Exeter City 0 Charlton 1 (Green 55).
Kevin Nolan reports from St. James Park.
In football, if you can't be good, at least be lucky. It's good advice, which Charlton followed to the letter in South Devon. In squeezing past lowly Exeter City, the Addicks weren't all that good but just when they needed it most, they got lucky. And like the champions they expect to be in May, they rode that luck to three more vital points. So it turned out they were good enough.
A first half of so-so quality had drifted by almost unnoticed when, 10 minutes after the break, Danny Green moved along the right wing and crossed disappointingly into goalkeeper Artur Krysiak's catching orbit. Distracted by his near post, the big Pole succeeded only in fumbling the ball over his goalline, under modest pressure from Yann Kermorgant. Green duly claimed his third goal of the season and possession being 9/10ths of the law, may hang on to it.
Not that the visitors were undeserving of this important win. Their performance might have lacked sparkle but they had enough about them to prevail by other means. While the Grecians struggled in the defensive vice that has seen Charlton concede only 19 goals in 27 league games, a third consecutive 1-0 victory for the leaders was always likely. Organisation and discipline are part of playing well. Even Barcelona understand their tika-taka is underpinned by those frequently overlooked qualities.
So Charlton's 11th win on the road was unspectacular but soundly based on team spirit and watertight resistance. Any one of a magnificent back four could have been named man-of-the match. Behind them, Ben Hamer survived a couple of the potentially disastrous handling errors which have troubled him lately but contributed two fine second half saves as City sought an unlikely equaliser.
In midfield, the meteoric rise of Bradley Pritchard gathered pace. Owner of an enviable engine, the non-league graduate worked selflessly for the cause, snapping into tackles, stealing possession and passing sensibly. An occasional goal would round off the satisfying development of a player who, just last season, was doing his stuff in the Conference. Manager Chris Powell assures us that he has a few in his locker.
Powell might reserve his broadest smile, though, for the brief, but impressive substitute cameo provided by fit-again Dale Stephens. Recovered from injury after a three-month absence, the slim stylist showed sufficient class during a 10 minute-plus stint to remind the boss what he's been missing. Even in League One's frenetic hurly-burly, there's nothing quite like an innate ability to put a foot on the ball, pick the right pass and dictate the pace of a game. They used to call them "schemers" and no amount of trendy toffee about "operating in the hole" or "dropping in behind the strikers" devalues their importance to a team. Expect Stephens to be back in the starting line-up before very long. It'll be like having a new player.
Elsewhere, there was precious little action to describe. Commanding centre back Matt Taylor, a St. James Park alumnus, supplied the visitors' best first half effort with a nimbly executed overhead shot, which Richard Duffy alertly kicked off the line. Adventurous left back Rhoys Wiggins also got forward to force an alert save from Krysiak at his right post.
At the other end, John O'Flynn wastefully headed a Scott Golbourne cross into Hamer's hands before Danny Coles pounced on rare hesitation from Pritchard but fired left-footed over the bar.
Green's flukey goal had the effect of triggering a second half flurry of activity. Spurred into reprisal by the setback, Grecians gaffer Paul Tisdale went hell-for-leather with two attacking substitutes in Guillem Bauza and Danny Nardiello, whose knuckleheaded dismissal at The Valley in September torpedoed Exeter's chances in an eventual 2-0 defeat.
Tisdale's aggressive statement of intent almost paid instant dividends as Bauza turned sharply to draw an excellent save from Hamer. The Spaniard tried again with a glancing header but Hamer defied him for a second time; first to the rebound, Richard Logan blasted it wildly into the crowd and was probably relieved to discover that he'd been flagged offside.
A second goal was recommended but strikers Bradley Wright-Phillips (9 games) and Kermorgant (5 games) can't buy one between them at the moment. They did combine brilliantly, to be fair, with Wright-Phillips escaping down the left before delivering a peach of a centre which his French partner headed powerfully but inexplicably wide of the left post. Sums up their current plight in a way.
By now practised in the art of stretching a little a long way, the Addicks sensibly made do with what they had, efficiently mopping up City's spasmodic forays on their way to another deceptively narrow, yet relatively comfortable, victory. Their hapless victims were left to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" inflicted by Green's errant right foot. Their fate was sort of like a Grecian tragedy.
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Exeter: Krysiak, Tully, Golbourne, Duffy ( Bauza 56), Archibald-Henville, Coles, Dunne, Noble, Bennett, Taylor ( Nardiello 64), O'Flynn (Logan 56). Not used: Pidgeley, Jones.
Charlton: Hamer, Solly, Morrison, Taylor, Wiggins, Green ( Stephens 82), Hollands, Pritchard ( Haynes 89), Jackson, Wright-Phillips (Clarke 71). Not used: Sullivan, Cort.
Referee: Graham Salisbury. Attendance: 5,439.