BY ALEX GRACE
Millwall’s annual second-half of the season resurgence looks to be underway.
The Lions have turned a corner since their 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest in mid January. In fact, it’s just two defeats in nine for Millwall since the turn of the year – a return of 13 points.
Saturday’s 2-1 win at Reading on Saturday, just their second in the last 14 attempts at the Madejski Stadium, told us a couple of things. There is a clinical edge coming into Millwall’s play. Two goals from four efforts on target and six goals in the last two games shows that perhaps the defensive shackles, just like national lockdown, may be about to loosen.
It also showed us that confidence is high. The Lions have come from behind to win their last two matches.
If Gary Rowett wanted to be critical of his side then he will say that they should have never have been trailing at half time. It was a fast start from Rowett’s men in Berkshire with George Evans hitting the bar early on as the hosts found it very difficult to get their passing game going. Set-pieces were proving to be useful for Millwall with Jake Cooper and Ben Thompson both going close.
Cooper won everything in the air against his former side.
Despite winning their last two games Millwall have made it hard for themselves by going behind to what can be described as two very avoidable goals. Callum Paterson’s goal for Sheffield Wednesday was awful defending and Alfa Semedo’s opener on Saturday was completely avoidable.
What has to be recognised though, is the character that Millwall showed in both games to put that behind them and respond.
Cooper and Thompson will feel they should have done better with chances presented to them, especially the latter. A free-kick came into the box which Cooper won the first contact, it landed well for Thompson but he placed his effort straight at the keeper – either side of Rafael and the Lions would have been level before the half time interval.
Despite a mostly positive first-half performance, Rowett changed things at the break. Jed Wallace and Mason Bennett were introduced as 3-5-2 became 4-2-3-1 with George Evans slotting into midfield, allowing Thompson to slot into the number 10 role.
You could see how much the goal meant to Bennett, who has been in and out of the starting line-up since his arrival in January of last season, if Millwall get him firing then they have another weapon in their arsenal heading into a packed run-in towards the end of the season.
Reading’s back four was made up of four centre-backs, meaning the half-time arrivals of Wallace and Bennett caused the defence a lot more problems as the game went on. Wallace, an unused substitute the previous weekend, looked fresh and caused problems for the makeshift home defence.
Millwall took 34 points in their final 23 games of last season. They have taken 12 points from six games since the halfway stage having taken just 26 from the first 23 games. If that return was to continue until the end of the season that would see the Lions take another 36 points – firmly in the play-off race.
Some of you may be reading this thinking eight points is a big gap to make up, but cast your mind back to 2017-18. At the same stage of the season they were 14th and 13 points off the top six. This time around they are 13th and eight off Bournemouth, who occupy that final play-off spot.
That gap could significantly reduce with Millwall now set to face the division’s bottom two clubs in the next week. Wycombe came from 2-0 down to win at Huddersfield on Saturday but remain rooted to the bottom of the table, 10 points adrift of safety. Before that though, one of Rowett’s former clubs in Birmingham City arrive in SE16 – defeat for the Blues against Luton at the weekend saw them slump to a 10th home defeat in 14 games and slip to second from bottom of the table.
They will arrive at The Den having won just one of their last 12, losing eight.
The problem for Millwall this season has been beating teams at home. The Lions have drawn nine of their 14 home games this season. Defeating teams at the bottom has often been a problem for Millwall but they have taken seven from a possible 12 points against the current bottom three.
Rowett had billed February as a crucial month in Millwall’s season. If they come away with maximum points from their remaining fixtures this month then the play-off chase is on and it could well be a very exciting end to one of the most unusual seasons that we have ever seen.
The aim at the start of the season was to challenge for the play-offs and although the first half of the campaign has made that task harder we all know that Millwall love the tag of underdogs and are certainly at their best when they are upsetting the odds.
Scott Malone. The on-loan Derby man was involved in everything good about Millwall’s attacking play. It was his pass into Tom Bradshaw which brought about Smith’s equaliser and he provided the cross for Bennett’s winner.
Mason Bennett’s looping header towards the far post that nestled perfectly in the corner to give the Lions all three points. The only thing missing was the fans and the scenes in the away end.
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