AFC WIMBLEDON 1
Sarr 51 Vetokele 90+1
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE CHERRY RED RECORDS STADIUM
Charlton Athletic fans don’t want to be making any holiday plans just yet for the middle or end of May, because there is an excellent chance of their side reaching the play-offs for a second successive season.
The only date that is confirmed for those matches is the final – May 26.
But the odds of the Addicks having one of the semi-final slots was hugely boosted after they ended a month-long run without a victory by overturning AFC Wimbledon for the first time at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.
As this match ticked over into second-half stoppage time, a draw was not looking a disaster for Charlton when you factored in that seventh-placed Peterborough were losing.
So Igor Vetokele’s first league goal for the Addicks since January 2016 made it an outstanding afternoon for Lee Bowyer’s side. They are seven points clear of the Posh and have a vastly superior goal difference.
Charlton are eight points better off than after they had played 34 matches in the 2017-18 campaign. Back then they were eighth in the table and their hopes of a top-six finish were in the balance. Now it is theirs to throw away.
The average total needed to reach the play-offs in the last decade has been 74 points. That has been enough to clinch a place in the last seven seasons. So, based on that projection, 15 points are needed from 12 matches – that isn’t overly demanding.
The two goalscorers at the weekend came from the very last vestiges of the Addicks side which lost Championship status in 2016.
Make no mistake, Vetokele and Naby Sarr are only still around because nobody has been prepared to take their hefty wages on.
I can still remember Katrien Meire, then chief executive, telling me in the summer of 2015 that Sarr would be their most expensive outlay that season.
His start to life in SE7 was horrible, bullied and seemingly in deep shock at the physical nature of the English game – plus a lack of time and space on the ball. But if the Naby Sarr Fan Club would have struggled to have any members in his first couple of years in South London, that is no longer the case.
His emergence as a cult hero is threatening to spill over into fans’ favourite territory. Before, Sarr has been seen as an emergency option at left-back or in the centre of defence, but his recent displays mean that he is now starting on merit in the middle of the back four.
His 51st-minute goal underlined his ability to strike the ball. His left-footed free-kick was delivered with such precision that Aaron Ramsdale, whose saves kept the home side in the contest during a far more fraught second half, did not even move.
Charlton had upped their game after an insipid opening 45 minutes where all the dynamism and attacking energy came from the hosts, who did not perform like a side glued to the bottom of the League One table.
The Addicks were ponderous and sloppy in possession. Michael Folivi’s inventive close-range flick – former Addick Terell Thomas claiming the assist – gave them a deserved half-time lead.
Charlton had to improve and they did so. Lee Bowyer was sent to the stands by referee Chris Kavanagh in the 47th minute and that seemed to get the visitors firing – no doubt not wanting to make his day any worse.
It looked as if Ramsdale was going to deny them, the pick of his saves an excellent one-handed parry from Josh Cullen. The on-loan AFC Bournemouth stopper, probably Wally Downes’ best signing of the January window, also reacted smartly to repel efforts from Jonny Williams and Tariqe Fosu.
And Ramsdale also initially saved in the build-up to Vetokele’s winner in the first minute of stoppage time. He produced an instinctive block on Joe Aribo but could do nothing about Vetokele’s follow-up header.
It was an unlikely double act to appear on the scoresheet, almost akin to a Football Manager game being played by Thomas Driesen, who had been the scout used by owner Roland Duchatelet when he had his network of football clubs.
The success rate of Driesen at Charlton was not good. Jorge Teixeira, El-Hadji Ba, Zakrya Bergdich, Rod Fanni, Yun Suk-young, Marco Motta and Ricardo Vaz Te were just some of the players who came and certainly did not conquer. But there is a chance for redemption when it comes to Sarr and Vetokele.
The latter is out of contract in June, along with a sizeable chunk of the rest of the playing staff and management team. Maybe that goal can have a restorative effect on him, bringing him back to somewhere near the level he hit when terrorising Championship defences in his opening months with the South Londoners.
Charlton have a paucity of options up top if Vetokele doesn’t step up. Josh Parker sat out Saturday with a virus and Lyle Taylor was chatting to Dons staff in the tunnel afterwards wearing a protective boot.
It didn’t quite happen for Taylor on his first return to Wimbledon. In previous meetings between the two clubs he was a game-changer for the Dons.
But this time he volleyed a great chance down into the ground and over the bar in the first half before failing to hit the target with a header, no-one in a red shirt telling him he had more time on his hands to let the ball drop lower.
But Charlton still found a way to win, and that is all the matters. It is always the only thing that matters.
As we begin to approach the home straight, Bowyer’s boys don’t need to be sprinting at full pelt. They just need to keep those points ticking over at a reasonable pace and their campaign won’t be over at the start of May.
The next two fixtures – Doncaster away this Saturday followed by Portsmouth at The Valley – will be an intriguing indicator of how they shape up against potential play-off opposition.
Wimbledon (3-5-2): Ramsdale 7, Nightingale 6, Thomas 6, Kalambayi 6, Seddon 6, Wagstaff 7, Hartigan 6 (McLoughlin 63, 6), Wordsworth 6 (Barcham 80), Sibbick 7, Folivi 7 (Hanson 70, 5), Pigott 6. Not used: McDonnell, Watson, Garrett, Pinnock.
Charlton (4-2-3-1): Phillips 6, Solly 6 (Dijksteel 85), Bauer 6, Sarr 8, Purrington 6, Aribo 7, Cullen 7, Lapslie 6 (Vetokele 79), Williams 7, Taylor 7, Marshall 7 (Fosu 61, 6). Not used: Maxwell, Pearce, Reeves, Pratley.