LUTON TOWN 2
Mpanzu 19 Brown 53
BY KEVIN NOLAN AT KENILWORTH ROAD
Weakened by a lengthening litany of long-term injuries, Charlton finally betrayed signs of growing strain as they slumped to defeat against struggling Luton Town.
Down to the barest of bones, they resisted gamely enough but succumbed to a side in blooming health and unchanged from the weekend, who ruthlessly exploited their vulnerability.
Adding to the Addicks’ problems, Conor Gallagher’s fifth booking of the season disqualifies him from tomorrow’s crucial clash with Sheffield Wednesday at The Valley, which means that none of the lethal midfield trio of Gallagher, Josh Cullen and Jonny Williams, which eviscerated opposition during Charlton’s barnstorming start to the season, will be available to face the Owls.
On the bright side, 19-year-old Gallagher could clearly use a break following an ever-present run at club and international level.
After a nervous opening, during which Town’s James Collins clipped the bar, Gallagher played an important part in the early goal which encouraged brief hopes that Charlton’s unbreakable spirit might be enough to see them through.
Wresting possession from Ryan Tunnicliffe in the centre circle, he moved the ball quickly forward to Macauley Bonne, who controlled it neatly and picked the right moment to play strike partner Jonathan Leko through the inside left channel. Opening his body for a right-footed shot as James Shea left his line to narrow the angle, the West Brom loanee finished clinically into the bottom corner.
It was his fifth goal of the season -and third in consecutive games – whle the unselfish Bonne claimed a second fine assist within three days to highlight another effective stint.
If they were rattled by the setback, the Hatters were at pains to conceal their concern.
They launched an incessant wave of attacks with Izzy Brown’s free-kick skidding inches wide of a post, with Dillon Phillips an anxious onlooker. Just 12 minutes after they had fallen behind, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu evened the account by slamming an unstoppable drive beyond Phillips’ despairing dive and into the far corner.
The keeper’s impassioned protests that he had been unsighted by an offside Hatter standing squarely in his eyeline as Mpanzu’s shot screamed past him were convincing enough for the referee to consult his assistant but the goal stood. The writing was already on the wall for the depleted visitors. And what it ominously spelled out was impending disaster.
As the Addicks faltered, Collins was presented with a golden opportunity by Tom Lockyer’s error but blasted wastefully over the bar.
Gallagher’s wild lunge at Shea before the interval earned him a free weekend and Bonne headed Chris Solly’s precise cross weakly wide.
A boneshuddering block by Lockyer on Collins evened the score between them and sent his side in at the break on level terms. It took Luton just seven second-half minutes to adjust the scoreline.
Much of Town’s good work had been accomplished by Brown and it was the free-roaming midfielder who profited from a rare error by Darren Pratley and resolved the ensuing scramble by detonating a ripsnorting drive past the helpless Phillips.
The suddenly besieged keeper was lucky that Andrew Shinnie’s effort rebounded harmlessly off his left upright as the Hatters sought to seal the issue.
Lee Bowyer’s prompt introduction of 20-year-old Alfie Doughty, so impressive during a brief shift against Cardiff City, to replace the blameless Naby Sarr on 58 minutes, was an indication of the thinness of his squad.
No criticism of Doughty is intended, but it was hardly the manager’s intention to use him at this stage of the season.
Doughty joined hugely impressive 19-year-old Albie Morgan in an infusion of youth which was completed by the 85th-minute appearance of Josh Davison, not to mention the presence on the bench of midfielder James Vennings, only recently turned 19.
Stepping up to plug the gap left by the wretchedly unlucky Cullen, Morgan’s mature contribution provided a particularly bright spot on a desperately disappointing evening. Spraying accurate passes to each flank, he quarterbacked Charlton’s second-half improvement, which might have earned them a late equaliser had Gallagher’s long-range potshot, which left Shea standing, not struck the foot of the keeper’s left post.
Only the most flinthearted observer would have begrudged them a share of the points, if only for the injury nightmare they have faced down.
But the uncomfortable truth is that they have failed to win any of their last six games and the sick list shows no sign of diminishing in the short run. Notoriously short on sentiment, football deals only in results and Charlton have been on the short end of a series of narrow defeats which threaten their security in the Championship.
Wednesday on Saturday is beginning to look like a line in the sand.
Charlton (3-5-2): Phillips 6, Lockyer 6, Pearce 6, Sarr 6 (Doughty 58,6), Solly 6, Pratley 6, Gallagher 6, Morgan 7, Purrington 6 (Davison 85), Leko 7, Bonne 7. Not used: Maynard-Brewer, Matthews, Oshilaja, Vennings.