Millwall travelled the short distance back across south-east London with a smile as an 80th minute strike from Jake Cooper gave Gary Rowett’s side renewed hope of making the Championship play-offs.
Story of the match
Millwall arrived at The Valley for the South-East London derby unbeaten in 8,882 days against their neighbours and looking to reignite their Championship play-off push after a stuttering re-start.
With two draws and a defeat since the return of Championship football, the Lions’ limped into their fourth game in 13 days.
Rowett found himself limited in attacking options, without Mason Bennett (hip/ back), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (knee injury) and Aiden O’Brien (muscle strain) sidelined. Millwall therefore made four changes to the side that drew with Swansea City on Tuesday, with Matt Smith, Alex Pearce, Jayson Molumby and Ryan Leanard coming into the starting line-up.
Lee Bowyer similarly rang the changes for the Addicks, with seven changes from the midweek draw to Cardiff City. Charlton reverted to the side which beat Hull City and Queens Park Rangers since the restart, with Macauley Bonne and Tomer Hemed amongst those returning to the starting line-up
The hosts created two early chances through Albie Morgan and Hemed but could find no way through the Millwall defence, with the latter only able to find the grateful arms of Bartosz Białkowski after getting beyond the visitors’ back-four.
It took 13 minutes for the Lions to have their first sight at goal.
After winning a foul halfway inside the Charlton half, Jed Wallace fired the free-kick deep into the box for a leaping Smith. Under significant pressure, Smith was unable to keep his header down from six yards as the Lions’ first big chance went begging.
It was, however, just the beginning of a Millwall onslaught.
After winning four corners in quick succession, Shaun Hutchinson found Cooper in the opposition box with 23 minutes on the clock, but Cooper was only able to find the clutches of Dillon Phillips in the Charlton goal.
Opportunities came thick and fast after that for the visitors as the Charlton defence was tested from every angle. Millwall dominated possession and peppered the Charlton back four with crosses for a ten minute spell but still could not breach the Charlton defence.
Against the run of play, the best chance of the half fell to Charlton in the 33rd minute as Macauley Bonne found himself one-on-one with Białkowski after a fortuitous sliding tackle-cum-through-ball split the Millwall defence. The Millwall goalkeeper, however, made a strong save to deny the Addicks’ striker.
Millwall responded swiftly through Jed Wallace after a delightful delivery from Ryan Woods left the former with a golden opportunity to open the scoring. Unfortunately Wallace sough to lift the ball over an onrushing Phillips, but the Addicks keep stood talk to push the ball wide for a corner.
Six minutes later and Charlton thought they had finally broken the deadlock as Hemed swivelled Woods in the Millwall box but saw his effort drift agonisingly wide from eight yards to leave the score goalless.
The final chance of the first half again fell to the hosts as Aiden Mcgeady was allowed to carry the ball nearly forty yards before seeing his effort from the edge of the box deflected wide for a corner.
The second period didn’t come to life until the 63rd minute when Deji Oshilaja saw his cross headed narrowly wide by Hemed, however it signalled a dominant spell by the hosts.
Two minutes later, Adam Matthews was on hand this time to supply Hemed with the outside of his boot but another header drifted wide of Białkowski’s right-hand post.
Charlton continued their dominance with substitute Chuks Aneke testing Białkowski from a tight angle only a matter of minutes later as Millwall struggled to repel the Charlton attack.
In the 67th minute, Charlton’s third corner of the game saw Darren Pratley head over at the back-post. After which, Millwall finally woke up.
In the 73rd minute, substitute Tom Bradshaw was inches away from latching on to a sumptuous low cross from Murray Wallace from the left.
However, the Lions didn’t have to wait much longer for their next chance, which Cooper took with aplomb.
As the clock ticked passed 80 minutes, Mahoney’s fierce strike was spilled by Phillips into the path of an on-rushing Cooper. Under pressure, Cooper fired the ball into the roof of the net, sending a desperate Millwall sideline into raptures having mounted a late smash and grab to rejuvenate their play-off push,
The defeat left the hosts with another season in the shadow of their south-east London rivals as Millwall stretched their unbeaten run over Charlton Athletic to 8,883 days and counting.
Takeaways from the match
Strength in depth:
Before the game, Rowett had not tried to hide his plans for the trip to Charlton, making it clear that changes were inevitable after three games in a week.
”I think I'll have to make changes… I’m going to have to give one or two players an opportunity” and opportunities he did.
Out came the injured Bennett and in came Woods, having already scored 12 goals this season and playing up-front alone, alongside Molumby and Leonard in midfield and Pearce captaining the side from defence.
On the surface, Millwall’s squad looks think on the ground even by Championship standards. However, the quality has not dropped and Millwall keep on winning.
Whilst injuries forced Rowett’s hand this evening, he was still able to field a squad with Bradshaw on the bench, alongside Shane Ferguson, Shaun Williams, Connor Mahoney and Ben Thompson as creative and attacking options off the bench. All of which have contributed 12 goals and 9 assists in a side that has only managed 48 goals all season.
Tonight, it was substitute Mahoney’s fierce strike that forced the fumble from Phillips, reemphasising the strength in depth Millwall do have.
Finding the next level:
Defensively, Rowett can have no qualms with personnel. Having conceded only 44 goals so far this season, Millwall boast the fifth best defence in the league. However, unlike their opposition, Millwall’s defence is as much an attacking threat, as it is a defensive brick wall.
The towering Cooper and the imposing Hutchinson are a test for any defence from set-pieces and are in no small part responsible for Millwall’s 18 goals from set-pieces, ably supported by Mahlon Romeo and Murray Wallace.
However, it was Cooper’s goal from open play that proved the difference this evening and was the seventh by a Millwall defender this season in a side that has only had 11 scorers.
It is in attack that Millwall need to find the ingredients to sustain a promotion-push.
Only Wallace has more than four assists this season, with ten, whilst three players: Wallace, Smith and Bradshaw, have been responsible for 30 of Millwall’s 48 goals, the sixth lowest record in the league.
Millwall’s reliance on Wallace and defensive goal-scoring contributions were evident once more away at Charlton but the attacking deficiencies are solvable.
Whilst Millwall have been able to rely on a few stand-out attacking players so far, if the Lions’ are to sustain a promotion push, they will need to find additional attacking options in the transfer market this summer.
After the game, the Lions boss acknowledged his sides’ shortcomings, saying that Millwall are still short of where they would like to be:
“we're 3 or 4 players short of where we want to be”
“First and foremost, our aim was to turn a team that was in and around the bottom into one that consistently challenges at the top end.”
Of the play-off push, Rowett was bullish,
“Listen we’re two points off it as we stand, so we’re right back in it,”
“Ultimately it’s up to the teams tomorrow, mainly Cardiff at the moment in that hotspot.
“But we’ve got to make sure we keep getting results to put the pressure on.
With victories like tonight, Millwall are keeping the pressure on, and as long as they do, their fans can keep dreaming of the Premier League.