BY KEVIN NOLAN AT THE VALLEY
Charlton’s successful pre-season campaign ended in an impressive victory over Championship visitors Norwich City, which nipped at the heels of a creditable midweek draw with Brighton. Both results should send them up to Sunderland at the weekend primed and ready to deal with the real thing.
An improvised line-up, anchored by a solid back four, a hard-grafting midfield and inspired by the late heroics of Dillon Phillips, proved strong enough to withstand a late battering from the Canaries, during which Phillips produced three saves of equal brilliance.
Still with much to learn about pass-picking and distribution, the 23-year-old goalkeeper’s forte is keeping the ball out of his net, a prime requisite oddly devalued in this era of sweeper-goalies. His kicking can be coached; the raw instincts which lead him to anticipate the power and trajectory of goalbound shots is already in his DNA. He’s first and foremost a goalkeeper – the clue lies in the job description – not a midfield schemer. Appropriate slack must be cut.
Phillips was one of six starters who graduated from Charlton’s academy; three more warmed the bench, statistics which place into context the recent salute by Brighton fans to solitary home-grown product Lewis Dunk as “one of our own”. Charlton are second to none in producing home-grown talent. The problem is that Brighton have not only developed but hung on to Dunk for Chris Hughton’s use, whereas Lee Bowyer is expected to wave through outstanding prospects on their way to bigger and better things. It doesn’t pay for the manager – or the fans – to get too fond of bright young sparks.
Mixing it up for the Addicks on Saturday was another product off the New Eltham assembly line. Just turned 22, Joe Aribo continues to grow in stature, an improving combination of skill and workrate, capable of box-to-box excellence. Unafraid to put his foot in, Aribo helped the more experienced Jake Forster-Caskey to wrest midfield control from the Championship visitors, a superiority they enjoyed until fatigue had its say. The final quarter hour was spent in one-way traffic en route to Charlton’s goal – which is where the defiant Phillips came in.
In a rat-a-tat sequence, the stopper twisted in midair to parry substitute Todd Cantwell’s dipping drive past his left post; from Emi Buendia’s ensuing right wing corner, Ben Godfrey’s bullet header was fingertipped against the bar by the springheeled keeper; Cantwell was again victimised when he venomously returned Christoph Zimmerman’s blocked header, only for Phillips to take off and divert his drive to safety. His tour-de-force was marred only by one or two alarming cock-ups with the ball at his feet.
Charlton’s 59th minute winner was another example of the large part played by luck in the outcome of so many games. The low left-footed drive with which Forster-Caskey ended a meandering solo run was a decent enough effort but would hardly have troubled Tim Krul until a telling deflection off the lunging Grant Hanley left him disastrously wrong-footed. What seemed from some angles to be a goalkeeping howler turned out to be just another of the frequent flukes which separate winners from losers at every level.
Unbeaten during pre-season, meanwhile, Bowyer is entitled to be encouraged by the cohesion shown by his developing squad. In front of the vastly promising Phillips, centre-backs Jason Pearce and Patrick Bauer are ruthless stoppers to whom defending is a far from ugly art form. Right-back Chris Solly had his hands initially full with Cuban Onel Hernandez – who was unfortunate to have a deliciously curled first-half finish ruled out by a marginal offside call – but called on his old pro’s nous to gradually subdue the winger’s threat. On the opposite flank, dependable Lewis Page hardly put a foot wrong.
Central midfield, in Aribo and Forster-Caskey, picks itself while, on the flanks, the youthful George Lapslie and experienced Mark Marshall worked selflessly. New man Darren Pratley might feature at the Stadium of Light. None of which dispels the suspicion that Charlton will again struggle to score. Although Karlan Grant clipped a post early on, neither he nor Reece Hackett-Fairchild unduly inconvenienced Norwich.
Josh Magennis has moved on, new signings Lyle Taylor and Tariqe Fosu are almost inevitably injured, Nicky Ajose seems almost surplus to requirements. Pickings again promise to be slim.
Charlton: Phillips, Solly, Bauer, Pearce, Page, Lapslie (Pratley 46), Forster-Caskey, Aribo, Marshall, Hackett-Fairchild (Ajose 75), Grant (Maloney 83). Not used: Maynard-Brewer, Sarr, Mascoll.
PICTURES BY KEITH GILLARD
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