Taylor 54 pen, 72 Vetokele 70
LUTON TOWN 1
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE VALLEY
Move over Luton, the longest unbeaten run in League One now belongs to Charlton Athletic.
The Hatters had been on a mad
28-game streak without a loss, powering them to the brink of the Championship. But if they were to hit a speedbump, then it looked as if it could be in SE7.
Not only did the Addicks come into this match on the back of a 10-game undefeated run but Luton were missing leading scorer James Collins, Kazenga Lualua and Danny Hylton.
And Charlton, despite having the disadvantage of playing in midweek unlike their opponents, finished far stronger down the stretch.
Charlton ended Saturday afternoon by extending their hugely impressive unbeaten run at The Valley to 15 matches.
What’s more, their record in South London against their top-six rivals is stellar too. Luton joined Portsmouth, Doncaster and Barnsley in losing there. Only Sunderland have managed to collect a point.
The fact that Mick Harford’s side had to taste the sharp tang of defeat for the first time in what must have seemed like an eternity was not unexpected.
Despite Charlton’s cracking form, they still might not record a top-four finish.
That’s got to be highly desirable, as it would mean the second leg of a play-off semi-final being on home turf. And when you’ve been as good as they have at getting results at The Valley, that is likely to be a sizeable boost in their prospects of going at least one step further than last season and reaching Wembley.
The Addicks are one of just 11 teams who have not played at the national stadium since it was rebuilt. The only clubs of similar stature to be in the same boat are Ipswich, Forest and Blackburn.
If the play-offs started now then Lee Bowyer’s side would be heavily fancied. But there are still four fixtures to go – and if they can take maximum points then there is still that chance it could be enough for automatic promotion.
It didn’t all go Charlton’s way at the weekend – but they have got that extra fortitude to push through.
Harry Cornick’s 15th-minute goal prevented them chalking up a fifth clean sheet and was the first time they had conceded in 431 minutes – just under five hours. And they needed Dillon Phillips to pull off an excellent save to keep out George Moncur’s deflected strike just a few moments later.
If it had gone to 2-0, then maybe that would have been it and Luton would have marched on.
Instead Charlton found a way back into the contest.
Lyle Taylor looked as if he was being held in the box before his shot came back off the woodwork.
And referee Gavin Ward only showed yellow to Luton keeper James Shea, who came tearing off his line to take out Igor Vetokele on the edge of the box. Ward ruled it only worth a booking as the Charlton number 14 had already made contact with the ball – his chipped attempt drifting just wide.
The Addicks’ equaliser came from the penalty spot – and it was definitely the softest-looking of their appeals on the day.
Jonny Williams seemed to have a strong claim just two minutes into the second half as he went down under Jack Stacey’s challenge. But Ward was more impressed by Taylor’s fall. Luton boss Mick Harford had some validity in calling the award of the spot-kick a “total disgrace”.
Taylor produced a slow walk up before sending the ball down the middle, Shea going to his left.
And from that point on, there only looked to be one winner.
Vetokele’s header from Josh Cullen’s cross just flashed past the right upright. Taylor toppled to the turf in frustration.
But Charlton would make the big breakthrough with 20 minutes to go.
The Addicks midfield is so strong, especially with excellent loanees like Krystian Bielik and Cullen in there. The intelligent and busy Cullen, a bundle of inventive energy, gets through so much work both on and off the ball.
And Bielik’s importance is huge too. The on-loan Arsenal man reads the game so astutely and he pounced on George Moncur’s indecision – striding purposefully forward before finding Vetokele, who slotted across Shea.
Charlton’s midfield press once again led to the third goal.
Jonny Williams blocked Stacey’s clearance and Vetokele’s resultant cross was poked home on the stretch by Taylor.
The striker’s double puts him on 21 goals for the 2018-19 season.
If Karlan Grant had not been sold to Huddersfield in the January transfer window then there is every reason to think that he would have been on a similar kind of total.
But the positive is that Vetokele is getting sharper from his run in the side.
Charlton are strong in every department. The fact they have surpassed the previous campaign’s total with matches to spare underlines that they have upgraded in every department.
The Voice of The Valley fanzine’s latest front cover talked about how the club has not spent four years in England’s third tier since 1929.
This might be Charlton’s best chance to get promotion – at the third time of asking – because any further austerity cuts by owner Roland Duchatelet would make the task harder.
Charlton (4-4-2): Phillips 9, Solly 8, Bauer 8, Sarr 8, Purrington 8, Bielik 9 (Pratley 88), Cullen 9, Aribo 8, Williams 8 (Dijksteel 90), Taylor 9, Vetokele 8 (Lapslie 76). Not used: Maxwell, Pearce, Reeves, Parker.