Charlton might still end up at Wembley but it surely won’t be at the end of May after their maddening slump in League One form continued at the Mornflake Stadium on Wednesday night.
The Addicks had little margin for error in their pursuit of the play-off chasing clubs. But three successive league defeats has left them 14 points behind sixth-placed Oxford.
A play-off place isn’t mathematically impossible. But the gap to make up now really does look insurmountable.
If Charlton are to play under the Wembley arch and see it lit up in red-and-white again, then the EFL Trophy is set to be the prize at stake and not a place in the Championship. And to be saying that was early as the middle of January is hugely disappointing.
The Addicks had a bad combination in Cheshire. They lacked a clinical touch in the final third and failed to convince with their defending down the other end.
Charlton’s three-man central defence were unable to subdue veteran striker Chris Porter or the more mobile Chris Long.
Craig MacGillivray missed the match due to his partner going into labour. His replacement Stephen Henderson endured a difficult evening.
He failed to hold or push Mikael Mandrom’s low strike out to his right and Oliver Finney eagerly pounced on the loose ball to put the struggling hosts – who had shipped eight goals in their previous two matches – into a 38th-minute lead.
Worse was to come.
Henderson seemed fortunate not to concede a penalty as he went to ground attempting to shut down Long. But moments later he was in no man’s land as Mandron escaped Charlton’s flimsy attempts at marking to glance in Tom Lowery’s corner in first-half stoppage time.
Charlton’s lack of conviction extended to the opposite end of the pitch. Elliot Lee’s free-kick was spilled by Dave Richards but none of Johnnie Jackson’s players were following in quickly enough to punish the lapse.
Washington also had a good chance soon after the second half started but his close-range header from a deep Diallang Jaiyesimi cross was straight at the Crewe goalkeeper.
The Northern Ireland international was at least finding scoring positions and although he was once again denied by Richards, this time Mason Burstow looped the loose ball into the net.
Conor Washington drove a left-footed attempt at Richards after a rare incisive pass by the Addicks from substitute Albie Morgan.
Charlton thought they had a leveller with 13 seconds left of the additional six minutes of added time.
Once again it was Morgan with the cross and Burstow chested into the path of Lee, the Luton loanee’s shot taking a deflection to loop up and then clip off the bar and down over the goal-line.
Lee’s celebrations were cut short by an offside flag with replays showing Jonathan Leko, stood next to Richards, was the culprit.
It summed up referee Robert Lewis’ poor performance, littered with inconsistent or just plain wrong calls, that he debated his decision – surrounded by players from both sides – with his assistant for more than four minutes.
If the boot was on the other foot, Jackson would have wanted the goal struck off.
The bottom line is that Charlton made hard work of what looked to be one of their easier away assignments.
Instead the Railwaymen eased their own drop fears a touch and shunted the Addicks on to the siding rail at a time when they need to be an express train.
The last thing envisaged before this campaign started is that Charlton would be further away from mounting a promotion challenge than in the 2020-21 season. But they have 11 points fewer than at the same stage of the previous campaign.
Mason Burstow. His desire to be first to the loose ball after Conor Washington’s shot was parried sparked hopes of a late comeback.
Burstow ticking off another milestone in his career with his first league goal.
PICTURES: KYLE ANDREWS
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