BY DAN MARSH at the Abbey Stadium
Millwall kicked off the 2022/23 campaign in style last weekend with a comprehensive schooling of Stoke City – but unfortunately, Saturday’s euphoria was short lived.
The Lions were taught a lesson by League One opposition at the Abbey Stadium, as Cambridge sent the visitors crashing out of the Carabao Cup, just days after their dazzling display against the Potters.
In the grand scheme of things, a premature exit from the League Cup isn’t exactly an unmitigated disaster for Millwall – or an unexpected one.
The Lions – who topped the Championship rankings after the first round of league fixtures – have a pretty wretched record in the competition and have often used the Carabao Cup as a platform for squad players to top up minutes in recent years, so a barnstorming run in the tournament was probably never on the cards.
But even so, Millwall would have headed to Cambridgeshire with aspirations of keeping their momentum rolling at the very least – instead, they will now head to Sheffield United on Saturday off the back of a lacklustre showing; and without a trio of key men.
In fairness, it’s the latter that will concern Millwall the most.
As alluded to, a heavily-changed side struggling in the early stages of this competition is nothing new, and should not overshadow what was a highly polished performance against Stoke.
However, Gary Rowett will not relish the fact that he will head to Yorkshire with diminished numbers.
In hindsight, the tone for the evening was set by Tom Bradshaw, who injured himself with a wayward strike in the early knockings of Tuesday night’s cup clash.
Although the extent of his issue is currently unclear, all signs point to the Lions striker being unavailable for Saturday’s trip to Bramall Lane.
If Bradshaw is unable to feature against the Blades, then he will join George Honeyman on the sidelines.
The former Hull man has made a strong early impression on fans with his all-action displays, but was given his marching orders for two bookable offences.
Rowett hinted earlier this week that injecting more energy and endeavour into the squad after the departure of Jed Wallace was seen as key to improving the Lions’ woeful away form – he will now have to navigate one of the toughest trips of the season without one of the players who would have no doubt played a pivotal role in doing so.
With Zian Flemming also set to be missing for the next couple of weeks with an MCL issue, all of a sudden the strength in depth that had been championed just days ago is now set to be put to the test.
With that in mind, perhaps the most concerning aspect of this surprise reverse was the fact that, barring Mason Bennett, very few players made the most of their chance to make a case for a starting spot against the Blades.
Quality was thin on the ground against a Cambridge side who booked their spot in the second round courtesy of a sweet first-time strike from Liam O’Neil in the 59th minute.
The Lions – who made six changes from the side that comfortably dispatched Stoke – failed to adequately worry Will Mannion in the home goal in their bid to restore parity, either.
Isaac Olaofe profited from Bradshaw’s misfortune when he was introduced for the stricken striker early on, but he was unable to mark his senior bow for the Lions with a goal.
He spurned a golden chance when put through on goal in the final third of the match, just minutes before he saw a header loop off the crossbar.
Even though, Millwall have recruited astutely in the transfer market, Tuesday night was another reminder that the Londoners are still light on attacking options; particularly when you factor in that the majority of the Lions current forward men have a chequered injury history.
With that in mind, Olaofe could remain in SE16 in the short-term after a couple of fruitful stints on loan at Sutton.
But it would be unfair to bank on the academy graduate delivering the goods on a consistent basis at Championship level just now.
Millwall and Rowett still have plenty of time to cap a fine summer’s work in the transfer market, but it remains to be seen if losing the likes of Bradshaw and Flemming for a brief period between now and September will accelerate any plans.
Flemming’s absence particularly rankles. Tuesday night’s Carabao clash would have been the perfect opportunity to hand the Dutchman some substantial first-team minutes after his cameo appearance against Stoke.
The Lions will already be hoping that they are not set for another campaign of wretched luck after they were plagued by a never-ending list of ailments last term.
In spite of that, Millwall showed commendable character to take their play-off bid to the final minutes of the season.
Although the Londoners will be hoping for some better luck, the Lions do, at least, appear to be well-equipped to go one further this season after strengthening across the board – something that one bad result doesn’t change.
But the fallout of Tuesday night’s match, rather than the result itself, has left Millwall’s new-look squad with a stern test ahead of them at Bramall Lane this weekend, as the Lions bid to shake off their perennial tag of being slow-starters.
Isaac Olaofe rippled the side netting after a surging run at the start of the second half for Millwall.
Mason Bennett. Looked a cut above on a night where the majority of his teammates disappointed.
Pictures: Brian Tonks
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.