NORWICH CITY 3
Stiepermann 16 Zimmermann 69 Pukki 79
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE DEN
The challenge is brutally simple for Millwall on Saturday at the Macron Stadium – drive another nail into Bolton’s coffin and give their own survival hopes a much-needed shot in the arm.
The relegation heat is firmly on the Lions after a third successive Championship defeat. Wins for Reading and Rotherham United means that the South London club are just one point above the dreaded bottom three.
In terms of the drop permutations, Ipswich are gone. Bolton are on life support and the plug is about to be pulled.
Defeat this weekend for Wanderers, gripped by financial problems which could still lead to administration and a points penalty, would mean it’s pretty much two down and one other club from the bottom six. QPR and Blackburn would need to seriously implode to be pulled into things.
Millwall’s statistics do not make for particularly pleasant reading when you park their FA Cup progression to one side.
The 3-2 win at Ipswich Town on New Year’s Day is the last time they have scored more than once in the Championship in 2019.
Top-scorer Lee Gregory has not netted in the league since December 15 – a barren spell of 12 matches. Tom Elliott and Steve Morison have one goal apiece since January 1. It’s not like I can recall any of them missing a glut of chances. Quite often it can be one genuine opportunity in a match.
In recent months the threat from the Lions has largely come from set-pieces. Certainly on Saturday it looked their most likely way to crack Norwich, with a goal-line clearance from Jake Cooper in the opening minutes and a couple of other near misses.
And Millwall’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time came from a corner kick. Shane Ferguson’s low delivery was flicked on by the boot of Morison for Shaun Williams to head in off the right upright.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing to your strengths – and Millwall are so menacing in the air that it would be silly not to – but they need to find a way to convert more from open play to boost their prospects of clinching a third straight campaign in English football’s second tier.
It is the first time that Millwall have lost back-to-back league games at The Den since October 2016. And it is three straight reverses since a 1-0 win at Derby, which felt like a major turning point as it made it four clean sheets in five.
But the other clubs down there will all have similar ills.
Bolton have also taken zero points from a possible nine and have just one victory in 11 Championship outings. In a form guide for the last 10 matches they are rock bottom with four points – Millwall are 20th with nine.
If the January 1 fixture at a marooned Ipswich looked the perfect opportunity to finally get that first win on the road – duly achieved – then this weekend’s trip north seems almost as inviting.
We all know that matches and challenges don’t always play out like they look on paper, but sometimes they do. Saturday was proof of that. Norwich arrived in SE16 as the division’s highest scorers and with the most away goals – 31. By 5pm they had added another three to that haul with Teemu Pukki notching his 24th goal. The flying Finn has either scored or assisted 31 of their goals this season – some free signing after leaving Brondby in June 2018.
Not every single goal needs to be forensically picked apart for faults – and his game-clinching third was a prime example.
Millwall’s reticence at times to over-commit bodies forward was clearly because of City’s ability to spring panther-like on the counter. And it was such a lightning break which saw just four touches inside the hosts’ half – three of them by Pukki – which ended with the Norwich number 22 ripping a devastating finish into the top left corner of Jordan Archer’s net.
It was his one real opportunity on the afternoon and the finish was of the highest quality.
Harris was disappointed with Norwich’s second goal, and quite rightly too. Christoph Zimmerman lost Jake Cooper to produce a towering header home from a corner.
Daniel Farke’s side, so pleasing on the eye in terms of possession, had not majorly threatened the Millwall goal in the second half up until that key moment – the big German centre-back sending the boisterous 3,240 travelling fans into a frenzy.
It wasn’t like this was some dominant masterclass from Norwich, who moved back to the Championship summit.
Their first goal had fortune to it. Onel Hernandez produced a rapier one-two to storm into the box but Archer did really well to come out and block – only for the ball to loop straight into the path of Marco Stiepermann.
Millwall had less possession – never something that worries Harris – but had more total shots, shots on target and corners.
Towards the end, the home side had three chances in the space of about five seconds – first Morison’s shot was cleared from nearly on the line, Tim Krul saved the follow-up drive from Mahlon Romeo with his legs before substitute Aiden O’Brien poked wide.
People tend to look at performances in black and white, good or bad. Saturday’s display by the Lions fell in between. Ben Thompson was assured and put in a mature performance in the centre of the park – preferred ahead of club record signing Ryan Leonard to partner Williams, who got his 20th career goal for Millwall.
Stiepermann recently washed Farke’s car to avoid paying a fine – but it was Norwich’s polished finishing which took the shine off the positive things that Millwall did.