SHEFF WED 1
BY KEVIN NOLAN AT HILLSBOROUGH
Scant seconds away from adding a crucial point to the notional total of 50 popularly supposed to guarantee immunity from relegation, Charlton were floored by a sickening sucker punch which made a mockery of their stouthearted efforts to survive a second-half battering from Sheffield Wednesday.
Called upon to repel one last free-kick, harshly awarded for an alleged foul on massive Kosovan Atdhe Nuhiu, they froze as Tom Lees nodded on Liam Palmer’s delivery for Steven Fletcher to head a heartbreaking matchwinner past Dillon Phillips.
Incredibly Lee Bowyer’s braves left Hillsborough pointless and, with their rivals elsewhere finding form at inconveniently the right time, precariously placed above the bottom three places.
Fletcher’s late breakthrough in the fifth of four officially added minutes was particularly hard on Phillips, whose string of outstanding second-half saves, one or two of them bordering on sensational, seemed to have secured a more than useful result for his desperate side.
Tough too on Lyle Taylor, who crowned a typically combative performance by unleashing a ferocious half volley which threatened to dislodge Cameron Dawson’s crossbar with the keeper no more than an interested witness to its potency.
Taylor’s terrfic effort was admittedly a rare bright spot as the embattled Addicks formed a resolute rearguard to cope with Wednesday’s mounting pressure.
As a spectacle, the war of attriition made ugly watching but the growing threat of relegation means entertainment runs a poor second to expediency. Survival means eveything.
Deprived of Naby Sarr’s talismanic services due to a hopefully minor calf strain, Bowyer shuffled his pack, switched to a 3-5-2 formation and named Jason Pearce as big Naby’s replacement.
Macauley Bonne was also rewarded for his lively substitute stint against Luton with his first start since December, Andre Green dropping to the bench.
Tackling tenaciously and covering responsibly one for another, the visitors handled a quiet first half competently and retired at the break in good shape.
There was one heart-in-mouth moment when Jacob Murphy’s raking crossfield pass found Fernando Forestieri at the far post and the feisty forward’s instant lay-off was awkwardly headed off target by Kieran Lee.
Phillips was otherwise untroubled but that was to change drastically.
During a second-half blitz, Charlton’s fine young keeper came into his own.
He began his virtuoso performance by diving full length to divert Forestieri’s low drive, added another alert save from the persistent Owl, then left his line alertly to confront Fletcher as he ran on to Barry Bannan’s shrewd through pass and courageously blocked the veteran striker’s close range effort.
But his twisting reaction in conjuring Fletcher’s point-blank header to safety when it seemed momentarily to have beaten him on its way towards the top left corner was his piece-de-resistance.
Routine by comparison was Phillips’ sprawling reaction to keep out Morgan Fox’s low drive, which the former Addick struck with his weaker right foot.
Phillips’ brilliance and Taylor’s mercurial contributions, including a sharply struck shot from Alfie Doughty’s clever lay-off which was goalbound until Tom Lees blocked it almost at source, seemed to have seen Charlton over the line to the point they deserved. Then referee Oliver Langford’s contentious decision to penalise them for a non-existent foul gave them one too many problems to solve.
The Addicks will remain in Yorkshire to prepare for Saturday’s head-to-head clash with Huddersfield Town, always promising to be a critical fixture but one which now epitomises the six-pointer of myth and legend.
On the same number of points and separated only by Charlton’s superior goal difference, the John Smith’s Stadium will be no place for the fainthearted.
Only supporters with sound tickers and access to defibrillators are advised to attend.
Charlton (3-5-2): Phillips 9, Matthews 7, Lockyer 7, Pearce 6, Oshilaja 6, Davis 6, Cullen 7, Oztumer 6 (Lapslie 56, 6), Doughty 6. Bonne 7 (Green 74), Taylor 8. Not used: Amos, Purrington, McGeady, Smith, Hemed.
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