they paid the price for some sloppy defending and a game that was always competitive but played in a good spirit went our way, despite our losing a two-goal lead. What was most important is that the sense of injustice at Reading’s equaliser didn’t result in the players looking for excuses. Too much nonsense is talked about football teams’ character if they come from behind or win through adversity. After all, scoring goals and preventing the opposition from scoring are the point of the game. But the team should feel justifiably proud of itself tonight. It wasn’t perfect, but we know it isn’t going to be. It was more than encouraging.

In the first half for some time it looked a matter of whether Hameur Bouazza’s terrorising of their right-back could compensate for Reading’s Kebe running Basey ragged. Our first came from a long cross from the right which nearly caught out Hahnemann, with the ball going to Bouazza who crossed low to allow the Reading keeper to fumble it into the path of Matty Holland. Reading’s penalty came as Basey cut inside but lost possession and the result was some confusion and a poor challenge in the box allowing the Reading forward to conveniently fall over an outstretched leg. Soft it was, but probably a correct decision. Basey had already been turned inside out by the Reading winger and there was a threat every time the ball went in that area, with Weaver having to make one smart save. To his credit Basey stuck at it and the threat was much less apparent in the second half.

What seemed to be a real turning point came late in the half as a Reading attack was broken up and Lloyd Sam advanced down the right. He moved it on to Varney, in a position which is his strength, running at flat-footed defenders. Having moved past the last one he was taken down and – seemingly with the help of the linesman – Mason pointed to the spot. Andy Gray tucked away the penalty with no fuss. We deserved to be ahead on the balance of play, with Holland and Nicky Bailey working together effectively and John Fortune and Mark Hudson dealing well with Reading’s aerial threat. But instead of getting to the break with a two-goal cushion a Reading corner in mystery ‘additional time’ was cleared but the Charlton players held in the box and only Holland tried to close down the player returning the ball. The result was a decent cross and a header buried into the bottom corner by someone in a Reading shirt (sorry, I just never care who). Weaver had no chance.

The fear was that a lacklustre Reading performance had not been fully punished and that after a Coppell earbashing they would be stronger in the second half. And for a while that looked like being the case. However, they drew level with a near farcical sequence of events. There seemed little danger when a ball was crossed, with Weaver coming out to punch clear. But Mason had obviously seen something and another penalty was given. This time Weaver pulled off a super save, only for it to count for nothing. There wasn’t much chance of Reading failing for a third time on the retake.

At 2-2, the crowd upset and hostile, the Charlton players could have looked for excuses. Instead to their credit they went out and won the game. Absurd howls for a Charlton penalty were followed by a decent ball into the box and Luke Varney displayed a centre-forward’s nous for getting on the end of a cross which I haven’t seen from him before. A glorious header and we were in front again. And not long after Yassin Moutaouakil – who had a splendid game, including a crucial defensive header late on (OK Suzanne, France do have some sportsmen capable of winning) – played in Sam to cross to the left, with Bouazza scoring on the volley with some aplomb. Of course he was onside.

After that it was a case of job pretty much done, as long as Reading didn’t get one back. They nearly did on a few occasions, but their shooting was, well, like ours last season. Long may it continue. Once Sonko had his marching orders it was pretty much game up, with Darren Ambrose coming on for Sam and Jose Semedo replacing Moutaouakil. There was still time for Gray to almost round off a lovely move – and what I think was his best performance to date in a Charlton shirt – with a goal, only to see his header crash back off the bar. The linesman flagged for offside anyway, but in this game that would only have been the starting point for discussions.

What was best? Overall, the team spirit. This bunch looked as though they wanted to play (good luck at Portsmouth, Thomas). In particular the pairing of Holland and Bailey. I know next to nothing about the latter, but the two were talking to each other and seemed to understand their roles and how to play together. It’s just one game, but it was good to see – especially as without Racon and presumably Zheng Zhi we have only Jonjo Shelvey and Semedo as alternatives in central midfield. Also, Gray was excellent. He contested every ball and won a number of them, reading the game well to steal back possession and looking committed to the task. Varney scored an excellent third goal. If they can deliver the goals we are in with a shout.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 9/10 (assuming the second penalty was not given for a foul against him). Made smart and important saves, could have been the hero with the ‘penalty’ stop. No chance with the goals.

Moutaouakil: 7/10. Got forward well and covered well in defence. Semedo in my view does a competent job covering at right-back, but Yassin gives us more, as evidenced in his role for the crucial third goal, as long as there are no silly mistakes. He loses a point because it was his challenge for Reading’s first penalty. Otherwise excellent.

Basey: 6/10. Exposed badly a few times in the first half by Reading’s most dangerous player. Could have been expensive. But for whatever reason the threat wasn’t repeated in the second half and he didn’t fall apart after a very difficult early phase of the game.

Fortune: 7/10. Same thinking as Moutaouakil. For most of the game he was excellent, but he gave away the second penalty. It may have been harsh, but don’t give the ref the chance to make a mistake. Otherwise he was committed and effective.

Hudson: 8/10. Same as Fortune except for not having a point deducted for giving away a penalty.

Bouazza: 8/10. Especially in the first half he was the obvious outlet and gave Reading a torrid time. Scored a splendid fourth goal (from a clearly onside position) and looked as though he will give defences at this level a very hard time. Also did good work covering back.

Holland: 8/10. Some players just make a team play better. Matty wrote the script. Seemed to tire late on, but we just have to get used to that.

Bailey: 8/10. Excellent. I must admit coming back I had doubts about another signing from a lower division, but the guy looks to have ability and honesty in his approach. More of the same please.

Sam: 6/10. Had a tough time against an experienced Reading left-back. But played a key role in our second goal and never stopped trying. He will find himself up against weaker opponents in most games, but will we end up opting for Bouazza and Ambrose as the wide pairing?

Varney: 8/10. In my opinion Varney was a major disappointment last season. Today he scored the sort of goal I didn’t think he had in him. Nobody doubts his effort and running. Give us the goals and we’re happy.

Gray: 9/10. Not an obvious man-of-the-match, but I thought he put in an excellent example of how to lead the line against tough and big opponents. I saw it as his best game to date in a Charlton shirt.

Saturday 2 August 2008

Some Positives But No Sign Of Key Partnerships

As pre-season friendlies go, it was half-entertaining – in that the second half was fun after a sterile first 45 minutes. How many times last season did the break come and we were left to reflect on a total absence of goalscoring chances created? We lost with no complaints to a more accomplished side – and could easily have lost by more. The game would have been a better contest had we equalised in the first half from the penalty spot, a gift from out of nothing, but Thomas hit the post. Otherwise it was a case of what did we learn from the contest.

Given that the list of absentees included Weaver, Ambrose, Holland, Dickson, McLeod, Sinclair, Todorov, and Zheng Zhi it was hard to draw any conclusions about the season to come (even leaving aside thoughts of who may still go and who might come in). Most of the crowd treated it for what it was: a chance to try out a few things and to look at certain combinations in a relaxed atmosphere. There were two exceptions: the obligatory moron who insisted on screaming abuse at the referee (and anyone else who was unfortunate enough to be within earshot), including when play was stopped for a clash of heads, and Athletic’s engaging manager, who seemed to care a good deal more than many of the players. Oh, and one Athletic player obviously had his eye on the showers by managing to get a red card for some silly shoving late in the game.

We started with Elliot starting in goal, Semedo and Youga as the full-backs, and Fortune and Hudson in central defence. Central midfield paired Shelvey and Racon, with Thomas and Wagstaff providing the width and Gray and Varney up front. The second-half substitutes included Sam, Moutaouakil, Basey, Wright, Fleetwood, and Faye (I never thought I would see him pull on a Charlton shirt again). There may have been others.

First, the good news. Elliot looked comfortable and accomplished. No chance with the goal and one excellent save (albeit the forward was offside). If we have to rely on him at the start of the season it’s a plus. The other positives are qualified. Shelvey was anonymous for much of the game and a partnership with Racon was not a success. Both looked as if they would benefit (as Shelvey did late last season) from the steadying influence of a Holland alongside them, allowing them the freedom to do the box-to-box role. However, individually both had reasonable games. Racon was behind some of our best moments and Shelvey continued to look as if he has the knack of being in the right place for loose balls in the box. So a plus for both individually, but not as a pairing. Semedo looked as if we can rely on him as back-up for Moutaouakil if needed, but isn’t a natural right-back. Defensive midfielder or central defence looks best for him, but it was a capable enough job.

Youga and Moutaouakil are likely to be the first-choice full-backs. Nobody is happier about that than me. But they can’t afford the sort of mistakes they made today. The only goal of the game came from Youga losing possession and there could easily have been a repeat in the first half. Moutaouakil added vibrancy and drive when he came on in the second half, but he too gave away the ball and nearly cost us a goal. We just have to hope they both keep these sort of mistakes to a minimum.

Fortune and Hudson didn’t seem to be a natural pairing. There was no sign of communication. And wouldn’t you just have scripted it, for a general that Napoleon would not have favoured. No sooner had Pardew said how important it was that Hudson stays fit than we see him hobbling off injured. Hopefully it was just a precaution. Fortune must feel decidedly cheesed off at Charlton. We don’t seem to trust him and are not prepared to regard him as first-choice. Personally I think he can do a job if his partner is exceptional. We started last season in pretty much the same situation and paid the price.

Wagstaff will know he had a poor half and was rightly substituted. He has plenty of time. Sam looked lively when he first came on, but became increasingly ineffective against accomplished defenders. Thomas. Ah, Jerome Thomas. We need you badly this season. My heart sank the first time he lost the ball, displayed petulance in squaring up to their player after a poor effort to win it back. But thereafter he was involved in most of the good things that we did.

As for Gray and Varney, in their defence their service was almost non-existent. But Gray in particular offered nothing; Varney offered strong running but delivered no more, like last season. We need both to perform better this season and to become a pairing. This was the only pre-season game I’ve seen and maybe in others they were more impressive. Fleetwood had little chance to impress (coming on after Thomas had been moved inside). I left hoping that Gray and Varney are still feeling their way into the season – and that Todorov and Dickson can push them hard.

The two major negatives for me were: first, there was no sign that we were playing to any sort of style or system that indicated we knew our strengths and would play to them. Second, I know it was a pre-season friendly but in the first half in particular there was no sense of urgency or determination. This was a collection of many fringe players with an opportunity to make a case for inclusion in the first team. Leadership and collective spirit were not in evidence. I hope it will be come the time of Swansea, because they are vital for our coming season. Finally, I don’t want to hear Pardew giving any indication of being disappointed. Quotes are always taken out of context. But I want to hear that we are ready and up for the fight ahead – and to see evidence of this on the pitch. Today was a day for reserving judgement and to focus on the pluses. Elliot and Racon. Well, the latter’s French after all.