Football: Charlton in free fall

Wimbledon 2 Charlton Athletic 1

CRISIS AT Christmas? The word may be over-used, but the dictionary definition "time of acute difficulty" accurately describes Charlton Athletic's plight. Three draws followed by six defeats mean that the Premiership's unlikeliest contestants have plummeted from the top 10 to the bottom three in eight weeks.

Having now met every other team once, and been well beaten by only three of them (Manchester United, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday), there would have been a useful psychological advantage in completing the first half of the assault course without once dropping into the icy water of the relegation zone.

They were pushed there on Saturday by a combination of Blackburn's victory over the League leaders and - more painfully - the fine equalising goal by Coventry's John Aloisi, a player Charlton appeared to be first in line to sign. At Wimbledon they were so short of forwards that Steve Jones had to forage for himself and, when attacking reinforcements were necessary in the second half, the choice offered by the substitutes' bench comprised two little midfielders, a teenage full-back and a centre-half.

More worrying than all this for 7,000 visiting supporters at Selhurst Park was that for probably the first time, Charlton did not look like a Premiership side. Their manager, Alan Curbishley, put that down to attitude rather than ability and therefore chose to castigate his charges in public. "The players have caused their own problems," he said. "I've got no sympathy for them, because they threw the points away. The game was there for the taking."

That was not intended to be disrespectful to Wimbledon, whose defiance of the odds has kept them playing at the highest level ever since they first ascended there, alongside Charlton, in 1986. Notable lack of animosity between the two sets of supporters in a 19,000 crowd suggested a recognition of kindred spirits, and Wimbledon's manager, Joe Kinnear, offered a clue or two about what the Addicks needed to survive the season.

"We wanted it a bit more than they did," he said of a game of few chances. "You've got to get your players motivated to win your matches. I've got that at my club."

On Saturday, they were not at their best, but did not need to be to consolidate eighth place in the table and extend a record of only one home defeat all season. Three good goals were scored, the decisive one by the excellent Michael Hughes. The Northern Ireland international needs a hernia operation and sometimes spends four hours a day on the treatment table; he may or may not be able to manage another game at Leeds tomorrow.

Charlton have the little matter of a visit this afternoon from the champions, Arsenal, to contend with, after which Curbishley will again contemplate the financial war-chest the club has built up. Prudent or not, the increasing danger is that the war will be over before he has spent any of it.

Goals: Redfearn (29) 0-1; Euell (32) 1-1; M Hughes (50) 2-1.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell (Kimble, h- t), Thatcher; Ardley (Cort, 80), Earle, Euell, M Hughes; Leaburn, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Ekoku, Kennedy, Bakke (gk).

Charlton Athletic (4-4-1-1): Ilic; Mills (Parker, 82), Rufus, Tiler, Powell; Newton (Youds, 71), Brown, Kinsella, Robinson; Redfearn; S Jones. Substitutes not used: K Jones, Konchesky, Royce (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Tring). Bookings: Wimbledon: Thatcher, Hughes, Sullivan. Charlton: Redfearrn.

Man of the match: Hughes.

Attendance: 19,106.

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