Charlton Athletic were last night reminded how uncomfortably tight the bottom half of the Premiership is when a fifth home defeat of the season left them in 10th position, yet only six points above the relegation places. Although they should have the quality to avoid being sucked into trouble, not much of it was on show last night and Aston Villa comfortably secured their first away win since September and first in London for almost two years.
Solid at the back and bright on the break, they were denied a rare clean sheet away from home only by Graham Stuart's late penalty. That was the first shot Peter Schmeichel had to save and he did so, but was beaten by the rebound. While Charlton now adjust their sights and glance over their shoulder, Villa can look onwards and upwards, with one of the four Champions' League places their ambitious objective. Their manager John Gregory, understandably annoyed by constant speculation about his job when the team are so well placed, said: "It'll take a monumental effort but nothing's beyond us. There's been a lot of doom and gloom around our club but this was a great all-round team performance and the scoreline should have been a lot wider."
For all their control, the visitors did not make quite enough chances for that, even after building the platform of an eighth-minute goal. Charlton's South African defender Mark Fish, who like Villa's Moroccans Mustapha Hadji and Hassan Kachloul declined an invitation to rescind his international retirement and play in the African Nations' Cup, seemed to have his mind elsewhere as he played a thoughtless ball straight to JLloyd Samuel on the left. The former Charlton junior fed Darius Vassell, now unmarked by Fish, for a shot that looped off Jorge Costa and over a stranded Dean Kiely into the net.
Although it was not as bad a start as in the previous home game when Ipswich went 2-0 ahead in five minutes the setback affected the London side's composure and their close-passing game did not function well for the rest of the first half. Worse, they conceded a second goal two minutes before the interval, finished superbly by Juan Pablo Angel after George Boateng nudged on Hadji's long ball. Having lost Luke Young to a two-footed tackle by Samuel, who was not booked, Charlton might even have conceded again a minute later when Angel was on the verge of going past Kiely as the goalkeeper did well to get a hand to the ball.
Having withstood a predictable flurry at the start of the second half, in which Jason Euell failed with a couple of half-chances, Villa were able to counter-attack sharply through Paul Merson and Hadji down the flanks and the lively Vassell through the middle. The England Under-21 striker, watched with interest by Sven Goran Eriksson, ought to have done better after receiving the benefit of an excellent advantage played by the referee in the 57th minute, but hit the side-netting.
Charlton could have done with a more physical presence to test the largely untroubled visiting defence, but the aggressive Swede Matt Svensson was not among the substitutes. The lightweight Kevin Lisbie was sent on instead and earned a late penalty for a foul by Angel, which Stuart put in at the second attempt after Schmeichel brilliantly blocked his first.
Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Kiely 4; Young 5 (Konchesky, 29, 6), Fish 4, Jorge Costa 4, Powell 5; Stuart 4, Parker 4 (Fortune, 89), Jensen 4 (Lisbie, 69, 6), Robinson 7; Euell 6, Johansson 4. Substitutes not used: Ilic (gk), Bart-Williams.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Schmeichel 7; Delaney 6, Mellberg 5, Staunton 6, Samuel 7; Hadji 7, Boateng 5, Hendrie 5 (Barry, 88), Merson 6; Vassell 7, Angel 6. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Ginola, Stone, Balaban.
Referee: R Styles (Waterlooville) 5.Reuse content