Preview: Charlton Athletic

Last Saturday’s win over Peterborough was perhaps the most enjoyable home game of the season. The game itself was a fairly mediocre one that we slightly edged, however, it was the atmosphere brought on by the good weather, legend’s day, and the chance to congratulate our Wembley heroes that made it such a wonderful afternoon.

Already, that’s feeling like a distant memory following the announcement of the season ticket prices this week. Personally, I don’t feel like they’re as scandalous as it’s being made out, but I also appreciate that people making a decision with their own money may feel differently. Regardless of the actual pricing of the tickets, the announcement has seen the battle lines drawn for what’s inevitably going to be a summer of mud-slinging and what could be a really difficult next season ahead.

Possible Line-Up

While the Peterborough game was an opportunity to bask in the sunshine and forget about the reality of the situation we’re in, this Charlton game where they’ll be protests and relegation could be confirmed looks set to serve as a cold, hard dose of reality. For Mark Robins and the players, it’s about displaying that they can cope in a less advantageous atmosphere, potentially having to deal with disruptions to the game, which could be a truer mark of their ability to produce the goods next year.

After a hectic list of fixtures in recent weeks, Robins should benefit from having a better rested squad than the past few games. Hopefully, the likes of Jordan Willis, Kwame Thomas and others dealing with minor knocks will be fit enough to enter contention for selection, potentially offering the manager some difficult decisions to make.

With Ruben Lameiras in good form over the past few games, it’s hard seeing even a fit Kwame Thomas taking his berth just behind Beavon in the starting line-up. The main selection quandary could well be whether to hand Jodi Jones a rare start ahead of Kyel Reid, even though the latter has been much-improved under Robins.

Last Time We Met

As I tried to locate the away end at The Valley back in October I heard a mysterious cockney voice utter “beware of flying pigs” darkly into the South London air. Thinking nothing of it other than that Londoners are weird, I took my seat for a game of football that I hoped would kick-start a season that hadn’t exactly gone to plan yet.

That cockney wisdom soon came to make sense when the referee blew his whistle to start the game and pigs did indeed fly (well, fall in style). Point made, the game resumed after a lengthy period where rubber pigs were removed from the pitch by the players and we proceeded to lose 3-0 to a team managed by Russell Slade. In fairness, it wasn’t actually a terrible performance, but we were too weak at the back and lacked the ability to convert possession into goals, however, it was a display that screamed relegation.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton have been beguiling this season, at times they have been one of the best teams in the division but they’ve so often been sub-par and appearing to be lacking in motivation that they now find themselves in mid-table with nothing to play for. A high level of squad turnover this season hasn’t helped, first in Russell Slade clearing out the mess of a squad he’d been left after relegation from the Championship, and then Karl Robinson making sweeping changes after replacing Slade in November.

While Karl Robinson has the excuse of not working with a squad entirely of his own choosing, Charlton’s performances under him at times have questioned the concept of him being a good up-and-coming young English manager. He’s got a very strong squad to work with, possibly one of the best at this level, yet he’s only picked up 20 points from the 21 games he’s had in charge – 10 fewer than Slade managed with the same number of games.

The quality in Charlton’s squad comes mainly comes from midfield/attack, where Ricky Holmes has been the star player this season. Remarkably for a player who’s never played as high as this level before, Holmes has looked a cut above in his wing play and end product. Former Swindon winger Nathan Byrne provides further quality out wide, while the attack boasts the physical prowess of Josh Magennis and Lee Novak, as well as the enigmatic former Celtic striker Tony Watt.

Karl Robinson’s big signing Jake Forster-Caskey has been a class act in a deeper midfield position, supplying creativity alongside academy product Joe Aribo who was rather exuberantly likened to Dele Alli early in the season by Robinson. The experienced Andrew Crofts provides a physical platform at the base of midfield to build from, while there’s also club captain and hero Johnnie Jackson to call upon despite his advancing age.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Charlton have an array of high-calibre centre-backs who could all really be playing at a higher-level. Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira are domineering presences in central defence and the only random foreign players to last Russell Slade’s summer cull. There’s also Jason Pearce who has excelled in the past at Championship level, while Ezri Konsa has emerged as a big prospect this season after playing in a number of positions in defence and midfield.

There’s also the reliable Chris Solly to call upon at right-back, who has stayed loyal over the years despite previous links to Premier League clubs, and Declan Rudd in goal, who made several appearances last season in goal for Norwich in the top-flight. All in all, this is a time that shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table in League One.

Prediction

There are similarities between this Charlton side and the Peterborough one we faced last week. Both have aspirations of playing pretty, passing football and have a number of dangerous attacking players, but both have appeared to lack a cutting edge to their play and have a soft underbelly that can be exposed with proper organisation and the right mentality.

I would be confident predicting a win in this game, however the potential protests present an unknown factor both in how they may happen and whether it will have any effect on the team. Given that it is an unknown factor, I’m going to stick to my guns and tip us to win this game 2-1.

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Preview: EFL Trophy Final

When we went two goals ahead against Wycombe back in February, it didn’t feel real. When the final whistle blew in that game, it didn’t feel real. When I ran on the pitch afterwards, it didn’t feel real. When the tickets went on sale, it didn’t feel real. It won’t be until I take my seat for this game that it will actually feel real, that Coventry City have made it Wembley.

For so long at this football club, it’s been about this quest to make it to the national stadium. We’ve come close on several occasions – those years getting close to making the play-offs, that game against Crewe – but it’s always felt out of our reach, no matter how close we actually were. This is Coventry City, the club that hasn’t made the top six of any division for 47 years, we just don’t do success.

For many, making it to Wembley is a prize, regardless of the result in this game. As someone who, through other sports, has been to big finals and seen my team lose, I’m telling you that is the most sickening experience you can have as a fan of your team. It’s not only that so much went into getting there and you didn’t win, but you’re made to watch the opposition have that amazing moment that you were expecting to have.

Mark Robins’ arrival as manager has been almost perfectly timed to provide us with the shot in the arm required to stand a chance against a strong Oxford side. He’s taken time to assess the options available to him and has now found a way to make us look like a proper team. Players appear to know their roles in their side and we’re playing with a level of intensity that has been lacking for the majority of the campaign.

Possible Line-Up

However, some of that continuity and momentum from the past couple of performances is going to be lost due to the ineligible players for this competition. Significantly, Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson looked to have formed a robust central defensive partnership but will both be unavailable. On the one hand, that will likely see Jordan Willis and Jordan Turnbull re-form a defensive partnership that was the root of our problems for much of the season, on the other, they’re both mobile defenders who have a degree of comfort on the ball, against a less direct team than our previous two opponents, that could even prove a blessing in disguise.

Elsewhere, Ruben Lameiras’ impact from the bench last week may have made a case for handing him a start in this game to supply genuine creativity in the final third, but I sense that it’s a choice between Kwame Thomas (if fit) and Jodi Jones for that place alongside Beavon in attack. I would imagine that the rest of the midfield four will remain in place given that they are both functioning as a unit and available for selection for this game.

Finally, there is a choice to be made whether to reward Reice Charles-Cook for his performances in this competition with a start in goal in the final, or to stick with the current first-choice of Lee Burge. My inkling is that Lee Burge will start, although it wouldn’t be shocking were Charles-Cook to get the nod.

Last Time We Met

Our two meetings with Oxford this season have curiously been both our best and worst performances of the league campaign. Back at the Ricoh Arena in October, we produced a remarkably composed and controlling performance with Ben Stevenson smashing in a screamer and Marvin Sordell chasing down a weak back-pass to hand us a comfortable win. However, barely a month later, Oxford eviscerated us at the Kassam Stadium in a game that signalled the beginning of the end for Mark Venus as manager.

How Are They Doing?

Nothing can illustrate the feeling towards this game on Oxford United’s end other than they’ve actually required a marketing campaign to sell tickets for this game. They made the final last year, so they’re not as desperate for the day out at Wembley that we are, they also have a realistic prospect of making the play-offs this season, so this game may not even define their season in the same way that it does ours.

A 5-1 win over Bury on Tuesday night emphasised how Oxford have been moving through the gears over the course of the campaign. They looked disjointed for much of the first half of the season, having lost key players from last year’s promotion-winning side from League Two in Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda to Championship clubs and letting go the experience of defenders Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins, as well as striker Danny Hylton. However, the club made some excellent additions in the transfer market both in the summer and then in January, and that quality is really shining through at the moment.

The two key moves in the summer window were firstly securing set-piece maestro and wind-up merchant Chris Maguire on a permanent deal – any free-kick from him closer than 30 yards from goal is almost a penalty – and bringing in winger Marvin Johnson from Motherwell and then converting him into a marauding left-back. Additionally, they managed to bring in Everton youngster Ryan Ledson on a permanent deal and he has been a class apart in the centre of the park for much of the campaign.

Oxford also added firepower to their attack in January through bringing in Toni Martinez and Conor McAleny on loan from West Ham and Everton respectively. However, we don’t have to worry about them as they have both already featured in this competition for their parent clubs, which is just as well as Toni Martinez scored against us at the Ricoh Arena for West Ham PL2 and Conor McAleny has eight goals in 13 appearances.

Losing those two is likely to see Kane Hemmings step up into a central attacking role, a player who has played very well in patches this season, with Maguire operating just behind him. However, Oxford will still have Rob Hall to utilise going forwards, he’s a pacey and skilful winger with excellent delivery who has five goals and five assists to his name despite spending the first few months of the season out injured.

Captain John Lundstram will play in midfield alongside Ryan Ledson, another former Everton youngster, Lundstram plays in a deep role and is important in providing a defensive platform as well as playing the ball out of defence. Michael Appleton could also pick either Joe Rothwell – a former Manchester United youngster – or Josh Ruffels – a former Coventry City youngster – should he wish to operate with a three-man midfield.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, the big Chey Dunkley has been an ever-present at centre-back this season but former Plymouth captain Curtis Nelson has looked a class act alongside him having returned to fitness following injury struggles in the first few months of the campaign. The previously mentioned Marvin Johnson is a real force of nature from left-back and is being tracked by Championship clubs, Appleton could decide to pick Joe Skarz at left-back and push Johnson further forward should he be feeling cautious about the big occasion.

In goal, Oxford have Simon Eastwood, who was yet another great summer signing they made. The former Blackburn man is one of those keepers who can really shut up shop if they’re in the mood, and has done so on several occasions at a higher-level before dropping down to League One for more regular football.

Overall, Oxford are a similar club right now to how Barnsley were last season (coincidentally, the team that beat them in this final last year) and have maybe just been held back from being a top six side already by the relative lack of experience in their squad. They are very much the favourites for this game and we’ll likely spend extended spells of the 90 minutes without the ball.

Prediction

I was more fearful for this game a couple of weeks ago when we were playing without confidence than I am now even though Oxford are in good form themselves and are a much better side than we are. The key areas for the game for us will be whether we can adapt to the change in personnel in defence and how consistent a threat we can be on the counter-attack. For Oxford, it’s about converting the dominance they’re likely to have into goals, which could be affected by losing their form striker for this game.

Oxford are favourites for this game and it could be a really humiliating defeat on the big stage for us. I can envision scenarios of this game in which we win, but my instinct is that Oxford will beat us, probably 2-0.

Preview: Southend United

Any hope that the feted ‘new manager bounce’ would give us the faintest of hope of beating the drop was extinguished on Saturday. It wasn’t just that we loss to Bradford, it was the manner of it -the baffling team selection, the inability to capitalise on a brief spell of being on top, the sloppy defending, the poor response of the team to salvaging anything from the game – that was concerning, it was exactly like watching a Russell Slade Coventry City team.

After barely a week in charge of the team, it was perhaps to be expected that there was little Robins could change about the side. However, the team selection decisions such as playing Kwame Thomas on the wing, starting the ineffectual Charles Vernam or picking Kevin Foley over Dion Kelly-Evans were bad calls that didn’t have to be made. Additionally, putting on another defender to replace the injured Chris Stokes at 2-0 down was overly negative for someone who is, in theory, here to lead us to promotion next season. Robins needs to demonstrate in these remaining games that he can play a team that not only functions, but can take the game to the opposition.

In the situation we’re in, it probably behoves Robins to assess as many of the options available to him in the squad, than it does to quickly settle on an XI in an attempt to grind out results. The question about the starting line-up for this upcoming game against Southend is not about which players will come into the team, but who did enough on Saturday to merit another start.

Of the starters against Bradford, only really Jordan Turnbull and Ben Stevenson appeared to acquit themselves effectively, although George and Kwame Thomas probably deserve some marks for effort. Dion Kelly-Evans was a real bright spark when he came off the bench, and with Kevin Foley likely to be out long-term, the door has opened up to establish himself as our first-choice right-back heading into next season.

It’s anyone’s guess who’ll come into the side, although Jodi Jones, Gael Bigirimana and possibly Kyel Reid seem the likeliest benefciaries of sweeping changes to the starting line-up.

Last Time We Met

The Southend away game back in December was towards the end of a run of form under Mark Venus that had extinguished any optimism that our start to the season had been an aberration. Southend cruised to a comfortable 3-1 victory at Roots Hall, taking the lead very early on in the game and then scoring twice in five minutes before Dan Agyei mustered a consolation goal. A spiky post-match interview from Mark Venus indicated that we not only had several players who didn’t want to be at the club, but a manager as well, somehow things have gotten worse since that day.

How Are They Doing?

Phil Brown has done a remarkable job at Southend this season in getting them around the play-off places, mainly down to some excellent work in the transfer window. After losing key players in the summer and starting the season fairly slowly, Southend mustered a remarkable run of form over the winter to put them into play-off contention, but have failed to win their past three games and will be looking to kick-start a flagging top six bid with a win over the division’s bottom club.

The star of this season has been former Reading and West Brom striker Simon Cox, who has scored 11 and assisted eight goals thus far, picked up on a free in the summer after several lean years. The controversial Nile Ranger, free transfer after over a year out of the game, had provided an effective foil up front for Southend before getting suspended by the club. In Ranger’s stead, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, free transfer after an underwhelming spell at the Ricoh Arena, has stepped up to the mark with four goals and five assists in 26 appearances this season.

Southend have goals from midfield in the form of Anthony Wordsworth, Stephen McLaughlin, Ryan Leonard and Will Atkinson. However, it’s the energy and competitiveness of the midfield that’s been the real hall-mark of Southend’s success under Phil Brown in recent years. The former Hull manager likes to rotate the squad and formation, but whoever plays and in whatever shape, they always look to press, physically intimidate and frustrate opponents in the centre of the park.

Possible Line-Up

In Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker, Southend have two of the division’s best attacking full-backs. Both have excellent delivery and are capable of taking set-pieces, Coker is a more orthodox attacking full-back in that he’ll run in straight lines and cross from deep, Demetriou is more marauding and can get to the by-line or into the box and cause all-round confusion if not properly dealt with.

It’s generally been Adam Thompson and Anton Ferdinand at the back this season for Southend, with young goalkeeper Ted Smith making his breakthrough into the first-team this campaign following Daniel Bentley’s departure for Brentford over the summer. Phil Brown is capable of switching between a back four and a back three, which makes the job of predicting their line-up very difficult. but in general, Southend are physical and no-nonsense in defence, so will eat up crosses for breakfast.

Prediction

Like most of the games at this level of football, we’re up against a team with experience and physicality all over the pitch who have the potential to really bully us. In particular, I’m worried that we’ll allow time and space on the ball for Southend’s attacking full-backs, which will lead to crosses, and we struggle to defend crosses. However, attacking full-backs should mean space in behind if we can counter quickly, particularly as Southend appear to lack pace in their squad. A good game-plan could win us this game, it’s just whether the players can be motivated to follow it in the knowledge that relegation is all but certain.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about our hopes at the moment, and I can’t see much reason to deviate from that feeling. 2-1 loss.