Assombalonga 68 Fletcher pen 86
BY ALEX GRACE AT THE DEN
The play-off dream looks to be fading. This was the best chance yet that Millwall had to put pressure on the teams above them in the Championship table, and in particular Cardiff City and former manager Neil Harris.
The Welsh club’s defeat at home to Blackburn on Tuesday meant that if the Lions had defeated Middlesbrough the gap to the top six would be just two points with four games to play and a favourable fixture list – on paper at least – with the likes of Hull City and Huddersfield still to play.
As most Millwall fans know though, the favourites tag has always been a burden for them. And that was the case again on Wednesday.
Lions chief Gary Rowett made two changes from the 1-0 win at Charlton last Friday but kept the same 3-5-2 system. Ben Thompson and Shaun Williams came into the side for Ryan Leonard and Jayson Molumby, who both dropped to the bench.
Millwall never really looked comfortable in the game, Middlesbrough were in control from the get go, wily ex-Crystal Palace manager Neil Warnock set his side up to frustrate the Lions and prevent them from causing any major damage to his backline. His plan worked to perfection.
Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga bullied the Millwall defence, were not able to build from the back like they did in the derby in SE7. Millwall’s midfield sat a lot deeper than perhaps they would have been expecting to do which left Matt Smith isolated up front. The big striker often had to come deep to get the ball, meaning the box was empty when Millwall did get up the pitch and needed the ball to be held up in the final third.
Millwall started slowly but forced an early fourth-minute corner, but Jed Wallace’s delivery was headed away by the first Boro defender – a sign of what was to come in the next 86 minutes. Five minutes later Marvin Johnson broke down the right-hand side and fizzed a dangerous-looking ball into the box but neither Fletcher or Assombalonga were able to get a touch on the ball to divert it past Bartosz Bialkowski in the Millwall goal.
Three minutes later, Millwall went close. Ben Thompson was found by Mahlon Romeo in the box, his shot was deflected over for a corner which Matt Smith headed over the bar. It was to be Millwall’s best chance of the first half.
On 22 minutes the visitors were calling for a penalty, Murray Wallace struggled against Djed Spence all afternoon. Spence and the Boro backroom staff were convinced he had been pulled down by the Scottish defender but nothing was given. Towards the end of the half, there was another coming together, with complaints after the game that Wallace had elbowed Spence, resulting in the former Fulham academy player breaking his nose.
The closest that the visitors went to taking the lead in the first half was on 33 minutes.
Shaun Hutchinson fouled Assombalonga around 25 yards out and Paddy McNair’s viscious strike was saved well by Bialkowski.
The game began to fizzle out in the second half and Rowett reacted with a triple substitution – bringing on Jayson Molumby, Connor Mahoney and Tom Bradshaw. It meant a change of formation with Bradshaw partnering Smith up front and Mahoney on the left of a midfield four as Millwall went 4-4-2.
It nearly had an immediate impact. Mahoney’s cross was met by the head of Smith, who forced Dejan Stojanovic into a superb save. Two minutes later and Mahoney’s shot was repelled by Stojanovic’s legs.
Boro’s opener was controversial. Fletcher looked to have clipped the heels of Jake Cooper but play continued and he squared the ball for Assombalonga to tap in.
Boro wrapped up the points with four minutes to go. Cooper tripped Fletcher and the former West Ham man gave Bialkowski no chance with his penalty.
The result leaves Millwall five points adrift of the top six. But Cardiff play Fulham and Derby in their next two games. The Rams head to Brentford tomorrow.
Should Millwall take maximum points from Hull and Blackburn, the race for sixth could be blown wide open once again.
The quick turnaround of games has not helped their cause. The Lions have a smaller squad than most in the league and are without a number of players, especially in attacking areas. Rowett’s options have been somewhat limited.
If Millwall do fail in their bid to reach the top six it must not take the shine off a good season, especially since Rowett arrived. The Lions were 16th in the table when he arrived on 15 points. He has instilled a better defensive mentality, with 12 clean sheets since he arrived at The Den.
Millwall will have to work on their record against the teams towards the bottom end of the table. They still need to play Huddersfield and Hull again but the Lions have only managed to take 16 points out of a possible 36 off the bottom six in the Championship table.
Millwall (3-5-2): Bialkowski 6, Hutchinson 5, Cooper 5, Pearce 5 (Mahoney 62, 5), M Wallace 5, Thompson 6 (Bradshaw 62, 5), Woods 5, Williams 5 (Molumby 62, 5), Romeo 6 (Mitchell 83), J Wallace 5, Smith 5 Not used: Steele, Leonard, Skalak, Burey.
PICTURES BY BRIAN TONKS
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