Millwall deserve credit for clinching Championship safety so soon – but now face challenge of rising expectations

By Richard Cawley
It’s hard to know quite how to put Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Sunderland into context.
After all, Millwall are now nine unbeaten in the Championship and have not lost since New Year’s Day.
But it is a sign of the shifting in expectations that the Lions were expected to beat a Sunderland side possessing the likes of Bryan Oviedo, Lee Cattermole, Callum McManaman, John O’Shea and Aiden McGeady – all of whom have graced the Premier League in recent years.
When Shaun Hutchinson equalised, with goal-line technology used instead of the VAR lottery, there only looked to be one winner if there was going to be a decisive third goal of the afternoon.
But the Black Cats clung on to a share of the spoils. They showed little ambition in the closing stages to try and a get a win that would have breathed genuine life into their hopes of not suffering back-to-back relegations.
You can say that Chris Coleman’s side need more that a point in their current dicey predicament. But were not quite at the stage where they need to take risks.
And you also have to respect that Millwall’s home is a difficult place to emerge with a positive outcome. Burton Albion are the last to win there – on November 4 – and Saturday’s result made it 10 undefeated in SE16, 11 if you also count the FA Cup tie against Rochdale. Cardiff, Derby and Wolves – pushing for the Premier League – have only taken a point away from this pocket of the capital.
Aside from the 4-3 reverse to Ipswich in mid-August, the only losses inflicted on the Lions in South London have come at the hands of clubs scrapping to stay up. You wondered if Sunderland were going to underline that fallibility.
Oviedo’s goal was a scorcher. A short corner was allowed to take place without too much pressure from the hosts and the Costa Rican picked up the ball again, feinted a shot which stopped Shaun Williams’ advance before slamming past Jordan Archer at his near post.
It was Sunderland’s only shot on target. But if you’re only going to manage one, make sure it is a good one. Oviedo and Adam Matthews, the two wing-backs in a 3-5-2 system, were nuisances during that first
period as Millwall struggled to get a flow to their own game.
Those goals from distance are beginning to stack up. Even just taking recent weeks into account we have seen Joey Pelupessy produce a superb strike for Sheffield Wednesday, while Cardiff’s Junior Hoilett also ruthlessly punished a defensive lapse by Mahlon Romeo.
The Lions forced Jason Steele into more saves, but nearly all of them were relatively simple ones. A dive to his left to pat away Shaun Williams’ shot was comfortable and he was lucky that Steve Morison’s first-time volley was driven straight at his legs.
Lee Cattermole cleared off his line with his left knee when Jake Cooper’s sixth-minute header bounced down and towards the net.
Millwall were strangely uncertain in that first period. Sunderland would retreat into their own half when out of possession and were happy for Cooper to loft passes forward which they largely dealt with.
Sitting deep did not allow the likes of Lee Gregory or Jed Wallace to get in behind. Oviedo and Matthews largely did a good job on Wallace and Ben Marshall, the latter limited to set-pieces and crosses which did not quite find their mark – aside from one delivery in the opening stanza which Morison headed past the right upright.
The Lions might produce one slightly below-par half, but very rarely two. They certainly warmed to the task once the contest restarted with Sunderland’s sense of adventure severely restricted.
Steele could easily have been booked for one blatant piece of time-wasting as he went to take a goal-kick before eventually being cautioned by referee Andy Davies for the same offence near the end.
It takes two to tango, and Millwall were trying to find the right moves all by themselves with an unwilling dancer.
But it still wasn’t quite clicking for them in an offensive sense, despite their territorial dominance. They kept grafting and grinding – typified by George Saville trying to make things happen by will and work-rate alone – and levelled things up with 21 minutes to go.
Every set-piece is a threat when Cooper attacks it and his initial header into the box seemed to be handled, certainly a stronger claim than Marshall going down under minimal contact from Ovie Ejaria, and Hutchinson struck with his weaker left foot. Although Cattermole was once again guarding the net, the goal was given.
It could have got better for the Lions with Hutchinson once again winning the ball in the air, only for his header to be inadvertently deflected wide by Gregory.
Millwall need a draw at Hull City tonight to clock up the half-century of points. They are 21 ahead of Sunderland – I’ll bet there were not many who would have predicted that at the start of August.
With 11 matches to go, the play-offs look like a pipe dream. Their February form would need to be replicated again in March to make a top-six finish a realistic proposition.
But it is important that the Lions get credit for achieving their goal of consolidating at this level – without any of the jitters which clubs with far greater budgets and resources are experiencing.
Safe by March? If that scenario had been put to anyone of a Lions persuasion in the summer then it would have been gratefully accepted.