A solitary goal by Aiden O’Brien was enough for Millwall to defeat promotion rivals Brentford in a feisty game, a result that leaves Gary Rowett’s side only two points off sixth going into the new year.
Following a hard-fought draw away to play-off hopefuls Cardiff City only 72 hours prior, Millwall welcomed high-flying Brentford to The Den having lost only once in nine games. The point in south Wales lifted the spirits of Rowett’s side after a chastening defeat to bottom side Barnsley only a week ago.
Rowett made two changes to the side that drew to Cardiff three days before, with O’Brien and Murray Wallace returning to the starting line-up in place of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Shane Ferguson.
Brentford arrived in south London third in the league and unbeaten in four, following a 3-1 win at home to Swansea City on boxing day.
Thomas Frank named an unchanged side for the Bees’ visit to the Den, looking for their first win there since 2014 and to close the eight point gap to Leeds United in the automatic promotion places.
The game started at a frantic pace and Millwall thought they had taken an early lead.
In the third minute, Jed Wallace swung in a tantalising free-kick, 30 yards out. Murray Wallace leapt highest to send the ball into the back of the net and the Millwall faithful into raptures, but the celebrations were premature as the linesman flagged late for offside.
Millwall fans weren’t in their seats for long as the home side did take the lead only five minutes later.
This time, Jayson Molumby was the architect as he harried the Brentford defence and pressured David Raya in goal. Raya was slow to sort his feet out and Molumby lunged in front of the clearance, deflecting it to O’Brien, only 18 yards out from an empty goal.
O’Brien calmly slid the ball into the bottom right-hand corner for his third goal of the season and Millwall’s 31st of the campaign.
The Lions continued to push for a second as Mahlon Romeo and Shaun Williams found space at will. Jed Wallace and Williams both went close with efforts from distance but Brentford’s defence held strong.
Brentford grew into the game, with Algerian international Saïd Benrahma a particular thorn in the Millwall side with his quick feet and roaming role.
Bryan Mbeumo, Rico Henry and Henrik Dalsgaard all had half opportunities for Brentford as the half grew old but were unable to manufacture anything of note as Millwall held out for a 1-0 lead at half-time.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first.
The hosts pushed hard for the second goal as efforts by Tom Bradshaw and Romeo came to nothing but Brentford found their rhythm.
Ollie Watkins and Mbeumo had opportunities to equalise for the Bees but Millwall’s defence held strong, ably supported by a full-pitch press that suffocated Brentford and prevented any attacks from developing further than the Millwall halfway line.
It took until the 80th minute for Brentford to manufacture their first real chance of note.
Brentford captain Pontus Jansson rose highest and unmarked in a crowded Millwall box, but he could only send it high and wide of the goal whilst he protested, pleaded for a push, something, anything, to save his blushes.
Brentford had another golden chance to equalise seven minutes later as Millwall legs tired.
A deep cross into Watkins was knocked back into the path of an onrushing and unmarked Jan Zamburek. Eight yards out and in acres of space, Brentford’s number 31 rushed the opportunity and scuffed it wide of goal.
Even with a generous four minutes of added time, Brentford were unable to find a way through a resolute and gritty Millwall defence as the Lions held on for their first win at home since defeating Charlton Athletic in early November.
Millwall thrive as the underdogs
In the previous 11 games, Millwall have faced seven sides below them in the table, of which they have collected only eight points from a possible 18, including a defeat to Barnsley and draw at home to Wigan Athletic. Against those above them, Millwall have picked up 11 points from a possible 15, including away wins against Swansea and Bristol City.
It points to a well-known stereotype that Millwall thrive as the underdogs but struggle against the ‘lesser’ teams. In response to this perception, Rowett was in agreement:
“The reality is you cannot win every game,” said Rowett. “Every team has their own challenges. When we are the underdog we rise to the occasion, like you’d expect."
“We are a team that likes turning over the bigger teams or the teams above us. The challenge is then, like we found against Barnsley, is that the teams below, when there is a slight expectation on us, we have to find the same desire and drive off the ball as well as on the ball.”
For Millwall to push for promotion and make the play-offs this season they will have to buck the trend, but with Rowett at the helm, and performances like this in their arsenal, the Lions can mount a serious assault on the Premier league.
The unlikeliest of heroes for the opening goal and a rock in midfield for the first 45 minutes, Molumby was everywhere and anywhere for Millwall against London rivals, Brentford.
The centre-midfielder made eight recoveries, two clearances, had 50 touches, 38 passes at an accuracy of 89.5% over the 90 minutes, and made a further two interceptions.
Yet, on the surface, the Republic of Ireland under 21s captain has had a mediocre season for the Lions. No goals, no assists, and has only been part of 2 wins in his last seven appearances.
But the 20 yard-old Brighton & Hove Albion loanee has undeniable quality. With a pass success rate of 86.1% at an average of 35 passes per game for the season, Molumby is by far the highest success rate in the side and is in the top 10 players in the league. He has been a rock in Rowett’s midfield.
Speaking after the game, Molumby showed his delight at how the loan move has evolved:
“I’m really enjoying it, I’m getting a lot of the ball… I’m loving it here… it’s been better than I expected.”
However, Rowett was quick to suggest that none of the players, Molumby included, will be resting on their laurels,
“We’ve got to keep improving… it’s more about us getting better, trying to improve some aspects of our game. There’s still lots for the lads to learn in terms of how we want to play.”
On this performance, the idea of Millwall getting better and continuing to learn should be music to the ears of all fans of the club, but for their rivals, such sentiments should raise alarm bells. Millwall are a side to be reckoned with.