Late, late show denies Lions

NORWICH 4
Pukki 49, 90+7, Leitner 79, Rhodes 90+2
MILLWALL 3
Elliott 24, Leonard 81, J Wallace 83
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT CARROW ROAD

Sometimes statistics can be deceiving – manipulated to make a point. But not in one area when it comes to Millwall this season.

Saturday’s chaotic finish at Carrow Road means that the Lions have conceded 29 goals in 19 Championship matches. That is 10 more than at the same stage of the 2017-18 campaign. In fact, Millwall did not reach that total until January 13 – a whole 10 games later.

So it isn’t too hard to see where the problems lie for Lions boss Neil Harris. Getting a solution has not been so easy.

He has changed personnel in both full-back positions and at goalkeeper. But it still hasn’t clicked as a unit, aside from the odd performance here and there.

Millwall’s strength last season came from their shape, work-rate and the fact they had one of the best defensive records in the Championship. Only Preston and Sheffield Wednesday (both 30) have conceded more this time around.

Jed Wallace celebrates an 83rd minute strike

And so many of the goals have been late. It had been a common theme at The Den as a sizeable chunk of points had been tossed away – if those results had been seen out the standings would have looked a whole lot better for the Lions.

Saturday looked as if it was going to finally be Millwall’s day on the road. Jed Wallace marked his 100th appearance for the club with an 83rd minute goal as the South Londoners led for the second time on an afternoon with more twists and turns than a snake charmer’s travel bag.

It looked as if Millwall were going to take three points away with a dramatic comeback win – just as they did at Leeds United in January to end their wait in sensational fashion.

The Lions never felt in total control but it was hard to see how they would fritter away a positive result. But that’s exactly what they proceeded to do.

Substitute Jordan Rhodes did what Jordan Rhodes has done throughout his career, just about staying onside to coolly stick Emi Buendia’s pass beyond Ben Amos in the second minute of stoppage time.

If that was a sickener, then worse was to come. Again the Millwall defence was opened up too easily by Mario Vrancic, and Teemu Pukki made amends for failing to convert a penalty, as he nicked in a decider right in the very last throes.

Millwall had been clinical at the other end of the pitch with three of their four chances converted.
And they finally got their noses in front in an away fixture for the first time this season. Jake Cooper claimed a sixth assist – left unmarked he guided across Shaun Williams’ free-kick for Tom Elliott to nod beyond Tim Krul.

And Ryan Leonard produced an instant response to Moritz Leitner making it 2-1 to City with 11 minutes remaining. The club record signing was quickest to react to a dropping ball in the box after Lee Gregory and Jamal Lewis contested Steve Morison’s flick, striding purposefully into the box to poke home.

Krul’s mistake was then gratefully accepted by Wallace as he got his first goal in a little under two months. The former Newcastle keeper’s throw to the right was collected by the winger, who played a one-two with Morison before just about managing to find the back of the net. It should have been game over and the Lions instantly went about slowing the flow.

But they could not repress Norwich enough. Daniel Farke’s side had 21 shots. It was hard to see the offside infringement that led to Timm Klose’s first-half goal being disallowed. Pukki’s poor penalty, not long after the Finnish international had swept in an early second-half equaliser, was a let-off as well.

Ben Amos saves Teemu Pucki’s penalty

There were some positives for Harris, even if he was not focusing on those at full-time in a post-match press conference where he criticised three of the four goals conceded.

The Lions used the ball far better in the opening 45 minutes than they did at Brentford, getting the ball down and finding the right areas to pass in. But a technical side like City – with quality footballers like Buendia, Onel Hernandez and Leitner – were never going to let it be one-way traffic.

Carrow Road’s away dressing room is pink, which is supposed to lower testosterone levels. I’m not quite sure why they stopped there. They should have a rom-com movie playing on a screen in there. With fabric swatches to tempt players into picking out new curtains and carpets. A range of massage oils and foot spas.

Pink, purple, orange or blue – it would not have made a difference to Millwall showing defensive steel when it was needed as the clock ticked down. Last season I can remember continually praising them for the way they flung themselves in front of shots and defended their goal-line with an admirable ferocity.

Reaching that quality level again this season was always going to be a challenge.

But they were second best twice in the build up to Pukki’s equaliser. Marco Stipermann was able to break clear on the left before his low delivery was met at the near post by City’s top-scorer as Cooper came in to close.

Leitner’s 22-yard finish to make it 2-1 to Norwich was a fine strike, but you also can’t tell me that last season there would not have been at least one blue-and-white shirted body flying out with more urgency to get a block on it.

If Millwall are to keep outside the bottom three then it is essential they do not let their Den form slip. Three of their next four are in SE16 and are inviting, too – Bolton, Birmingham and Hull. A decent return of points will once again restore some daylight between themselves and the drop zone. Tom Bradshaw’s cruciate knee ligament injury is a setback, even if the club record signing was not missed at the weekend.

He is a like-for-like replacement for Lee Gregory in terms of playing style. It only makes it more important that Gregory, in good form even if he did not get a scoring chance on Saturday, stays fit.

With headaches about what to do at the back, Harris won’t want an offensive migraine to develop, too.

Millwall (4-4-2): Amos 6, McLaughlin 5, Hutchinson 5, Cooper 5, M Wallace 5, J Wallace 6, Williams 5, Leonard 6, Ferguson 5 (Tunnicliffe 88), Elliott 6 (Morison 73), Gregory 6 (Meredith 90+2). Not used: Archer, Romeo, O’Brien, Skalak.