I have written about Millwall’s chances of reaching the Championship top-six ending a couple of times already and been made to look a fool, as every time they have managed to get back into it, but now it really is over.
The brave battle that Millwall have put in throughout the season and the way they have dug in over the last few weeks has been brilliant to watch, but they finally ran out of steam in Saturday’s 4-3 loss at QPR.
The Lions had only conceded four goals away from home in 2020 prior to Saturday and the defensive structure and solidarity that has been the base of this play-off push crumbled when it was needed most, against a team that had only scored three times since the restart.
A big part of Millwall’s play-off push in 2018 was continuity, Neil Harris tried to make the minimum amount of changes as possible each week and successor Gary Rowett named an unchanged side at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.
Millwall made a scrappy start to the game and then suffered the setback of Mason Bennett going down with a hamstring strain.
Replacement Jon Dadi Bodvarsson had Millwall’s best chance of the half. Shane Ferguson’s deep cross was headed on to the post by the Iceland international.
Bennett has been plagued by injury trouble since his arrival on loan from Derby in January. It was the second time in five games that the 24-year-old has been forced off with injury.
Should Millwall make his loan deal permanent in the summer, and with a full pre-season behind him, he could well be a big feature for Rowett’s side next season.
Bart Bialkowski had to be alert to make a fine double stop. Firstly, to keep out Ilias Chair’s left-footed curling effort from the edge of the box. Then, just moments later he had to keep out a powerful effort from Luke Amos.
The Lions regrouped during the drinks break but were unable to make it through to the half-time interval unscathed with Rangers going ahead a minute before the break. It was a goal that Rowett felt his side shouldn’t be conceding.
Ebere Eze, released by Millwall as a teenager, delivered an inswinging corner that was met first by Yoann Barbet at the near post. His powerful header was parried by Bialkowski, with Conor Masterson more alert than Jake Cooper to turn the ball into the net.
With Cardiff and Swansea both winning it meant Millwall had to go for it. Mahlon Romeo was replaced at the break by Matt Smith as Millwall changed system and went to a 4-4-2 formation with Shaun Hutchinson moving to right-back.
The change in system had an immediate impact. Jed Wallace’s cross to the far post was turned home by substitute Smith against his former club. Millwall were brimming with confidence and Jed Wallace went close just a minute later but his shot was saved by Joe Lumley.
Rangers re-took the lead just four minutes after Smith’s equaliser. Sloppy defending from Millwall left Ryan Manning in too much space outside the box. He took aim towards the far post and the ball bounced horribly in front of Bialkowski, who in turn was unable to keep it out of the net. A devastating blow to the Lions so soon after getting themselves back level in the game.
Millwall were on the rocks at this stage. The defensive stability that Millwall have had away from home in 2020 appeared to vanish when they needed it most. Manning went close again, striking the top of the crossbar. Chair should have made it 3-1 but from just 10 yards out manage to slice his shot horribly wide as Millwall continued to be let off the hook.
It was then a mixture of Bialkowski and Pearce that prevented Millwall from falling further behind. The keeper saved from Luke Amos before his follow-up was blocked brilliantly by the Lions captain.
Hutchison’s move to right-back was a gamble that didn’t pay off as QPR’s third and fourth goals came down that side side. Eze added Rangers’ third goal, sliding the ball under Bialkowski into the far bottom corner.
The Lions had two goals ruled out for offside. The first came when Pearce turned in Connor Mahoney’s cross at the back post, but the Lions skipper was correctly flagged offside.
Jed Wallace’s corner was headed in brilliantly by Hutchinson into the far corner, leaving Lumley with no chance.
Just as Millwall had forced their way back into the game they found themselves two goals behind once again in the 73rd minute.
Millwall were again exposed down their right. Dominic Ball outpaced Hutchinson and when Pearce came across it meant there was too much space for substitute Todd Kane who headed in QPR’s fourth with his first touch.
Millwall did come again. Substitute Jayson Molumby scored his first Lions goal in what is likely to be one of his final appearances with the Irishman due back at Brighton after Wednesday’s fixture.
It was a nery finish for the Hoops as Millwall again had the ball in the net. Mahoney’s cross was headed in by Hutchinson, but the defender was judged to have been in an offside position even though replays suggested it may have been the wrong call.
There is plenty to suggest that Millwall should be able to have another crack at a top-six challenge next season.
Millwall (5-2-3): Bialkowski 7, Hutchinson 6, Cooper 6, Pearce 5, Romeo 6 (Smith 45, 7), Leonard 5 (Molumby 6), Woods 6, Ferguson 6, J Wallace 7, Bennett (Bodvarsson 11, 6), Bradshaw 5 (Mahoney 57, 6). Not used: Steele, M Wallace, Thompson, Mitchell.
PICTURES BY BRIAN TONKS
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