Millwall were unable to capitalise on late chances as their play-off hopes were dealt a blow after a score-draw with Swansea City at The Den.
Story of the match
Millwall came into the game at the Den looking for their first league double over Swansea City since 1984/85 and to reignite their Championship play-off push.
After a lacklustre return to action following the forced hiatus, Millwall had returned just one point from their previous two matches, with only one win in their last six league games.
For the visit of Swansea, Gary Rowett was buoyed by a full squad to choose from and made only one change to the Millwall side that drew 0-0 with Barnsley at the weekend, with Ryan Woods replacing Jayson Molumby in midfield.
Swansea arrived in South London with their play-off hopes also teetering on a knife-edge, just one point and one place above Millwall in tenth.
After defeat at home to relegation-strugglers Luton Town on Saturday, Head coach, Steve Cooper made three changes to the starting line-up with Kyle Naughton, George Byers and Yan Dhanda coming into the side, whilst Cooper was without winger Jordon Garrick after his red card on Saturday.
It was the away side who started the fastest at the Den.
With less than five minutes on the clock, Millwall could count themselves fortunate to still have 11-men on the pitch as captain, Shaun Hutchinson caught a flying Rhian Brewster on the heel, as the Liverpool loanee looked to sprint beyond the Millwall defence.
Hutchinson was relieved to see a yellow card brandished by Referee, James Linington and Dhanda was unable to capitalise on the free-kick from 30 yards.
Ten minutes later and Swansea were inches away from taking the lead. Conor Gallagher had space on the edge of the Millwall box to let fly, but Woods reacted quickly to dive in front of the ball, only to see the ball deflect narrowly wide of Bartosz Białkowski’s right-hand post.
Millwall grew into the game after that, with Murray Wallace heading wide from a Jed Wallace free-kick.
In the 21st minute, Millwall performed a smash and grab, manufactured and finished by Mason Bennett.
After performing a half-pitch press, Mahlon Romeo made a valuable interception to release Bennett. Finding Jed Wallace in space on the right, Millwall’s number 7 got his tenth assist of the campaign, squaring the ball to Bennett, six yards out for the Millwall striker’s first goal for the club.
Five minutes later and Swansea thought they had equalised.
Brewster found space at the far post for Swansea and looked to have done enough as the ball trickled passed Białkowski but Jake Cooper was alert to the danger and made an excellent scooping clearance on the goal line.
On the half hour mark, Jed Wallace rounded Freddie Woodman in the Swansea goal, but unable to turn in the open goal from a tight angle, with the ball deflected wide by Ben Wilmot for a Millwall corner.
The second half continued in similar fashion as Millwall put pressure on the Swansea defence. However, it was Swansea who created the first chance in the 49th minutes as Gallagher tested Białkowski from 25-yards, but with little threat to the scoreline.
In the 52nd minute, Millwall were inches from extending their lead. A deep free-kick looked to drop to Tom Bradshaw in the six-yard box but a last ditch tackle from Andre Ayew, prevented the tap-in and kept the deficit to just one.
Millwall continued the onslaught on Woodman’s goal with Connor Mahoney, Shane Ferguson and Jed Wallace all stretching the Swansea defence but to no avail.
Swansea grew into the half and equalised in the 65th minute through a delightful free-kick from Brewster after Hutchinson made a lazy challenge on Gallagher 20 yards out, centre of goal.
Brewster lifted the ball over a jumping Millwall wall and left Białkowski with little chance as the ball was tipped on to the bar, which cruelly deflected back off the underside of the crossbar, rebounding in off the unfortunate Millwall goalkeeper for an own goal.
In the 73rd minute, Millwall were screaming for a potential penalty on Tom Bradshaw as he was tripped by Ben Cabango whilst running through on goal. However, Linington was unmoved as he waved play on, much to the despair of Millwall manager, Rowett
Two minutes later and Rowett again had his head in his hands as Murray Wallace diverted Jed Wallace’s corner wide from four yards at the back post when he really should have hit the target.
In the 87th minute, Murray Wallace was inches away again from taking the lead as he saw struck the post from another Jed Wallace corner but that was to be it for either side as they saw both their play-off hopes peter out with a point a-piece.
Takeaways from the match
A good season or a great season?
Football is a game of fine margins; the width of a post, the finger tips of a goalkeeper’s gloves, the toe of a lunging striker.
The margins were ever more apparent today as Millwall’s season was defined by ‘what might have been’.
Millwall have enjoyed many highlights already this season. From Matt Smith’s late winner against neighbours Charlton Athletic, to the victory over Championship leaders, Leeds United at the Den, away wins at Swansea City and Nottingham Forest, and not to forget the run of one defeat in 13 at the turn of the year.
Millwall have performed at a consistently high standard this season, but the play-offs look to be just beyond the Lions' grasp.
Much like the ball that narrowly evaded Tom Bradshaw’s lunge in the 52nd minute, or the equaliser that rebounded off the crossbar, the penalties that never were, or the Murray Wallace header that bounced back off the post, the margins between one and three points are fine in the Championship.
Five points off the sixth play-off spot with six games to play might just be too much for the Lions now and whilst the south Londoners will be disappointed, they can be pleased with how they have performed this truncated season.
Ryan Woods: South London’s Paul Scholes?
Since arriving on loan from Stoke City in January of this year, Ryan Woods has not set South London alight. With no goals and no assists to his name – Woods hasn’t actually scored in three years – it is easy to look towards Jed Wallace, Matt Smith or Connor Mahoney as more productive contributors to Millwall’s promotion push.
However, Woods has played in only three defeats since joining and has offered Gary Rowett and Millwall something different; an element of control and composure in an otherwise frantic counter-attacking, set-piece oriented side.
With a pass success rate of almost 80% at more than 35 passes a game, Woods will rarely be found in the opposition box. In fact, he averages less than a shot, nor a single dribble a game. But Woods’ value is in his distribution.
Against Swansea, Woods managed another 50 touches for 40 passes at 85% accuracy, not losing the ball once, and making two defensive interceptions.
Woods doesn’t do anything fancy, but he is always available as an outlet for his peers when little else is available. His ability to switch the play, dictate the tempo of the game, and stand guard in midfield gives Rowett’s side a sense of calm that is otherwise missing.
Unfortunately for Millwall, Woods’ contribution will likely not be enough to sustain a play-off push and after the game, a reflective Gary Rowett conceded that Millwall’s play-off hopes are diminishing,
“I think we can still make it, in this division two or three wins changes the whole outlook very quickly.
“At the moment my thought process is, we are tinged with still trying to get something out of this season and also learning some things for next season. That will be a real challenge because we want both.
“We’ve done everything we could to win the game and, until we’re out of it, we’ll keep fighting.”
If Millwall are to have any hope of making a late push for the play-offs, victory at Charlton Athletic on Friday may be their last chance.