Predictions had never been harder to make than ahead of the Championship’s restart. After three months of inaction, all form went out the window with no crowds, new routines, new rules and limited training time for the manic, nine-game, all-or-nothing run-in.
Five teams have come through the opening couple of rounds with maximum points and two of them go head-to-head on Tuesday night.
Few could have predicted that Charlton Athletic would be one of the teams to return with such a bang. Four wins in the 25 games before the season’s suspension had seen them slip into the relegation zone for the first time all year and such form saw some write off any hope of their survival.
And yet they returned a renewed force, edging a relegation six-pointer at Hull City before another 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers saw them climb to 18th.
Cardiff City looked unlikely to make such an impact either, mainly because of the difficulty of the fixtures they faced. First league leaders Leeds United came to the Welsh capital, before the Bluebirds headed to a Preston North End side in the play-offs and with a formidable home record.
As the two sides meet at the Cardiff City Stadium, both will know that the job is not over yet. Six teams are within five points of Cardiff’s sixth place, and Charlton are only three points clear of the drop. Both can play under a little less pressure, but the stakes remain high.
Both teams have fielded the same starting XI in their opening two games of the restart and changes will be tempting as the fixtures begin to compress.
Josh Murphy could make a return for Cardiff having misses out so far with injury, while Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Lee Tomlin and Robert Glatzel will be hoping for starts after impressing off the bench thus far.
It could be a final game at the club for winger Albert Adomah, with Nottingham Forest suggesting they may not allow his loan deal to be extended to the end of the season.
Alfie Doughty and Chuks Aneke will both be pushing for a place in the Addicks’ starting line-up having contributed well as substitutes so far.
Cardiff: Smithies; Sanderson, Morrison, Nelson, Bennett; Vaulks, Bacuna; Mendez-Laing, Ralls, Tomlin; Glatzel.
Charlton: Phillips; Matthews, Lockyer, Pearce, Oshilaja; Doughty, Pratley, Cullen, Morgan; Bonne, Hemed.
What the managers have said
Cardiff manager Neil Harris was full of praise for his side after their weekend win at Preston:
“I’ve got really humble lads. They don’t get carried away. A lot of these players have been involved in the end-of-season run-in before. We’ll take one game at a time.
“It’s about concentrating on the next fixture, which for us is Charlton on Tuesday.”
Charlton have surprised many by taking six points from their two games, but their boss Lee Bowyer insisted after the defeat of QPR that there can be no let-up from his squad.
“With seven games to go there is still a lot of time left,” he said. “We’re not out of it now. We still have to focus and keep fighting for every point because this league can hurt you.
“We’ve had a good start, we’re in a good position but we have to keep fighting to the end because the most important thing for me is that we stay in this division.
“The team spirit has always been high; obviously last week’s result (winning at Hull) helped. This one will give them another lift and it is now my job to keep their feet on the ground and let them know we aren’t safe yet and we have to keep pushing and fighting for every point.”
Harris took charge for the first time when Cardiff made the trip to Charlton last November, and his side fought back from two goals down to claim a 2-2 draw.
Conor Gallagher and Jonathan Leko put the home side in control at half-time but Mendez-Laing and Tomlin gave the Bluebirds a point.
Cardiff have only won one of the past eight meetings between the two clubs, with five of those games finishing as draws.