Millwall were held to a goalless draw at home to a Birmingham City side now unbeaten in 11 as the Lions failed to find the net for the fourth time in six games.
Millwall returned to The Den after a short hiatus in the north-west of England with their play-off push teetering on the brink after only one win in seven league games.
After victory away to Preston North End and defeat to Wigan Athletic on Saturday, Gary Rowett made only one change to the side with Mason Bennett coming in for his home debut in place of Tom Bradshaw.
Birmingham arrived in south London full of confidence, unbeaten in 11 and with two consecutive draws at home to promotion-chasers Brentford and Sheffield Wednesday.
Pep Clotet made only one change to his in-form side, with Harlee Dean returning to captain the side and Caolan Boyd-Munce moving to the bench.
The game initially went with form as Birmingham went close with only a minute on the clock. Scott Hogan, in search of his fifth goal in six appearances, poked the ball agonisingly wide of Bartosz Białkowski’s right-hand post after a mix-up in the Millwall defence.
Millwall quickly regained their composure and nearly went ahead only six minutes later as Jude Bellingham narrowly avoided turning the ball into his own net from five yards. Jed Wallace also forced a spectacular diving save from Lee Camp from six yards in the 11th minute.
Bennett and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson went close for the hosts with blocked chances inside the box on the half hour mark. Whilst Ivan Sunjic shot wide from 18 yards for the Blues in a first half that petered out into mediocrity with both sides struggling to sustain any sort of attacking pressure.
The second half showed more attacking promise and Birmingham thought they had taken the lead soon after the restart. Kristian Pedersen hit the ball into the net on the turn from 8 yards but referee David Webb had blown for a foul by Dean only a second prior.
In the 61st minute, Camp was drawn into another diving save as Jayson Molumby tried his luck from 20 yards. With a deflection, the ball looked to be spinning into the bottom corner, but Camp stretched out a strong right hand to tip the ball wide for a corner.
Three minutes later and Camp was again at his acrobatic best. A pin-point Mahlon Romeo cross was met by a leaping Bodvarsson, whose header back across goal was spectacularly palmed wide by Camp.
Millwall went close again with only 13 minutes left as Wallace and Romeo linked up on the right hand-side – not for the first time. The cross was just beyond the reach of substitute Bradshaw, much to the despair of the expectant home crowd, however Millwall would not be deterred.
The Lions continued to flow forward through Wallace and Romeo, firing balls into the box with abandonment. However, Birmingham held strong to leave Millwall six points off the play-off places with 11 games to play.
Missing Tom Bradshaw
With only 63 minutes on the clock, Millwall had managed only two shots on target. Rowett’s Lions were devoid of ideas and increasingly reliant on their nine corners thus far for any real glimpse of goal.
Bradshaw was then brought on for Bennett and the game changed. Suddenly Birmingham’s defence was stretched.
Bodvarsson and Jed Wallace found more space as Bradshaw drew two players with his runs beyond the Blues’ defence. Romeo had more opportunity to attack and overlap, Ryan Woods had more attacking options to choose from.
This was no more evident than in the 77th minute as Jed Wallace played a well-weighted through-ball to an overlapping Romeo in the Birmingham box. Crossing the ball first time, Romeo sought out an unmarked Bradshaw but it evaded the lunging Millwall number nine by a matter of inches.
Whilst Bradshaw managed only 18 touches and 10 passes in his 27 minutes plus added time on the pitch, it was his movement off the ball that made the all important difference to Millwall’s set-up.
For all his endeavour, Bennett struggled. He was not alone. Without Bradshaw – or anyone up front with pace, for that matter – Birmingham’s back-four were rarely tested.
Whilst Millwall didn’t alter their formation with his introduction, Bradshaw opened up the game with his speed and intent. He was willing to hang on the last defender, looking for through balls, and eager to be a nuisance.
Ultimately, Millwall were unable to break the deadlock, but Bradshaw showed that the Lions are capable of far more than what they showed for large parts of this game.
Rowett is the first to acknowledge Millwall’s weaknesses. When playing against an opposition happy to sit back and counter-attack, the Lions have only string to their bow: set-pieces.
It is well-documented that Millwall have scored the majority of their goals from set-pieces. 21 to be exact, including penalties. The Lions have scored only once from a counter-attack all season and sit bottom of the league table for goals from open play.
Millwall are, of course, not prolific in front of goal. They sit 22nd in the table for goals scored, having managed only 40 goals, ahead of Middlesborough and Wigan, who sat 21st and 22nd in the league table respectively, before tonight.
Millwall have only posed a minimal threat in front of goal, managing fewer than four shots on target per game, with a total of 131 all season – 15th in the league and sit 21st in the table for chances created (283).
Clotet and Birmingham City had done their homework.
The Blues set-up in a rigid 4-4-2 with one of Lukas Jutkiewicz or Hogan dropping deeper without the ball to support the midfield. Millwall’s attack were blunted before they could get going, and without any pace or movement up-front for the majority of the game, the Birmingham defence kept the Lions to only 3 shots on target over the 90 minutes.
After the game Rowett preferred to focus on the positives: "We got into some good positions and just couldn't find that final bit of quality. We changed the system twice in the game, we've thrown more forwards on and we tried to do everything we could to win the game.
"Again, sometimes games like this are just decided by one bit of quality. I didn't think we could find it.”
With fellow play-off hopefuls Bristol City and Nottingham Forest in the next two games, Millwall will have to find that quality and fast if they are to have any chance of making the top six this season.