Watford were held to a goalless draw as Millwall came away with a deserved point after a resolute defensive display in south London in which both sides struck the post.
Story of the match
After a weekend to forget in FA Cup action, Millwall returned to Sky Bet Championship duty with the visit of third-placed Watford to south London.
Looking for their first home win in over four months in any competition and only their second home league win since defeating Luton Town on New Year's Day in 2020, Millwall made several changes to the side that lost 3-0 at home to Bristol City at the weekend. In came Jed Wallace, Shaun Hutchinson, Kenneth Zohore, Scott Malone, Ryan Woods, Danny McNamara and new signing Maikel Kieftenbeld for his debut, with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Shaun Williams moved to the bench.
Arriving at The Den on the back of three consecutive victories and eyeing up an automatic promotion place, the Hornets made just one change to the side that defeated Stoke City on Friday night. Andre Gray replaced Joao Pedro who had to settle for a place on the bench alongside Philip Zinckernagel and Manchester United loanee James Garner. Daniel Bachmann continued his run in goal with Ben Foster out with a broken finger.
As the rain poured down on an already sodden pitch, both side struggled in the opening exchanges to create chances.
Whilst Watford had over 65% of possession inside the first 15 minutes, they only had an overhit cross from Kiko Femenia in the eighth minute to show for it, the cross sailing agonisingly over Troy Deeney’s head on the edge of the six yard box.
Watford persevered with their full-pitch press and it nearly paid dividends in the 15th minute as Gray capitalised on an interception to skate free of the Millwall defence. Gray tried to pull the ball back to Deeney who was in a better striking position centre of goal but played the ball behind the Watford captain as a great chance went begging for the Hornets.
Millwall had to wait until the half hour mark for their first opportunity as Zohore was inches away from getting on the end of a McNamara cross from the right after good link up play with Wallace and moments later, just like London buses, Wallace created another opening, firing straight at Bachmann from 20 yards.
Whilst the action in the first 30 minutes was few and far between, the game soon opened up and Watford were a post-width away from breaking the deadlock in the 34th minute.
A Tom Cleverley free-kick from 30 yards caused chaos in the Millwall box as it received a slight deflection from a stray Hutchinson leg on the way through and bounced off the post to safety with a relieved Martosz Białkowski beaten. A few seconds later Gray then fired over from ten yards after a smart chest down from Deeney.
Watford were knocking at the door and continued to apply pressure as the first half came to a close, again going close in the 44th minute as Ismaila Sarr looked to nutmeg Białkowski from a tight angle eight yards out but the Millwall goalkeeper got down well to smother the chance.
It looked to be the final action of the first half but Millwall left it late to create their best chance in added time.
Woods delivered an inch-perfect cross into an unmarked Jake Cooper in the Watford box from 30 yards. 12 yards out, Cooper headed back across goal and the ball skidded off the muddy turf onto the post with Bachmann stranded. Less than a minute later Cooper thought he had then scored the opener as he headed in at the back-post but was flagged for offside as the Referee brought a frantic final ten minutes of the first half to a close.
The rain continued to pour down in Bermondsey as the second half commenced and it seemed to dampen the spirits of both sides as neither side were able to build on the late pressure of the first half.
It took until the 55th minute for Watford to register their first attempt of the second half as Deeney again linked up with Gray but the latter saw his effort on the edge of the six yard box deflect wide for a corner.
Watford went close again in the 69th minute as Nathaniel Chalobah stung the gloves of Białkowski from distance. Deeney subsequently forced the Millwall goalkeeper to tip the rebound wide with an audacious overhead effort from 12 yards but still Watford were unable to break the deadlock.
With time running out and Millwall putting eleven men behind the ball, it took until the 84th minute for Watford to create their next opening.
Sarr latched on to the end of a dangerous Philip Zinckernagel corner swung into the back post. Sarr had a few efforts to scramble the ball into the net but desperate Millwall defending prevented the Senegalese winger from snatching victory at the death.
It proved to be the final action of a drab goalless draw that left Millwall only four points ahead of Derby County in 21st as the Hornets moved into the second automatic promotion place, one point ahead of Swansea City.
Takeaways from the match
The Zinckernagel effect
For 65 minutes Watford failed to post an effort on goal from outside the box, nor lift their heat map beyond the halfway line. With the substitution of Zinckernagel and Joao Pedro, Watford suddenly had a recognised wide-man on the left to balance Sarr’s dominance on the right and a youthful exuberance up-front to stretch the Millwall defence.
In doing so, Watford were less dependent on Sarr than they had been in the first half and it opened up space across the pitch for the Hornets to exploit.
Within five minutes of Zinckernagel’s introduction, first the midfielder himself, then Chalobah and Deeney were all attempting shots from distance. The midfield substitution seemed to release the shackles of Watford’s creativity. Unfortunately, the change came too little too late to effect the result.
Lacking edge and energy
Whilst nothing can replace the atmosphere created by fans at The Den, Millwall are at their best when their backs are up against the wall and they’re in a metaphorical fight.
Whether real or imagined, Millwall successfully created that feeling with officiating decisions seemingly not going their way and the game turning feisty in the latter stages of the first half. In doing so, Millwall were able to capitalise on the ill-feeling between the two sides and control the tempo of the game, creating openings for Cooper and Wallace.
Unfortunately, without the impetus of fans, The Den is not the intimidating environment it used to be and Millwall pose half the threat without fans. Unable to find that energy and resolve of the final stages in the first half, Millwall were constantly chasing the game and missing an edge to their game that turns draws into wins and openings into goals.
When Watford were in need of impetus, the Danish winger provided it and was one of the few bright sparks in an otherwise stale goalless affair in Bermondsey.
With the introduction of Watford’s new January signing with fewer than thirty minutes remaining, Watford’s number seven stretched the play, demonstrated a rare fearlessness to try his luck from outside the box and generally looked the most creative player on the pitch during his brief cameo.
After the game, Xisco Muñoz remained upbeat about his side's performance,
I think it was a very good performance in which we controlled the ball very well in both halves and created chances to score.
This is good momentum for us and I don't want to make excuses but today was also difficult for our guys. They gave everything, though, so to them I say congratulations - they are winners to me.
Winners in spirit, if not on the pitch, but if Xisco Muñoz wishes to continue the momentum he will be hard-pressed to not start his new signing, Zinckernagel at home to Queens Park Rangers a week on Monday as Watford look to extend their unbeaten run to five games.
Millwall, on the other hand, need to find a spark from somewhere, anywhere if they are to have any possibility of avoiding a season of mediocrity.