Thursday, 6 March 2008

Next... Preston at home

I'm just about getting over the disappointment of Tuesday night. On reflection I think I was a little bit too negative about the game and the result. A draw (all be it at home) against the team that are top of the league and a massive nine points above us is hardly cause for concern, and we have now won one and drawn two of the games against the top three teams, and we could have won them all. If we make the play offs we are likely to have to face at least one of those teams so it does not look too bad.

I am actually getting rather excited about the thought of a one off 'winner takes all' game at Wembley in May. I am not looking forward to the stress of it all, but it is about as exciting as it gets for a football fan. Ten games left, five at home, and I'm planning to go to Plymouth. I might (but don't hold me to it) go to QPR and/or Barnsley too.

This is the time of the season that I normally enjoy the most. Don't get me wrong, I am Charlton through and through, but I am interested in the Champions (Premier League), FA Cup and the European Cups (where English teams are involved). I also, as discussed previously, have several teams that I dislike so the relegation battles have relevance also.

I think this season will seem different. More intense. Excluding last year, we haven't really had much to play for in the last ten games of a season for a long time. This season it looks like we will be in the thick of it until the last kick. Even if we are four points above the team in seventh place when we play Coventry at The Valley we will have more to come. Either way I can't see us being more than three points behind sixth place, so our season shouldn't be able to finish at QPR or Barnsley.

The first of that 'dreaded' last ten is Preston this Saturday. We managed a very credible 2-0 win at Deepdale, but even ignoring the randomness of this division, Preston have managed some very respectable results in the last few weeks. I guess they will come for a draw, but I wouldn't right off the chances of them securing all three points.

Leroy Lita is the latest addition to our squad, and I expect him to be involved. Pardew doesn't have a reputation of throwing players straight into the first team, but I think Lita has proven himself at this level, and after Tuesday's spectacle we are clearly crying out for a decent striker to play alongside Varney who, for me, is beginning to look like the player we were told he was when Pardew paid £2.5m for him. I've always favoured signing young players that are a little unknown as you can stumble across real class, Darren Bent being a great example. The downside with that approach is that you can also end up paying too much for (and to) players that just don't turn out to be as good as you'd hoped. I fear that Izale McLeod may fall into that category, but time will tell.

Loan signings, on the other hand, can be much more brash. You can loan a thirty something without a care in the world about how good he is going to be in six or twelve months time, Danny Mills. Cook was clearly a panic signing as we'd lost Reid and Sinclair was not available at the time, but the Chelsea starlet could well be significant in the run in. Sodje has, for me, been an inspired signing. He may be on good money, we paid nothing up front for him, and we don't have to worry about his wages if we don't go up, nor do we have to pay him in the reserves if he should turn out to be surplus to requirements if we do. Halford was, I believe, an inducement to help us agree to sell Reid, but from what I've seen he is not worth £3m. Based on the fact that he is on top flight money no Championship club can afford him, and no Premier League club can afford to play him. Still he does have a long throw and it has given Moutaouakil a bit of a rest.

Lita, however, has been signed to play, I'm sure of it. Suggestions that Pardew has already realised that Gray is not the answer are a little worrying from the outlay point of view. However, in every business I've been involved the most successful are those that are both brave enough to make decisions but more importantly to admit that they have got it wrong and then set about trying to fix it. I have a concern that Gray was having a decent season with Burnley and realised that this was his last chance to sign that big contract and having done so, he might have lost a little bit of his drive. Having said that he was clearly out of form by the time he joined us and hadn't scored a goal since his brace against us on 1st December. Some players make an immediate impact, some take weeks or even months to settle. If we are in this division next season I expect Gray to be a very valuable member of the squad. If we go up, however, I suspect that he will not be good enough, but he won't be alone.

So Lita. A bit of a gamble. Clearly the Board and Pardew are refusing to give up on this season, and quite right too. I think Lita will add that cutting edge that we have been lacking in recent weeks and I am much happier with his inclusion in the squad. I think we should be looking to take the game to Preston with pace upfront. Varney and McLeod ripped Blackpool apart, and showed that we can play nice football against West Brom. Due to McLeod's lack of goals and vision he was never going to keep his place, but I think Lita and Varney could well be a different prospect. Lita hasn't come to us to secure a long term contract, he wants to play, and as Curbishley suggested in his book, on more than one occasion, hungry players with a point to prove can be very successful.

I would like to see an attacking line up on Saturday. The central defenders are safe, but I would like to see the Moutaouakil back in for Halford. The long throws are a real boost, but Tuesday we were crying out for a run down the right wing, and I think this is a game that we are going to need all of the attacking firepower we have. Youga is probably the only realistic option at left back and I would be inclined to give him another run out.

With Varney and Lita upfront it is only the midfield that leaves some difficult decisions. I like Jerome Thomas. I think he has real class. I accept that he can often fail to 'turn it on' but he would normally be guaranteed a starting place if he was fit. However, we now have two Premier League players contesting his place so I think Pardew might give Sinclair a start to see what he can offer. If Thomas can be accommodated on the other flank it is going to mean dropping one of the three that Pardew clearly rates. Ambrose is in such great goalscoring form right now that I can't see him being left out, and ZZ and Holland are very unlikely to be 'rested'.

What I don't want to see is Varney on the right of a 4-5-1 so that we can accommodate (keep happy) as many of the squad as possible. It is time to pick the best formation, then select the best players for each position. We also have ten fixtures to discover what our best eleven is before the win or bust games that will (hopefully) follow.

My heart says we will win, but my head keeps telling me that we have struggled against the teams fighting for their lives at the bottom and Preston have beaten Stoke and West Brom and drawn at Watford since the end of January.

To some degree the pressure is off now as we only need to drop less points than the bunch just behind us between now and the end of the season. For that reason I think a draw will not be a disaster, but we should be aiming to win all our remaining home games as a matter of course. I think the games at Burnley, Ipswich and Plymouth (and Wolves at home) are much more important now. They are, for me, the six pointers. I think that by the time we face West Brom at The Valley only insane fans will believe that a top two place is achievable. I'm fed up with being excited only to have my hopes dashed, so I'm now committed to the play offs. Anything better will be a bonus, and a massive surprise.

Bring on The Invincibles!

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