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Millwall’s Championship return hits a flat note – but other results mean top-six hopes still strong

MILLWALL                   2
Smith 15, Bodvarsson 90+3
DERBY COUNTY           3
Sibley 27, 71, 90
BY ALEX GRACE AT THE DEN

Millwall fans had been waiting 106 days to see their team return to action and they would have been disappointed by what they saw as Louie Sibey’s treble dented the home side’s play-off hopes.

As the season made its return after the shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic it all felt very, very different. For a start there was no fans, all games are being played behind closed doors, the only ones present were the cardboard cutouts that supporters had bought. The two teams entered the pitch from separate areas at The Den.

The lack of fans led to a strange atmosphere at The Den despite the club exercising the option to pump crowd noise into the ground via the tannoy system. Lions boss Gary Rowett felt the absence of supporters played a big part in the final outcome.

Derby controlled possession from the get-go, having a total of 63 per cent. Despite this, both sides managed the same amount of shots and it was Millwall who broke through first.

Millwall v Derby County SkyBet Championship, The Den, 20 June 2020

Shane Ferguson delivered a pinpoint delivery for Matt Smith to head home. Some things just don’t change. Smith’s heading ability remains on point and one of the best weapons that Millwall have going into the final eight games of the season.

The striker picked up where he left off before the break. It is now four goals in two games for the former QPR striker to take his total for the season to an impressive 13.

You would have thought after that it would be business as usual and a normal Millwall performance would ensue – but it didn’t happen. The game fell flat and that is the point when Millwall need their fans more than most clubs. When the game goes flat the home faithful manage to drive their team on and perhaps, we wouldn’t have seen the amount of sitting off from Millwall had the fans been present inside The Den.

Millwall v Derby County SkyBet Championship, The Den, 20 June 2020
Millwall v Derby County SkyBet Championship, The Den, 20 June 2020

Warnings came from the visitors with Sibley going through and forcing Bart Bialkowski into a smart reaction stop. It was a warning that Rowett’s side failed to learn from as the energetic Sibley took the game by the scruff of the neck.

Wayne Rooney, sitting in a deep-lying midfield role, sprayed the ball about effortlessly. A striking statistic from the first half was that former Manchester United and England captain managed a total of 65 passes while Millwall managed just 90 as a team.

Derby’s equaliser came just 11 minutes after they fell behind. Sibley forced his way through the Millwall defence and put the ball past Bialkowski, who stood no chance.

That goal seemed to rock Millwall and they struggled to gain a footing in the game, perhaps the loss of the fans felt even further at this point as normally they would have given the Lions a bit of a boost after conceding.

Sibley came close again, stopped only by a superb save by Bialkowski.

That did wake the Lions up and they forced a chance of their own just before the break. Smith nutmegged Rooney and played Ryan Leonard through on goal and he was denied only by a smart save from former Charlton Athletic goalkeeper Ben Hamer.

Had that effort or the one for Smith just after the break gone in then this game could well have gone in a different direction. Smith cleverly managed to get himself in behind the Derby defence but tried to lob Ben Hamer and got it wrong.

Sibley punished the home side for those misses when he gave the visitors the lead for the first time. He combined wonderfully with Martyn Waghorn and finished well past Bialkowski. Millwall didn’t recover.

Rowett sent on Tom Bradshaw, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Connor Mahoney, Jiri Skalak and Shaun Williams in the quest to find an equaliser, but that led to their further undoing. Sibley completing his hat-trick by tucking the ball perfectly past Bialkowski as the game entered five minutes of stoppage time. Bodvarsson’s late consolation gave the Lions brief hope but Derby held on.

Rowett will be grateful for the results on Saturday afternoon that meant defeat here was not the end of the world. Preston and Bristol City both failed to win. Millwall are still only three points outside the top six.

The game did continue Millwall’s recent slump at The Den. Before the break they had failed to win on their own patch since January 20, a 2-0 victory over Reading. The run now stands at five games.

Rowett hinted that Alex Pearce could return next weekend and that Millwall may return to the 5-2-3 formation that has served them so well since the arrival of the former Derby and Stoke City boss, especially away from home.

Rowett sprung a surprise with the 4-2-3-1 formation with Ryan Leonard operating in the advanced midfielder role on his return to the side. But he failed to really get into the game, barring that one opportunity that Hamer saved well.

Saturday’s trip to Barnsley is now even bigger, the Tykes have just as much to play for as the Lions after they picked up a 1-0 at win against QPR to boost their survival hopes.

Since the restart in Germany, home advantage has slipped from 44 per cent to just 20 per cent. In the Championship on Saturday we saw just one home win compared to six away. Rowett will certainly be hoping that trend continues this weekend.

The Lions’ remaining away games look very favourable and should the advantage for away sides continue they will be confident of amassing a competitive total away from The Den.

Other results meant this was an ‘affordable’ slip up but there will not be many more that the Lions can afford to make if they are to finish the season in those play-off positions.

Millwall need to recover from this setback quickly, dust themselves down and get going again – starting at Oakwell next weekend.

Millwall (4-2-3-1); Bialkowski 6, Romeo 6, Hutchinson 5, Cooper 5, Cooper 6, M Wallace 6 (Mahoney 81), Molumby 6, Woods 5 (Williams 86), J Wallace 6 (Skalak 81), Ferguson 7, Leonard 5 (Bodvarsson 74), Smith 6 (Bradshaw 74). Not used: Muller, Steele, Brown, Mitchell.

PICTURES BY BRIAN TONKS AND KEITH GILLARD

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