Millwall facing severe striker shortage for Birmingham City – can Aiden O’Brien be the missing link?

MILLWALL 1

Cooper 82

BOLTON 1

Beevers 12

BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE DEN

Millwall’s striker headache is threatening to turn into a full-blown forward migraine for Neil Harris.

As things stand going into tomorrow’s home game against Birmingham City, they are seriously depleted in that area of their squad.

The Lions bench already looked light of game-changers before kick-off on Saturday with Tom Bradshaw and Steve Morison both missing – and we know the former is not going to be back until pre-season at the earliest following knee surgery.

But just two fit and established frontmen became one shortly after the half-hour mark as Tom Elliott came off with a hamstring injury, the same issue which prevented club captain Morison from being in the matchday 18.

Millwall boss Harris does not expect either of his targetmen to be fit for the visit of the Blues and that means a definite switch in approach, because neither Lee Gregory or Aiden O’Brien are renowned for their aerial strength.

For a side who make no apologies about their directness, it’s hard to see how it cannot force a major change in tactics.

Through the many good times and even the infrequent leaner times, Harris has stayed true to his beliefs in what brings success. And that is a combative side, physically strong and who can bully some opposition in the air.

But that might have to change, at least for the next game or two. Because key cogs in ensuring that process works are missing.

The Lions did get the ball down and passed it a whole lot better in the second half – the only real option when anything at head height which went long was only going to be clearance fodder for Mark Beevers and David Wheater.

Millwall’s productivity in front of goal was still poor though. I didn’t make a note about a second half chance for them until their 82nd minute equaliser.

Jiri Skalak thought he had got his first goal since his summer transfer from Brighton. But Jake Cooper claimed a helping touch on his shot as it beat Ben Alnwick.

Gregory headed a chance after that wide of the right upright and Shane Ferguson’s reaction – head in hands – suggested it was very close. It was hard to conclusively tell from the angle in the press box.

Millwall were finishing strongly but Skalak failed to properly tee up for O’Brien on the edge of the box. Then there was an offside call before Gregory headed in.

But if the Lions had collected a fifth league win of the campaign then it would have been harsh on Bolton.

Okay, Wanderers showed little ambition to add to their first half goal but they also lost a little of their cutting edge when Josh Magennis was replaced by Clayton Donaldson at the interval.

Magennis’ mobility proved far more of a handful than the more static Donaldson.

Without the recalled Jordan Archer being in defiant mood, Millwall could have been more than one goal behind at the end of the first period.

First he raced out to block Will Buckley’s shot with his legs before flinging himself to his right to push Jason Lowe’s effort over his crossbar.

The Lions were loose defensively from the opening whistle and fell behind on 12 minutes. Joe Williams’ floated delivery was headed home by Beevers via the right post.

In a game of few chances, Bolton’s goalscorer then came to the rescue at the other end of the pitch to deny his former club.

Gregory laid a shooting chance on a plate for Ryan Leonard but Alnwick parried the initial attempt before O’Brien’s follow up produced a last-ditch clearance by Beevers.

Archer made another save five minutes into the second half as he pushed away Lowe’s strike.

It seems almost certain that he will retain the number one jersey. Harris does not drop players who perform and the former Tottenham man hardly put a foot or glove wrong. Amos has not produced enough standout performances in the past few months to make his omission feel like an injustice.

The other obvious change will be O’Brien for Elliott. With Fred Onyedinma on loan at Wycombe Wanderers, there are very limited options up top if the Lions chief does not want to deviate away from 4-4-2.

O’Brien showed signs in the second half that he can be the answer with some intelligent play, often dropping slightly deeper between the lines to pick up the ball. But at least in the short term they will miss the muscular presence of Elliott and the wily street smarts of Morison.

Speaking of needing to think on your feet, the same also applied to the officiating.

Referee Tony Harrington was unwell before kick off and had to be replaced by fourth official Lee Swabey.

But when he pulled his calf in the first half it saw Steve Perry – a Lions season-ticket holder – stepping up from emergency fourth official duty to run the line until the break, when Swabey managed to take over.

Millwall dominated possession in those second 45 minutes against Bolton but Phil Parkinson’s side had been desperately out of sorts and play in a a similar style to their weekend opponents. But can the Lions outpass mid-table Brum in midweek? The absence of Morison and Elliott does not totally take away their aerial threat though as the Lions can still send Cooper and Shaun Hutchinson rumbling forward for corners and free-kicks.

Bolton did a good job in containing Cooper’s threat on Saturday.

He did head one deep Shaun Williams corner into the arms of Alnwick but was unable to add to his six Championship assists.

Ironically the centre-back still ended up on the scoresheet with the kind of poacher’s nick on the ball which Gregory would love to claim.

A point gained for Millwall? Or two dropped to a potential bottom three rival? Considering the timing of the equaliser – and the dearth of firepower on the bench – I’d have to go for the first option.