Sunday, January 30, 2005

Into the 5th Round, but still 25-1 for the Cup

For the first time in as long as I dare to remember, we find ourselves in the Fifth Round despite what sounded like a very humbling game against an impressive Yeovil side. It was nice to hear that the Charlton fans did what they do best, and showed knowledge and respect of clubs other than their own, staying behind to give a deserved ovation to their lower league opponents. I guess if there are two things to take away from the match: 1. we won (in previous seasons we'd be out or heading to the West Country) making it four wins in a row with eleven goals in the process; 2. we can genuinely (Monday's draw permitting) start thinking this just could be 1947 all over again. The bookies don't seem to rate our chances, or in Betfair's case, other punters as we are still 25-1 which sounds like great value though a dodgy draw on Monday could see that rapidly push out. With the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man Utd all taking the Cup seriously and almost certain to qualify for Europe by other means, dare we say that we could be just three wins from Europe?? We can't continue to rely on highly fortunate draws and at some point are going to have to win a tie which we are not expected to. But the winning habit is hard to shake off, and eight wins from eleven matches suggests that we have momentum in both League and Cup.

On a different note, the transfer window closes imminently and unless Curbs and Richard Murray have another last minute surprise (or surprises) up their sleeves, it seems we will complete the season with the existing squad. We have been continually linked with Michael Dawson but it seems any hopes of signing Andy Reid are over (though frankly with Jerome Thomas' emergence this season, it is likely we cooled on him a long time ago). Less reputable websites have us linked with the likes of Louis Saha and Harry Kewell, but this is fanciful stuff. As I mentioned before, with Premiership football virtually assured for next year, the sensible thing to do would be to wait until the summer when some ambitious Coca-Cola league clubs will find they did not fulfil their goals, and once again have to balance the books. It is at this point that we might find Dawson, Darren Bent et al joining the club.

Monday, January 24, 2005

You have to hand it to Curbs

Whilst preparing to shelter from the blizzards that sweeped across the US North-East, I was warmed up enormously by the commentary from Goodison that sounded like a traditional gutsy Charlton away performance, and a world away from the capitulations to Bolton and Man City in the same part of the world. Sometimes in football (and elsewhere in life), you have to swallow your pride and admit you were wrong and certainly this fan (as can be seen from earlier posts) felt Curbs had perhaps become a little stale, rushed his summer signings etc.. Yet here we are again, with just 14 games to go (many of them which, on paper at least, seem emminently winnable) sitting in 7th place just 7 points away from a stuttering Everton side that we have taken six points from in three weeks.

What changed? The turning point would appear to be the Spurs game when we switched to playing just one up front, a formation which occasionally has made us look sterile going forward, but has certainly made us far harder to beat. However, individual performances over the past dozen games or so have clearly also played a part, not least those of Jerome Thomas who emerged from the shadows to become the maverick in the otherwise solid and conventional midfield five. El Karkouri's goals have obviously been a delight to watch and you have to admire his uncanny ability to get the fans onside by scoring all his goals at home. However, his defensive ability has been impressive too, and it is no coincidence that Jon Fortune has looked more assured with such a solid partner alongside him. Shaun Bartlett is plainly not a natural goalscorer, but he does his job well and whilst I sometimes cringe at Curbs' comments about his defensive abilities, his work-rate is not in question. There are other players too whose consistent performances risk us taking them for granted, particularly Luke Young, Herminator, Deano and Matt Holland. Even Kishishev, whose value-add to the side was never entirely clear to me previously, has suddenly morphed into an all-action defensive midfielder, picking up loose balls and passing intelligently. Of the new signings, Danny Murphy looks a different person from the sheepish player moping around the pitch earlier in the season. There remain improvements to come (we hope) from Rommedahl, Jeffers and Hughes but each has gone about their football with the right attitude (no Craig Bellamy antics here) and will hopefully prove to be successful signings.

Certain squad members risk becoming forgotten men.....Chris Perry (my player of the year in 03/04), Mark Fish (likely to leave in the summer?), Graham Stuart (wholehearted but not good enough any more), Jason Euell (not quite good enough up front, not quite good enough in midfield), Kevin Lisbie (injured admittedly, but someone who could play wide right in a midfield five)........oh, and of course that Danish keeper who's meant to be quite good.

With just a few days left in the transfer window, and with most clubs unable or unwilling to do much business, it seems unlikely that we will do anything major and frankly I believe this would be the right thing to do. Greater value will be found in the summer, and with the club virtually safe from relegation already (it seems we can say this earlier and earlier each season), the squad looks large enough to cope.

The sole question thus remains: how far can we go from here? No fans will be getting carried away with memories of previous soporific end-of-season run-ins. However, one also feels that this season represents a fantastic opportunity to potentially qualify for Europe, not least because Liverpool and Newcastle (generally considered the next best after the top three), have looked out-of-sorts all season. I expect Everton to come back to the pack within weeks and hence it's a question of how much belief Curbs can instil in the players that a) we deserve to be where we are, and b) we can push on further. The next four fixtures are huge - if we take just a couple of points, it could be 03/04 all over again. However, if we can avoid defeat at Newcastle and 'Boro, and perhaps pick up a win against either Spurs or Liverpool, then suddenly things could really open up (I've got butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it).

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Lacklustre start to 2005

Rising somewhat hungover after some New Years Eve celebrations in Times Square, I saw the Arsenal team selection and had the same optimism that I had back on the same date in 2001 when we ended up 1-0 victors thanks to Deano's penalty save from Vivas. The reason? From memory, the Arsenal side on that day was weakened by injury and they had that lumbering blonde haired defender in the side, whose name escapes me. Fast forward four years, and there's a similar sense of vulnerability about the Arsenal team.....Hoyte? Clichy? Fabregas? Almunia? And to be fair, for the first thirty minutes or so, we looked fairly comfortable and capable of springing another surprise. However, the first goal was soft to say the least, a ball given away lazily in midfield, and Ljungberg allowed to turn and shoot despite having three defenders standing directly behind him. Unfortunately, it was the first of three soft goals and despite the new Valley hero's bullet free-kick, we surrendered three points which at half time we should have felt fairly confident of securing.

Any momentum that TEK's goal gave us was quickly broken by Ljungberg's second goal which was well-worked but he was given too much time to shoot and Kiely failed to close down the angle satisfactorily. Curbs' comments at half-time about the 'passive' offside rule sounded hollow - good luck to Arsenal for taking advantage of the rule as it stands. It may be 'impossible' to defend against, but it sounded like Curbs was looking for excuses. The third goal was dreadful and effectively ended the game - Jonathan Fortune's header went straight into the path of Van Persie who finished clinically.

A somewhat anti-climatic start to the season, and not the uplifting hangover cure many fans were seeking. However, in less than 48 hours there's a chance to repair the damage at an improving Blackburn where we secured a great win last season. It'll be interesting to see if Curbs makes his first team changes for several weeks in light of five games in a fortnight and the tired second half performance against the Gunners.