Saturday 31 March 2012

Not Comfortable, But Done

I don’t know how you strike the balance at this stage of the season. We won, it’s massive, I’m very happy. The manager and the players should be happy. We know what it means to the points calculations and to some extent the rest is just gossip. But if you assess the performance in terms of how we stacked up against a mid-table team, one that played decent enough stuff but was there for the taking, the assessment is qualified. We didn’t look like champions-in-waiting as we failed to control the game in midfield. It will matter not if we get the result we want at Oldham, but there are questions. We should have won easy, especially after the start we had; in the event we won.

The team saw Stephens come in for the suspended Russell and, with Jackson not featuring, Cook started on the left, with Wagstaff retained on the other flank. Kermorgant returned after illness to accompany Wright-Phillips up front, while Cort kept his place in central defence. That meant Hayes dropping back to the bench, to accompany N’Guessan, Pritchard, Taylor and Sullivan.

After the disappointment of being obliged to attack the Covered End in the first half, the opening exchanges were lively and promising. Orient seemed open and, while lively, encouragingly vulnerable. It was a matter of capitalising on it. We thought we had as Wright-Phillips took the ball around Rachubka but took an age to be taken down. You’ve seen them given, but I’d have to see it again to be sure the ref hadn’t gaffed in not giving the penalty. What the ref did after that was give us nothing, despite the buffeting that Kermorgant was getting, until finally he felt obliged to award a free kick. That was taken quickly to Wiggins and his squared ball was put away by Wagstaff.

With less than 10 minutes played, that should have been the launching-pad for a convincing win. It might have been if the ref had allowed a subsequent cross which went into the net off someone. Instead he gave a free kick for handball, but declined to book anyone for the supposed offense. Again, have to see the replays, but if one of our guys had used his hand surely you book him? If that one’s given, you feel we could have gone on and won comfortably as Orient would have folded. It wasn’t and instead they played their way back into the game and in the remainder of the first half we created nothing and they fashioned two opportunities. First, Hamer saved superbly from close range; second, a decent effort from outside the box produced a competent save.

At the break we had put the ball in the net twice and had a fair penalty appeal not given, but they had fashioned two opportunities to score but were denied by Hamer. Good, but not comfortable as we were quite simply not controlling central midfield, not dictating the pace of the game.

The game was nearly put to bed early in the second half, but this time it was Rachubka to the rescue for them, with a double save, the first of which was good and the second superb. After that, the game didn’t exactly drift but we found it hard to work out whether we were defending a one-goal lead or looking to extend it. Orient were being kept well in check, especially as their substitutions seemed to have a negative effect, but we weren’t looking like killing the game off as too often possession was given away.

As the clock ticked down N’Guessan came on for Wright-Phillips, and in a trice it was all over. Cook managed to turn away from a challenge and after advancing delivered an absolute peach of a cross. N’Guessan ran on to it and delivered the finish it merited. Cook was to leave the scene for Green, but that was effectively it as Orient didn’t look like breaking down a resolute defence and we were happy to play out time.

The pluses today were a more than competent defensive performance, individually and collectively, rounded off by the keeper making two saves when called on. Wagstaff and Cook did well enough and Kermorgant scrapped for everything. The downside was the inability of Hollands and Stephens to control/dictate a game that we should have had greater control of, which meant that the service to the front two wasn’t great. It shouldn’t matter, I hope it doesn’t matter, and perhaps I’m being too critical. I hope so.

Onwards to Oldham. I won’t be there as my partner Suzanne assumed that we’d be promoted already and arranged an Easter break to Prague which will also encompass the home game against Walsall. I’ll try to find a bar in town to watch it or sit it out, but always knew that Carlisle away was where it will happen. I’ll be there.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 9/10. The guy had two serious efforts to save in the entire game and dealt with both of them. The first was outstanding and kept us ahead at a crucial time.

Solly – 8/10. Another excellent game, absolutely no problems.

Wiggins – 8/10. Did the defensive stuff as well as ever and popped up for the quick free kick for the first goal.

Morrison – 8/10. When the opposition has one opportunity inside the box all game it’s been a good defensive performance.

Cort – 8/10. As with Morrison, no mistakes. The guy has taken his chance when it came.

Wagstaff – 8/10. I thought it was one of his best games for us; there was no over-reaction to challenges, winging at the ref, and he pops up for a goal while being influential through the first half in particular.

Hollands – 6/10. Our problems today were in central midfield as we failed to control from there. No lack of effort, but this area didn’t function as it should have.

Stephens – 6/10. As with Hollands; he may have been more calpable but it’s a partnership there and it’s down to the two chosen to control the game.

Cook – 7/10. Decent enough game, was influential in the first half especially. Lost possession in bad positions a couple of times in the second half but then retained it and delivered the second goal on a plate.

Kermorgant – 7/10. Battled for everything and got nothing from the ref.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. Faded after the early penalty possibility and struggled to be involved as not much came through from midfield. Can’t have any complaints about being taken off and watched his replacement bury the chance that came his way.

Subs – N’Guessan (8/10 – guy comes on and scores; what more can you ask for?); Green (6/10 – game effectively done before he appeared).

Thursday 29 March 2012

Mini-Season To Be Won

Like every other Charlton fan, I hope Richard Murray makes a full and quick recovery. There are going to be celebrations to be had before long and nobody deserves to be a part of them more than him.

At least ‘doing the maths’ is getting simpler. We’ve had our worst spell of the season. Every team has to have one and as the previous hiccups amounted to losing a game and only drawing at home there’s no doubt that one win and four points in five games amount to a stumble. Not yet a crisis. There must have been some element, however unconscious, of the stoppage time swings when we were away at Bournemouth leaving the job all but done. It wasn’t and isn’t, but the period of rude awakening ended with Huddersfield.

We now have a mini-season of seven games to win. 98 points guarantees us the title of champions, 96 automatic promotion (we are for the record one point shy of an assured play-off spot, but let’s not go there). That means targets of 16 and 14 points respectively from seven games. Sure we won’t end up needing that many (Huddersfield will be up against Sheff Wed next Saturday), but it might not be more than a few less. The possibility of us coasting to the line disappeared with the recent spell, there are three below us in good form and capable of closing the gap, and the fact that there are three closely grouped chasing at least one automatic spot means that it’s highly unlikely that more than one, if any, will end up falling away and having to settle for the play-offs.

We are in a great position still, as Sir Chris says, but the way the league has evolved means it’s far from comfortable. Of the remaining seven, I’d guess we will need to win four to go up, at the least three. Of course we’ll take each one as it comes and there’s no question that Saturday’s game against Leyton Orient – OK every one now – is vital. A win and the target can be at most 11 points from six for a guaranteed top-two finish.

They always say it’s about accentuating the positive. We’re back in a scrap and it’s up to us to prove we are worthy of promotion/being champions. It’s a challenge. This team/squad has come up to the mark in nearly all the key ones to date this season and it’s time for them to make us proud again (and for us to give them every ounce of support). I’ve no idea who will get the nod to start the game, with presumably one of Stevens, Pritchard or Hughes coming in to partner Hollands, while the wide positions and the front two will be down to whether Kermorgant, Jackson and Green are available, plus how Wagstaff and Cook are shaping up, what mix of the others looks right.

I was stuck in a bar in Seville for the away game against Orient. They did a job on us that day after Hamer’s sending off. Time for us to return the compliment to start the mini-season off right.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Not Pretty But Nice

For the most part it wasn’t pretty, but at this stage of the season in our position if you can chalk off another fixture with no closing of the gap on second place, extend the gap on third, keep a clean sheet, and win at home after two defeats, you’d be a hard taskmaster not to take it with open arms and a contented grin. We just don’t want anything to go wrong now and tonight, with the breaks, it did.

The team provided a couple of surprises. With Clarke having already departed, Jackson and Haynes injured, and Green and Stevens left on the bench, new arrival Dany N’Guessan was in from the start on the left, with Wagstaff on the right and Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips up front. Hollands and Russell continued in central midfield, but in defence Taylor was given a break and Cort came in, whether or not to combat their threat in the air or just to shake things up I don’t know. The set-up was fine, but it did throw up some problems as presumably Wiggins and N’Guessan hadn’t had much time to get acquainted and it had to be doubtful whether our second Frenchman would be able to last the 90 minutes. But then Sir Chris know that he always scores on his debut.

The opening exchanges – in fact the first half as a whole – were scrappy and if anything Yeovil passed the ball and retained possession better than we did. Hollands and Russell were finding it hard to establish any control of midfield and balls tended to be lofted forward rather too often, with the front two feeding off scraps and not doing much with them either. Competitive for sure, but we weren’t creating much and neither were Yeovil, aside from a few long range efforts. But it mattered not for N’Guessan was to deliver a perfectly mishit cross to someone which left their giant of a keeper completely wrong-footed. Nobody in the ground considered it might have been intended, but the records will show the important fact. He scored, we’re ahead, and goals dictate games.

We were treated before the break by the opposition to a master-class in how to waste free kicks. Their first was a bit far out, but still offered hope for them. But the ball was played square so slowly that Wagstaff had the opportunity to simply run in and nick it from them without a shot materialising. The second was closer and in that nasty area where their guy could go either side, with plenty of space to get it over the wall and down. Instead he planted it somewhere in the upper reaches of the North Stand. There were dangerous crosses from them and a couple of scrambles, but those two efforts were what stood out.

That was about it for the first half, except shortly before the break, for a minute or two, we managed to retain possession and work the ball around with intent. It was a nice contrast to much of what had gone on before and a reminder of what we are capable of.

The two key moments of the game came not long into the second half. First, it seemed that Morrison misplaced a header out into the path of their guy but his shot was superbly parried by an instinctive block from Hamer. They equalise then and the game takes on a very different hue. After the Notts County game it seems he rescued a point for us at Scunthorpe and this save was equally important. Following that, and one moment of farce when their keeper this time allowed a throw in to bounce over his head, our second effectively killed off the game.

After a subdued first half, Kermorgant was coming more into things and he was instrumental. It wasn’t rocket science, but Yeovil had no answer. Our free kick was just too far out for our Breton to have a strike, especially after the ref moved it back to where the offence was committed, so he peeled off to the far side of the area and when it was lofted in his direction he planted a header back across to which any one of three could have provided the finish. It proved to be BWP.

At 2-0 Yeovil started to wilt, having already made a couple of substitutions either side of half-time. As long as we avoided silly mistakes the game was pretty much done. And with Cort nodding away everything in his vicinity and the central midfield pair providing better protection moments of alarm were few and far between. One chip of their did come back off the bar, but I’m guessing the guy who planted it wasn’t a Frenchman making his debut. N’Guessan was replaced by Green and as the clock ran down we were able to round things off courtesy of another excellent piece of work by Kermorgant. He has enough nous to know when to flick on, when to just get in the way of a defender, and when to play someone in. This time he took a difficult ball and managed to turn it into the path of the onrushing Wiggins (I think), who squared it for Russell to slide home.

It wasn’t a big crowd, but after that we were able to enjoy the final moments and Sir Chris’ post-match leap, which has been sadly missed of late. When we win, who cares what the others do? We know it’s not done, that Carlisle isn’t yet on the horizon, and that Huddersfield away will be another big test. The team has risen to all the games against those around us this season and they’ll have to do it again on Saturday. Top of the league since September, five wins and two draws out of seven games against our main opposition with only two goals conceded. Let’s keep that standard going for a bit longer.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. Most of what he did tonight was routine, but the point-blank save at 1-0 was a key moment of the game.

Solly – 8/10. Can’t fault the guy tonight (or for the season).

Wiggins – 7/10. Nothing wrong, but with a new guy working with him down the left wasn’t often able to get forward in the same fashion as when he works with Jackson.

Morrison – 7/10. Another good game overall, but may have been his faulty header which let their guy in for their one real chance.

Cort – 9/10. My man of the match tonight. He’s waited patiently for opportunities and was outstanding. Pity he couldn’t round off the performance with the late shot he put over the bar, but spent the night stopping everything thrown in his direction.

N’Guessan – 7/10. Can’t in all honesty give him the extra mark for the goal, but loved it all the same. Showed more than enough to justify the signing.

Hollands – 7/10. Came much more into it in the second half, but in the first period both he and Russell were a touch subdued and we struggled to control midfield and to provide much of a service to the front two.

Russell – 7/10. Gets the extra mark for his goal, but the same thoughts about midfield control. We didn’t pass the ball well enough tonight to make it easier.

Wagstaff – 7/10. Made enough of a nuisance of himself and like others featured more as the game progressed.

Kermorgant – 8/10. After a tough first half he just wore down their defenders through effort and intelligence. Was instrumental in two of the three goals and deserved one himself.

Wright-Phillips – 7/10. Happy that the scoring run continues; otherwise struggled as little was put his way, but no shortage of effort.

Sub – Green (7/10 – game effectively won by the time he came on).

Saturday 10 March 2012

Sense Of Perspective

I wasn’t intending to post anything about today’s game, even before the first half, as I really just wanted to enjoy a game of football at The Valley. I was always going to miss the Colchester game, having my scheduled Amsterdam work-related trip. In the event I didn’t get there and still didn’t make the game as my mother died in hospital on Wednesday. She wasn’t an outright Addick, but my father was and he made sure that the line continued. She actually persuaded him to skip a game just before Christmas to do some shopping instead; it was that 7-6 Huddersfield game. I don’t think she made any such suggestion again.

However, one type of person and one individual persuaded me otherwise. The former were the people that left before half-time. I genuinely feel sorry for them. They’ve paid for their ticket and sure can do what they want. But they will never truly enjoy the highs. I don’t understand their attitude and don’t want to. I’d just ask them to look up in the dictionary the definition of supporter. It’s their loss. The latter was the linesman in front of the East Stand. Incompetence personified. Having pulled it back to 2-4 he stood motionless - possibly for the only time of the game having spent the rest of it dancing up and down the line – as Wright-Phillips was bundled over. It was a blatant penalty and a red card to boot. The ref might have missed it, but he had the same view I did and froze. 3-4 with 30 minutes to go and who knows? We might have had a great afternoon, maybe even something to compare with the game my father missed.

We may of course still have lost. In the greater scheme of the season we hope it still won’t really count; and the past week has probably affected my sense of perspective. I enjoyed the second half, even the burning sense of injustice at the penalty decision (I didn’t feel anything similar about BWP’s foul on their keeper for our first). But a win would have been preferable.