BY ALEX GRACE
After three successive wins and just one goal conceded in that run, last Saturday lunchtime’s defeat at the hands of Swansea City was perhaps a reality check of where Millwall are at.
Their faint play-off hopes may almost be extinguished with the Lions now 10 points behind sixth-placed Bournemouth with only 15 points left to play for. They have given it a good go but they have left their late rally just a little bit too late.
Manager Gary Rowett admitted his charges are a good side but lack those one of two players to make them a really good side. Should he make the right additions come the summer then Millwall will be one of the main contenders for a place in the play-offs next term. While, initially there will be disappointment that this season looks to have ended with the Lions falling just short, it has been relatively successful. Considering a run of from that saw the Lions win just two of 17 games between the start of November and the end of January, the fact they had made a late charge was even more impressive. Had that poor run not happened then I’m pretty sure the Lions would be bang in the race for promotion alongside Swansea.
Steve Cooper’s side got in front and then never looked back. Andre Ayew’s sweet strike really was the turning point. The worst possible time to concede, just 20 seconds to go in first half stoppage time, it was always hard to see a way back for Rowett’s men from that moment on especially against a team who are known for their game management.
The Lions boss could well look at Swansea as a template for how his side can move forward. They scraped into the play-offs on the last day of last season, thanks to a huge goal swing that saw them overtake Nottingham Forest but they have once again improved, bringing in the talent needed to condense their goals against column.
Like Millwall they are tough to beat, they have the third best defence in the Championship with just 31 goals conceded, goalkeeper Freddie Woodman has also kept 19 clean sheets in 39 outings.
Defence is not Millwall’s concern but without the rock of Shaun Hutchinson – sidelined due to injury – they look a lot weaker in that area. Gary Rowett admitted after the win at Stoke that the former Fulham centre-back is not likely to play again this season – meaning Millwall need to find a solution. Alex Pearce has stood in for Hutchinson in the last two games but his confidence looks to have taken a hit since the 3-2 defeat at QPR.
The club captain’s form this season has been called into question by some of the fanbase following his role in the goals at QPR and Stoke with many calling for George Evans to move back into the back three.
An important decision over Pearce’s future is due to be made in the coming weeks. There is no question over his leadership qualities, particularly off the pitch, or the respect he commands in the dressing room. Unfortunately, it now looks as if Championship level football is just a step too far. The former Derby centre-back can do a job when balls come into him directly, like we saw against Ivan Toney when Brentford made the trip to SE16 back in September. But, when playing against someone with clever movement like Jamal Lowe it becomes tough for the 31-year-old.
Lowe has been a target for Millwall under both Rowett and Neil Harris. Saturday’s shift showed why. Lowe may have been on a long barren spell before this contest but he took his two goals with aplomb. The first, finishing off a lovely combination with the veteran Wayne Routledge and the second a finish of a true striker, high and powerful into the roof of the net leaving Bart Bialkowski with no chance.
One key stat that Millwall will need to change going into next season is the amount of points they have dropped from winning positions. They have earned 18 from losing positions this season but have dropped 13 points from winning positions – which would have seen them on 71 points, level with Barnsley in fifth place.
The Lions and the Swans are similar in many ways, both hard to beat, both have very good defences and both have scored similar amounts of goals. The main difference has been that clinical striker. Ayew and Lowe are on double figures for the season and have taken the majority of chances that have fallen their way. Swansea have won 21 games this term and 19 of those have come when they’ve scored the first goal, showing just how good they are at game management and how crucial the first goal is a Championship match.
Once they got in front at The Den they never looked like losing that lead. The closest Millwall came to breaching the visitors’ defence after that was a Jake Cooper header early in the second half that hit the base of the post. The Swansea defence managed to nullify the threat from Mason Bennett and Jed Wallace – something that most teams have found hard in recent months.
Jed Wallace has done his bit but he needs more assistance, the Lions’ top scorer has nine goals this season. Mason Bennett has had a productive second half of the campaign since moving to a central position but he sits three behind Wallace on six. The difference between Millwall and the rest of the top six is that potent goalscorer, Every side above them in the table has someone on double figures – fix that and Millwall could well go one better next season.
The academy product was positive in every move and is forging a good understanding with Jed Wallace on the right handside.
Jake Cooper’s towering header from a great Scott Malone delivery, that hit the base of the post.
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