After all the excitement of Old Trafford and the Theatre of Dreams, we return to the league stage on Saturday with a battle against Barnsley who should provide an acid test for our lingering play off ambitions.
WHERE has the season gone? It seems like only yesterday that Ben Garner's Addicks went up to Barnsley in September, gave a decent account of themselves and still managed to come away with a 3-1 defeat. Maybe that match was a microcosm of the first half of our season where we showed promise in flashes but ultimately failed to deliver the killer blows.
Twenty-five games into the 2022/23 season, the table doesn't tell any lies. We are sitting in twelfth place with thirty-one points, nine away from Saturday's opponents. Barnsley in sixth, have played a couple of games less, but if we manage to beat them, we'll narrow the gap to six points. This game is a six pointer in every sense of the word.
So, we are going to look at six key points about this match.
(1) Dean Holden has reinvigorated a team that was on the slide. This week the buzzword around the club has been one of pride and the new boss has certainly brought a sense of that back to our performances. Though they might have had most of the possession, we stayed in touch with Manchester United for 90 minutes of a cup game at Old Trafford.
(2) Holding Manchester United was no mean feat, achieved through solidity when not in possession. Thinking back to Barnsley in September and so many more games in the first half of the season, poor defending cost us. However, against Portsmouth, Lincoln and even United we have looked far more solid. This spreads confidence further up the field and that should be high after "the Lord Mayor's show" as Dean Holden called it.
(3) If last Saturday against Lincoln is any guide, the players should have the composure to keep their minds off what's gone. Like the fans who played such a massive part at Old Trafford, they've made their memories and now they move on.
(4) However, Barnsley will be no soft touch. Aside from a famous 6-0 hammering a decade ago, we've always run each other close in league encounters. To an even greater extent than us, they've been a bit of a yoyo club in recent times, not just in slipping between divisions, but also in coming 5th in the Championship in 2021 and then bottom in 2022. This season they are back in contention for promotion, with play-off experience standing them in good stead.
(5) Fittingly for a six pointer, one to watch out for in Barnsley's squad is their No 6, captain Mads Andersen. After serving a suspension in last Sunday's 3-0 FA Cup defeat to Derby, the Dane is likely to return to action at The Valley. Further up the field, (as even his name suggests), James Norwood is a former Crystal Palace youth player, who some may remember as the scorer of the last goal in our forgettable 2021/22 season, away at Ipswich. Also they have recently completed the loan signing of young striker Max Watters from Cardiff City so he's likely to feature at some stage on Saturday too.
(6) On the whole then, after our recent run of form against teams that are more mid-table, this could be a real test of where we are. Barnsley were the form side in the division before Christmas but after blips against Bolton (league) and Derby (cup), maybe we are meeting them at a good time. Hopefully after Saturday they'll have passed on the baton of the form side to us.
Even though we've had a taste of the high life at Old Trafford, we'll not be too greedy. We'll settle for three points out of this six pointer, which could well determine our travels in the league table for the rest of the season.