Injuries beginning to take their toll on Charlton Athletic’s promotion challenge

COVENTRY 2
Hiwula 41 Bayliss 89
CHARLTON 1
Pratley 58

BY KEVIN NOLAN AT THE RICOH ARENA

Finally showing the harmful effects of a catalogue of catastrophic long-term injuries, the most recent of which robbed them of Joe Aribo’s midfield dynamism, Charlton were a minute away from earning a useful point unwarranted by their performance when their hearts were broken by a last-gasp winner.

They were stoically soaking up late pressure from mid-table Coventry when Luke Thomas made one last surge over the 18-yard line and picked out an unmarked Tom Bayliss near the penalty spot.

The midfielder’s well-placed low shot had just enough mustard on it to elude Jed Steer’s despairing dive and find a berth in the bottom left corner. Even the hardest of hearts must have twinged in momentary sympathy at the distress which forced the beaten visitors to their knees.

Crushed in the last throes of normal time though they were, the Addicks’ downfall could just as accurately be traced to a first half, in which ‘dreadful’ and ‘dire’ would rank among the kinder descriptions of their contribution.

Weak and passionless, they allowed, not for the first time this season, one of League One’s more moderate sides to toy with them, control almost exclusive possession of the ball and led unbiased witnesses to wonder how Charlton had won six of their last seven games, with league leaders Portsmouth among their victims.

And yet Lee Bowyer’s somnambulists were somehow within touching distance of interval sanctuary before they surrendered the lead, a fact which says as much about Coventry’s own mediocrity as about the resistance they faced.

Only four minutes of a stultifying first half remained when the Sky Blues woke up to the reality that they were facing stricken opponents.

Conor Chaplin crossed from the left and Jordy Hiwula headed simply over Steer into the top right corner. Simple as that, they discovered.

Developments in Charlton’s improved second-half performance imbued City’s opening goal with added significance.

It’s not too extravagant to suppose that had the Addicks gone in level at the break, the eventual outcome might – just might – have been different. But then, of course, we’re into ifs and ands…

There were, to be fair, occasional threats from the South Londoners, none more menacing than the gorgeous pass from Ben Reeves, which played Nicky Ajose clear of an outwitted defence.

Fatally delaying his finish as Lee Burge narrowed the angle, Ajose’s hesitation allowed the pursuing Jordan Willis’ crucial recovery tackle to snuff out the danger.

A relatively subdued Lyle Taylor was sharper with an awkward volley after Patrick Bauer nodded down Darren Pratley’s cross but Burge reacted smartly to turn his effort safely aside.

At the other end, Chaplin hit Dujon Sterling’s low centre inches wide before Luke Thomas went equally close shortly afterwards.

A free-kick struck expertly from 20 yards by Chaplin almost punished Bauer’s clumsy foul on Hiwula but Steer’s elastic reactions saved the day – temporarily, as it turned out – because Hiwula’s opener followed promptly.

The half-time replacement of the enigmatic Ajose by Karlan Grant injected badly-needed purpose, not to mention pace and power.

Grant’s turn of speed proved too much for Liam Kelly, whose solution to the problem was to hack down the flying forward from behind.

Substitute Mark Marshall’s well-flighted free-kick was nodded back from the far post by Bauer and headed past Burge by Pratley.

The equaliser briefly encouraged the Addicks with Fosu’s fierce drive forcing an alert save from Burge and Marshall’s goal-bound volley deflected unluckily over the bar. But as happened in Charlton’s last defeat at Blackpool, equality early in the second half brought false hope followed, with sickening impact, by late disillusionment.

Philosophical and forgiving, Bowyer was in no mood to come down hard on his depleted squad.

“We’re digging deep and it is tough but we’ll just put this behind us and go again against Barnsley,” he remarked.

Having reached only the halfway point in a marathon season, he knows that untold twists and turns lie in wait for every promotion contender. He also knows that cruel luck with injuries has hamstrung Charlton’s promotion charge.

They deserve credit for staying in touch with the leaders despite losing key players almost weekly. And should automatic promotion be beyond them, a fully fit squad would be tough opposition for any and all rivals when the 46-game marathon becomes a three-game play-offs sprint.

The outcome of the Addicks’ turbulent campaign promises to be settled as decisively in New Eltham’s treatment room as out on the pitch. It might pay to keep an eye on both.

Charlton (4-4-2): Steer 6, Dijksteel 5, Bauer 6, Pearce 6, Solly 6, Bielik 7 (Lapslie 87), Pratley 5, Reeves 6 (Marshall 59, 6), Ajose 4 (Grant 46, 6), Fosu 5, Taylor 6. Not used: Phillips, Hackett-Fairchild, Stevenson, Sarpong-Wiredu.

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