Everything But the Goal
Whilst the weather did its best to mask the fact that we are now into the final month of this season, as I write the garden is agleam with a fresh covering of overnight snow, the atmosphere inside the Amex on Tuesday night did not. There was a palpable nervous tension in the air through-out a ninety minutes of frustration against a well drilled and tireless Charlton Athletic side. The results in the Championship from the previous weekend had largely gone in Albion’s favour and all involved with the club, fans and players alike, knew that three points from this game would be a huge stride towards securing the sought after play-off spot. Alas, it was not to be.
Albion, as one would expect from a team unbeaten at home since the turn of the year, began brightly and the game soon settled into a pattern that would be sustained for its entire duration. The midfield quintet of Bridcutt, Lua lua, Buckley, Lopez and Vicente was perhaps the most creative ever selected to start a game for the Albion and they controlled possession in the middle third but space to work in was to be a luxury commodity due to the work-rate of their Charlton counterparts. It was from set-pieces that Albion posed their most serious threat on the Charlton goal during the opening 45 minutes but unfortunately the best chances fell to defenders Upson, who forced a fine save from keeper Hamer, and Calderon, who really should have scored, from close range when a loose ball fell to him only for his shot to flash agonisingly wide of the post with the keeper rooted to the spot. Such chances were at a premium though in the opening half and Charlton would have been by far the happier of the two teams when the referee signalled the end of the opening period.
The second half began in a similar vein with Albion retaining possession and the upper hand but despite good work from Lua Lua down the left and Vicente down the middle the final ball lacked the quality and precision to open up the stout Charlton defence. This is not to say that Charlton were not a threat. A breakaway mid-way through the half saw them denied only by a fine goal-line clearance from Bridcutt with the virtually unemployed Kuszczak beaten. Vicente went close with a long range effort expertly saved by the keeper low to his right in front of a North Stand crowd already on their feet in premature celebration. Chris Powell made two changes to his side to add fresh legs to the front line and although I have already praised Charlton for their work-rate it is worthy of being repeated. They adhered to their task manfully in search of a crucial point in their battle against the drop and very nearly stole all three when a dipping 35 yard strike was acrobatically tipped behind by the big Pole in our goal. The clock ticked ever onwards, and as the early-leavers began to depart (how people can leave a game before the end with the result so precariously in the balance I’ll never know) Albion upped the tempo once more and were twice denied by the woodwork in injury time. Firstly Vicente was thwarted by the excellent Hamer who somehow managed to get something in the way of the Spaniard’s 6 yard effort and deflected the ball onto the bar and out for a corner. From that corner Greer rose highest of all among a throng of defenders but saw his header strike the inside of the post and fall to safety before being cleared. It was not to be our night. The spoils were shared and the same 11 players who had started the game for the Albion (when was the last time that happened?!) left the field disappointed that a fine and spirited performance had not yielded the precious goal that would have seen us rise to 5th in the table.
Despite only securing two points from drawn games Albion’s position in the table has improved due to the failings of their nearest rivals over the holiday period. The Championship this season boasts no outstanding side and a lack of any discernible whipping boys. The cliché that anyone can beat anyone in this division has surely never been more valid. The difference between a play-off berth, and possible promotion to the Premier League, and a relegation place boils down to four or five games either going your way or against you. Two months ago we were level with Blackburn in the table…in one month’s time there could be two divisions between us. Saturday against Leicester is now a massive fixture and one in which a victory would create some breathing space and a very real possibility that our season will be extended into mid-May and beyond.