BY RICHARD CAWLEY
It’s always hard to gauge a club’s prospects off the back of just one or two performances. Win well and optimism abounds. Lose and the doubts begin to creep in.
Tuesday night saw Millwall put on a confident display against Luton Town. You wouldn’t call it a cruise, but it was largely comfortable.
And from the moment that Martin Cranie’s own goal nudged the Lions in front it was game over.
The visitors, deprived of striker James Collins after a positive Covid-19 test, lacked the firepower or ideas up front to trouble an imperious Millwall backline.
Luton are ranked 15th in the division for winning aerial duels. The Lions are top of that category – and second for defensive interceptions. The best way to open them up – and it’s still tricky – is with pace and purpose. Nathan Jones’ outfit displayed neither.
While it’s too early to judge whether it will be third time lucky for Millwall in terms of reaching the Championship play-offs, there are a couple of definites.
One of those is that they have made a better start than the last two times they went mighty close to finishing in the top six.
They have 11 points – two more than the same stage of last season. In 2019-20 there had been a promising opening only for a 4-0 walloping at Fulham to be the catalyst for an eight-game winless spell which saw Neil Harris quit. And they only had five points on the board in 2017-18 but charged up the table after the turn of the year.
The Lions have built up a reputation as slow-starters – not this time. After six fixtures they are fifth.
Tomorrow they will bid to make it three successive Championship victories in a row for the first time since January 2019.
Wycombe Wanderers, Luton and Barnsley are not three of the top clubs at this level, but Millwall have often been guilty of dropping points to the lesser lights. The Tykes won
2-1 at The Den just before last Christmas.
Gary Rowett clocked up 12 months in charge on Wednesday – and you can’t help but be impressed by his work.
The SE16 side have taken 64 points from a possible 117 – including 17 clean sheets. If you spread the average points return over a 46-game season that gives you a total of 75. That would have been a fifth-placed finish last season and sixth in the one before.
If Millwall keep doing what they have been doing under Rowett then they aren’t going to be far away.
There’s also every sign that their excellent defensive record will remain.
Whether Shaun Hutchinson and Jake Cooper are the best centre-back pairing in England’s second tier would probably be disputed by fans at other clubs, but I highly doubt Rowett would swap them for anyone else at this level.
Where they need more is at the other end of the pitch and the Lions manager has tried to address that with the loan arrivals of Troy Parrott and Kenneth Zohore.
Parrott should be back after the next international break – at the latest – and had looked mustard in training before injury struck.
Zohore needs to gradually build his match sharpness after a spell of inactivity at West Brom but did make his debut late on in midweek.
But while Rowett went externally to try and boost Millwall’s goal threat, there could also be an answer that was already in his ranks. Because Connor Mahoney once again provided evidence of his quality as he took down Luton.
The former Bournemouth winger is the first to admit that he has failed to hit top form since he arrived in July 2019. There have been moments – but not enough of them.
When Mahoney is in the mood he is one of the best finishers in the Lions’ ranks. His goal in the 79th minute was proof of that.
Mahoney advanced to the edge of the Luton box before a perfectly angled low drive into the bottom right corner.
It was Mahoney’s cross which Matt Smith headed against the upright. And it was also his inswinging corner which ended up coming off Luton defender Cranie to put the hosts ahead deep into first-half stoppage time. Smith will claim it, but I don’t fancy his chances.
Mahoney can lift some of the attacking onus off Jed Wallace, who squandered a fine chance but always supplies energy, enthusiasm and nuisance factor as a bare minimum.
The Lions are around 9/1 for promotion. It could be worth a flutter.
Connor Mahoney. His best display in a Lions shirt. Showed quality and composure to create chances for himself and team-mates.
No contest – Millwall’s second goal. Ryan Leonard showed strength to hold off Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu before Mahoney arrowed the ball home in pinpoint fashion.
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