Monday 26 April 2010

Victory ... For Duchere At Least

Saturday did produce a splendid victory for a football team that I support; but to say I’d have swapped it for a win of any sorts at Exeter is something of an understatement. In the event even victory there wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference, with neither Leeds nor Millwall slipping up. Those results meant that the extra two points and beating Leeds would still have left us requiring Leeds to lose their final game (home to Bristol Rovers) and Millwall failing to get four points from their final two games (away at Tranmere and home to Swindon). That scenario is of course more likely than the one which confronts us now to get second place and nobody but the seriously deluded (which usually includes me and a few I know) imagines it will be anything other than the play-offs.

I’m inclined to agree with Wyn Grant when he writes that we’d have taken a play-off berth at the start of the season. But that perhaps doesn’t tell the full story. We started the campaign with a style and panache that made it look for a while as though we simply had too much class, especially in midfield, for others to deny us automatic promotion (in fact it has all been reminiscent of the first season back in The Championship). But as others got better we started to struggle and if anything it’s only been the past dozen or so games that have reflected what we might have expected at the start – the team grinding out some good results but not setting the world on fire or stringing three or four wins together. We’ve been passed by three teams and have been unable to take advantage of the problems of the fourth. The team’s done well to hang in there, but we’re not going to be viewed as the favourites for the play-offs.

Thoughts have understandably turned to whether we would rather see Leeds or Millwall take second place and indeed whether we could favour finishing seventh to take on one of them over two legs rather than a Wembley final. There’s no perfect outcome, but neither is there any real purpose to trying to play the permutations. I’d loathe the idea of helping to send the Spanners into territory that they really shouldn’t be allowed to occupy (which begs the question of where they should reside). Equally, we’ve already hosted one promotion party and I don’t want to witness another on our patch, especially if it involved putting a smile on Bates’ arse (and instead allowed our directors to offer him their heart-felt commiserations).

End of the day it’s about us, not them. The play-offs it is, so let’s go out and win them and there’s no better preparation than the confidence of winning games. Victory over Leeds would raise spirits and give us an edge in the event of us meeting again in May. There’s also an incentive to finish fourth or fifth rather than sixth as there’s home advantage for the second leg of the first round and always the possibility that Huddersfield or Swindon would turn over Leeds or Millwall.

There are still doubts/differences of opinion over our best formation; and it is ironic to see the fresh speculation that Shelvey will be off for around £3m, with the market value of an unused squad member being higher by some distance than that of any other player on our books. Part of the problem surely is that with no reserves team playing regularly just how match fit is Shelvey (and others such as Spring for that matter)? I’ve always had a bias for 4-5-1, not because it’s a better formation but because it (in my opinion) makes better use of our available resources/strengths, with three genuine wingers available and four central midfielders able to compete for two slots. And I think it’s easier to switch to two up front if things don’t work out than simply changing the front men. But this is all well-worn ground; I’m happy to back whoever Parkinson puts out and leave the post-mortems for May (hopefully the end of May).

All of which seamlessly leads us on to the football match that I did watch on Saturday. I’m beginning to feel a bit like Moses parting the waters, having flown back to London from Amsterdam the evening before flights were grounded and then off to Lyon the day after they resumed. Whatever, the smooth transit ensured that I’d get across to the Stade de Balmont to watch my adopted French team, Lyon Duchere, take on Jura Sud in France’s CFA Groupe B.

I’ve been a little casual of late when glancing at Duchere’s league position. After a disappointing 0-1 home defeat to lowly Sochaux B in mid-April the team had slipped to 12th (out of 18) and in a very tight division at the bottom there wasn’t much breathing space. However, Duchere then managed to gain revenge for the unlucky 2-3 defeat earlier in the season against Olympique Lyonnais B (which I witnessed) to win by a similar score in the reverse local derby fixture. That must have lifted confidence for the match against Jura Sud, who went into the game in top spot despite having lost their previous game.

I wish I had the words to describe the majesty of La Duch’s first goal in the opening minutes of the game. I don’t because one of the downsides of hanging on in front of the PC for confirmation of the outcome in Exeter and an 18.00 (French time) start for Duchere meant that we missed the first five minutes. It was a while before we realised that Duchere had already taken the lead; it just looked as though Jura Sud were being afforded the bulk of the play with Duchere aiming to catch them on the break or make use of set pieces. Whatever, it was evolving into an interesting contest. Jura were bigger, looked stronger, and had a very dangerous left-winger; but Duchere were able to match them in midfield and with greater mobility (if not pace), with the forwards dropping deep, were able to create space and catch them out.

So it proved after about 30 minutes when Duchere won possession in midfield. A well-placed pass out to the right was taken by the winger to the by-line and a perfectly delivered waist-high cross was volleyed in by the onrushing forward. Jura did manage to create one decent chance as a player broke into the box through defenders but blazed the shot over the bar. 2-0 up at the interval and all was looking good for Duchere. The priority for the first 15 minutes of the second half was to keep things tight and not let Jura back in; and the job was well done. Indeed, Duchere almost extended their lead as a flick-on from a free kick landed just on the roof of the net.

As the game progressed Jura had to commit more players forward; but Duchere took advantage of the space and continued to create the chances without managing to kill off the game. However, the picture changed when Duchere’s right-back – who had done a splendid job of containing Jura’s most dangerous player – landed awkwardly and had to go off. The replacement didn’t look like a natural full-back and Jura’s efforts began to be focused down that side. And with about 15 minutes left a ball into that area saw their winger run on between defenders and finish well with a shot across the keeper into the corner of the net.

That set up a rousing finish as Jura piled forward and Duchere found themselves with a series of opportunities to score a third. The final moments were understandably frantic, but there was to be no further score and Duchere came away with a well-deserved victory. I thought when I saw them last (against OL B) that they had come on a lot in the past year and what I saw on Saturday indicated further improvement. The defence (as their record reflects) is sound, the midfield competitive, and if the forwards lack obvious advantages in terms of height or pace they make up for it in movement and adapting to the team’s overall intelligent style of play. After Saturday’s win they might still only be in 11th place but are now 10 points clear of the bottom two and only five points off fourth (and in this league you a point for turning up).

A second season of consolidation in CFA Groupe B is no mean feat for Duchere after promotion the previous campaign. A couple of additions next season could see them mount a challenge for promotion to, if I understand it correctly, National, the French equivalent of our …. well, third flight. That would be a very big step up (into a nationwide rather than regional division) and may be too soon for a developing outfit. It can’t be said that Duchere is a hotbed of football, with the crowd on Saturday probably not much above 100 (it had been a different story for the OL match). But the team and the area are looking up, as I trust what I assume is the only other Charlton and Duchere supporter can testify. May the same apply to us through May.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Travel Chaos And Reading The Runes

We at least now know, following Southampton’s (very welcome) failure to win at home last night, that just a point on Saturday would be enough to guarantee a top-six finish. But of course we don’t just want that; and it is too soon to put a stop to hopes of automatic promotion, as Parkinson says. OK, all we can do this Saturday is win and see how the land lies after that. With Millwall at home to Orient, Swindon away to Wycombe, and Leeds at home to MK Dons. It’s not a set of fixtures that inspires hopes of fresh external help, but you never know – and all the other teams will probably be thinking the same. There’s no way around us having to win the final three games, including Leeds, but I’m sure nobody’s forgotten that Millwall play Swindon on the final day, so at the very least if we win the final three we’d move above one of these two. We just need more slips, hopefully starting on Saturday.

I’ve not been writing much of late, in part because at this stage of the season there’s no transfer gossip, no thoughts of anything other than supporting whatever X1 takes to the pitch, and not much left in the way of permutations to mull over. Add in a work-related trip to Amsterdam and having to miss the Southampton and Colchester games, plus the odd need to actually do some work (fraud charges against a certain US financial screwed up my weekend) and there’s not much opportunity for idle comment (which is not to say that the comments on other blogs are not always welcome).

It’s not going to change much in the near term as I’m supposed to be flying off to Lyon tomorrow for a week with my partner Suzanne, ruling out a trip to Exeter. Of course, I’ve no idea if the flight will happen. There is a contingency plan involving a train under the channel and picking up a TGV on the other side; the trains to Lyon are all full, but I’ll argue the toss if and when I’m on one without a ticket and happily ensconced in the bar. Possible justifications include weddings, christenings, illness etc. Might sound more convincing than the need to get to Lyon in time for a Lyon Duchere game on Saturday.

Being stuck in Amsterdam for the Colchester game did prompt some contemplation on past experience of waiting for news of Charlton games. Over the years I’ve had more nervous periods waiting for texts etc (although this time around all I wanted was one confirming the final whistle, not the succession of news about Lisbie, penalty claims etc which a helpful friend was forwarding, each of which prompted fears of an equaliser); and I’ve celebrated the relief of confirmation of victory in worse places. This sort of thing can give rise to all sorts of superstitions and prejudices. New York for me will always be associated with the (temporary) failure to finally secure promotion last time around (home defeat to Huddersfield I think it was), Paris is just an invitation for misery (away loss to Fulham and most recently only a draw at home to Gillingham), we’ve only ever lost in the cup to non-league opposition when I’ve been in Lyon (which doesn’t bode especially well for this Saturday), and the less said about Italy the better (especially a ‘welcome to the Championship’ home game against Scunthorpe).

However, Amsterdam is maintaining a good track record (away win at Hull and now the Colchester victory). It isn’t right up there with Tokyo (which involved getting up at some ungodly hour to find out the result in the second leg of the play-offs against Ipswich – and swearing at my mother for probably the only time in my life; well, fancy answering the phone and telling me “it was 1-0 I think” ... “yes but to who for fks sake”) but is probably on a par with Madrid (where I managed to find a bar to watch the last 20 minutes of a glorious but ultimately futile home win against Villa).

I’m not sure if all this is widening or narrowing my horizons. After all, I can’t be sure if the best omen is my location or activity. It can’t just be having a glass at the time as that is common to all the previous episodes (except on the one occasion in Tokyo, given the time). But then again both times I’ve been wine-tasting, in France and London, we’ve won. Both times against MK Dons, so maybe that is specific to games against them.

Perhaps the bottom line is not to rely on the lucky Charlton socks and pants, or the python skin boots, and ensure that, if it’s the play-offs this time, I find someone who’ll fly through the ash to Tokyo in time for me to book in for a wine-tasting during at least the second leg of the first round (seems the dates for these games have been outlined, so at least there’s some chance for planning). But if wine-tasting is the crucial element on both occasions I’ve been with my partner, Suzanne. I’m sure she’d love the idea of being whisked away to Tokyo for a surprise long weekend, but rather less convinced about the future of the relationship if I outlined the real reasons.

The compensation for being away this Saturday is the opportunity (if I make it to Lyon) to take in a Duchere fixture, at home to promotion-chasing Jura Sud. Duchere seem set for a mid-table finish in France’s CFA Groupe B, which is perfectly respectable after their promotion last season. Their games still aren’t exactly goal-fests (21 for and 22 against in 28 games so far), and I could of course have opted to support Lyon’s other team, the one contesting a Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich. But as was the case when taken to The Valley aged three, the die has been cast.

If I get to Lyon there is of course the problem of getting back. I booked a flight to return on the morning of the Leeds game, with enough time to get back. That was before the ash. It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that others have more serious travel problems, but so far my timing looks good: flew back from Amsterdam the night before the ban, hopefully off to Lyon just after the ban is lifted. I think we’re in uncharted waters when it comes to the omens for games against Leeds when stranded overseas. May it not come to that.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Bad Luck, Bad Finishing, Good Goalkeeping

Well, the others did their best for us. We knew after Millwall’s slip last night that a victory today and anything other than a win for Leeds would suddenly mean it was all in our own hands – win the final three games and we were up. But a combination of unconvincing finishing, good goalkeeping, and bad luck conspired against us and, despite Leeds losing and Swindon only drawing at home against Walsall, we find ourselves back in fifth with three games left. It ain’t over yet, but even three wins now means the other three involved having to drop points. Nothing we can do about it, just dust ourselves down and prepare for Exeter.

For once the game’s stats just about speak for themselves. According to the BBC site we had nine attempts on target and seven off target, against two and one respectively for Norwich. Possession was 68% to 32% in our favour. That’s enough to underline that we didn’t get the breaks; they’re also enough to underline that we should have got something out of the game. But it wasn’t just a case of one of those days when the gods are against you. Their keeper had a fair claim to man of the match, but each of the string of saves he made you would have to say were good but – with the possible exception of one to turn away a short range header – not brilliant. None of the half-chances that fell our way were grabbed with conviction. Having got their goal Norwich showed precious little attacking intent through the second half. Not surprisingly they just wanted the final whistle. In that context our failure to score – and just four goals in the last six games – tells as much of the story.

The team lined up as on Tuesday night (when eventually I was able to enjoy my glass of cognac in an Amsterdam bar), with Burton and Elliot both on the bench. And we started the game with purpose and conviction. It seemed a bit route one, but with Sodje(A) and Forster causing them problems in the air it wasn’t sterile. Racon and Semedo were working well together, while Sam caused them all sorts of problems and delivered a series of threatening crosses. It was all very encouraging, just needed a goal. The clearest chances for us in the first half fell to Bailey, but one curling shot was turned round the post and he did make a hash of a free kick just outside the area.

After a sluggish start Norwich did come more into the game, and while their attacks were infrequent they carried menace. Rather out of the blue they worked it down the left and a wicked cross was headed home by the onrunning forward, only for the linesman’s flag to rule it out. Not long after one of their delivered a stinging shot from outside the box which Randolph did superbly to turn it around the post. However, the reprieve was temporary as the resulting corner was swung to the far post and amid a host of players one of their jumped highest and buried it. We’d had three or four poorly delivered corners, they had one and made the most of it.

Just before the break Sodje(A) seemed to pick up an injury and was replaced by Burton. From then on the direct approach was less effective, but after the break Norwich were increasingly content to sit behind the ball and hold what they had. And we continued to play well outside the box, which paved the way for a string of chances in a 20-minute spell. Shots were either scuffed, deflected, or saved well, while other promising situations went begging. Racon was playing well, but he found himself in good shooting positions and failed to deliver a decisive strike. We were gifted another free kick outside the area when Racon lost control of the ball but found a leg to fall over. This time Bailey curled it around the wall on target, but it wasn’t hit that hard and the keeper had the time to get across and make the save. Probably the best moment came when we worked the ball well down the right and a good cross in was met well only to be saved yet again.

With a great deal of effort having been put in, we were looking tired in the last 20 minutes and not surprisingly changes were made. Reid came on for Semedo, who’d done nothing wrong but had to be sacrificed, with Bailey moving inside. And late on Bailey, who had a rather subdued game and was struggling, departed for Shelvey. By now the time-wasting was reaching absurd levels, but having given their keeper a yellow the ref was never likely to make it a red when he just continued to take as long as before over every dead ball. With five minutes of stoppage time there was just time for us to win a free kick after Sam was flattened. Randolph went forward but instead of the ball going into the box we played it short and managed to lose possession.

Congratulations to Norwich. We’d have done exactly the same in their position. For us it’s a case of taking the positives from having played well and just going out and beating Exeter, then hope for favours from elsewhere. A point today would have made a good deal of difference, but it’s still too soon to settle for the play-offs.

Player Ratings:

Randolph: 8/10. The one actual shot on target from Norwich brought an excellent save. Dealt well with everything else, which mostly involved back passes. And I don’t think he could have got to the corner.

Richardson: 9/10. I thought he was excellent today, not least getting forward in the second half and carrying the game to them.

Borrowdale: 6/10. Like the rest of the defence wasn’t stretched due to Norwich’s intentions, but unlike Richardson he didn’t take advantage to get forward much. With Bailey no natural winger it meant little threat down our left side.

Sodje(S): 8/10. Good interceptions, effective game. Just have to ask who should have got up highest for their corner.

Dailley: 9/10. I was tempted to make it a 10. I thought he was just about perfect today (and I voted for him as player of the season), covering well and reading everything. Would have been a perfect score but for that corner.

Bailey: 6/10. We know he’s not a real winger, but he did get into good positions in the first half and could have scored. Seemed to tire badly in the second half and struggled when switched to the centre before going off.

Semedo: 8/10. Did everything we could ask of him in terms of protecting the defence and winning the ball. No fault of his to be substituted.

Racon: 7/10. Would have been a better mark if his shooting from good positions hadn’t been poor. Otherwise he played really well.

Sam: 8/10. Was the outstanding attacking player on either side in the first half, every cross carried threat. Found it tougher in the second as space was harder to find, but there was no questioning his effort and commitment today.

Forster: 6/10. Did good work in the first half and almost got in on a couple of occasions. Didn’t work as well with Burton and bottom line was we had a number of chances and didn’t take them.

Sodje(A): 7/10. Caused them problems before going off injured.

Subs: Burton (6/10 – some good touches and lay-offs, won some free kicks, didn’t score); Reid (6/10 – unable to deliver decisive contribution against what was by the time he came on a massed defence); Shelvey (6/10 – not much time on the pitch, looked comfortable on the ball and passed well, but Norwich were giving up the space by then).

Monday 5 April 2010

No Slip-Ups (For Good Or Bad)

No need for rocket science today. A win was all we cared about, with the hope that the other three would screw up. With Leeds and Millwall already securing the three points with away wins, and Swindon with a relatively easy home fixture, the best we could hope for was as you were – or rather as you were with one less game. The win was secured but it was a strange game. Carlisle played like a team in mid-table, but still had pride and needed to be finished off. After an indifferent first half-hour we did take the lead and the chances did come in the second half, when we should have moved into the comfort zone. But they weren’t taken and, while not really stretched, there was always that nagging doubt that two precious points would be blown by conceding a late equaliser. So today we’re happy enough and the plaudits go to the defence.

The team saw a rather surprising switch to 4-5-1, with Shelvey getting a rare start and Mooney taking a break, Sam returning for Wagstaff as one of the wide men (Reid the other), and Bailey taking a place on the bench. The questions that raised were how would Forster cope on his own up front (it’s sure a tough ask for someone to come in on loan, go straight into the first team in a 4-4-2 and be asked to play as the lone striker in the next match), and how would Shelvey fare having played so little football in the past few months (one downside of the absence of reserve team fixtures). The answer on both fronts proved to be well enough, although the two best second-half chances were to fall to Shelvey and he didn’t take them. As long as his head doesn’t go down – and he was about to be replaced just before the second one fell his way – that’s fine.

Playing with a five-man midfield but with one of them in the hole requires both the wide men to make significant contributions and the team to pass the ball well, especially with the opposition pretty much matching the formation. Neither really happened in the first half at least. We struggled to dominate and most tellingly this was another game when 30 minutes had passed with no attempt on target. One Reid shot well over the bar was all we had to show and in a game we had to win the impression was that the tempo was not quick enough to stretch them, with Reid and Sam not especially effective. The same applied to Carlisle, who were relying on their Fellini lookalike loan forward, which all made for a pretty mundane and congested game of football.

However, we then had the ref to thank for taking the lead. We worked the ball down the left and a foul saw the man in black allow play to continue. When the ball went astray he then called play back for the offence. Many others would have viewed it as a simple case of having played an advantage which didn’t work out. Decent free kick swung in and Sodje buries it with his head. On the balance of play we couldn’t say we were especially worthy, but even for the neutral the game needed the deadlock to be broken.

Nothing much changed during the remainder of the first half, at which point for me Semedo would have been challenging Sodje for man of the match. However, during the break Carlisle must have decided they had nothing much to lose by pressing forward and the game in the second half became much more open, which proved to be decidedly to our advantage.

Reid was still finding it hard to create space down the left flank, but with Richardson providing more support for Sam we had far more joy down the right. The result was three superb balls in from that side. The first two went begging and the third saw forwards and defenders jump for the cross only for the ball to drop to Shelvey around the penalty spot. No getting away from it, he made a hash of the shot, almost missing the ball. Forster had worked well up front but was replaced by Sodje(A), who was more direct and caused them problems. Not long after Shelvey found himself in space in the box and astutely turned inside to create the opening only to see the shot charged down. That proved to be the cue for him and Reid to depart, with Bailey and Mooney coming on, to provide fresh legs and presumably more solidity in midfield.

Both teams did put the ball in the net, but for Carlisle it was a clear case of the guy at the far post being yards offside and for us I lost interest when I saw the linesman’s flag go up, presumably for offside. There was also an opportunity for Racon running onto a squared ball from the right, but he shot wastefully, while Sodje(A) saw a shot blocked and put the rebound wide. A second goal would have killed it off for sure, but as sweaty last five minutes go this was reasonably relaxed, with Carlisle not carrying any potent threat. Again, the plaudits go to the defence collectively, with Sodje(S)’s star rising for a superb second-half intervention and Dailley calm and assured alongside him.

We’re not exactly ripping teams apart at the moment (well, it’s been a while since we did, having passed up the chance against Stockport), but at this stage of the season two clean sheets in a row is just as important. We take the win and move on, to Pardew’s Southampton. I’m really torn for this one. We’ve won every away game I’ve gone to this season; equally, we’ve won every time I’ve got trashed at a wine tasting. So I’ve got to decide which is the better path to follow. Perhaps our best chance is if I go to Southampton and drink a lot of wine. Seems like a plan.

Player Ratings:

Randolph: 7/10. Largely untroubled, but dealt with a couple of crosses well. Just one moment of indecision in the first half, one of those ‘after you’ moments, which saw the ref give us a completely daft and very welcome free kick.

Richardson: 8/10. Untroubled in defence and provided excellent support for Sam going forward in the second half; their work down the right should have produced at least one more goal.

Borrowdale: 7/10. My first view of him. Can’t remember him doing anything of note, but for a defender – especially one presumably getting into the swing of things - that’s not bad.

Sodje(S): 9/10. Gets the man of the match award. Scored the goal, great second-half interception, no mistakes or rushes of blood to the head.

Dailley: 8/10. Carlisle may not have offered much up front, but they put three past us earlier in the season and never looked like that today. Fine game.

Reid: 6/10. Not an effective game, but didn’t have a great deal of support and was crowded out most of the time. But he’s still in credit for the strike at Huddersfield.

Semedo: 7/10. Mostly impressive, especially in the first half. But was surprisingly caught out twice in the second, which could have been costly against a side with more threat up front. And picked up another yellow.

Racon: 6/10. Didn’t dominate the game as we might have hoped and missed a decent chance late in the game. But fair enough overall.

Sam: 8/10. Came into his own in the second half with two absolute peaches into the box from the right (the third one came from Richardson). Either could have sealed the game.

Shelvey: 6/10. Linked up play reasonably well, but two good chances came his way and he didn’t take either.

Forster: 6/10. Did a decent job on his own, but it didn’t look like the role he was born for and the more direct Sodje(A) caused more problems, albeit with more space to work in towards the end of the game.

Subs: Sodje(A) (7/10 – gave us fresh impetus when he came on and could have scored); Bailey (6/10 – did all that could reasonably be required); Mooney (6/10 – as with Bailey, not a lot of time to have an impact).