By Lucas Ball at the Bet365 Stadium
MILLWALL made it four wins from their last five matches as they ran out 2-1 victors over Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium on Easter Monday.
Murray Wallace gave the Lions a first-half lead before Jacob Brown’s equaliser before the break.
Mason Bennett netted the winner with 19 minutes left as Millwall moved up to ninth in the table.
The first chance of the match came Stoke’s way after eight minutes when a corner was headed narrowly wide at the back post before, four minutes later, Alex Pearce did well to deal with a dangerous-looking Nick Powell cross.
George Evans tried his luck with two efforts from outside the box either side of the quarter-hour mark, with the first deflected wide and the second, well struck though it was, comfortably over the bar.
Powell forced a save from Bartosz Bialkowski from range, though the Pole never looked troubled by the former Manchester United man’s effort.
Millwall started to cause problems from set-pieces in the last 10 minutes of the first half as first an Evans cross was headed down but Jed Wallace’s effort was deflected wide.
The visitors then took the lead in the 36th minute when Wallace crossed into a dangerous area and Jake Cooper kept the threat alive with a chipped ball back into the six-yard box which Stoke failed to deal with, before Murray Wallace prodded home from close range.
Another dangerous Wallace free-kick was headed away minutes later before Cooper headed just over from the resulting corner.
The lead lasted just five minutes, though, as the hosts got level with a deserved equaliser. Scott Malone lost possession cheaply upfield, with Michael O’Neill’s side launching a long ball over the top for Steven Fletcher to square for Brown to slot past Bialkowski, who arguably could have done better – as could Pearce who could have intercepted Fletcher’s pass.
Powell headed over the bar from a corner in the final action of the first half.
Stoke moved the ball well on a number of occasions early in the second half but often gave possession away with a sloppy mistake or after good defending from the Lions.
The first chance of the second period didn’t come until the 67th minute when Adam Davies spilled Wallace’s free-kick, with Cooper finding the Scottish Wallace only for his shot to be blocked.
Two minutes later, an excellent Lions counter-attack – started by a superb driven pass into midfield from Billy Mitchell – set up Wallace to find Danny McNamara and the wing-back burst into the box, but his tame effort was comfortably saved.
Gary Rowett’s side re-took the lead at his former club as Danny Batth missed his interception from a Mitchell through-ball for Wallace, and the forward squared for his strike partner Bennett to score one of the easiest goals of his career and take his tally to six for the season.
Millwall stood strong late on and didn’t allow Stoke to build up any pressure on their goal, seeing out the win comfortably in the end.
Millwall are just hanging on to the play-off chasing pack – though Stoke’s hopes are all but over
Millwall moved above Middlesbrough to ninth with six games left to play following Neil Warnock’s side’s draw against Watford in the early kick-off.
Rowett’s side are eight points off Reading in sixth, though Bournemouth could extend the gap to 10 points if they win their game in hand.
A late charge into the lottery that is the play-offs looks unlikely, but Millwall are clinging on and still look on course for back-to-back top-10 finishes in the Championship for the first time since 2005.
That is a hugely impressive feat for a team operating on a slimmer budget than probably everyone else in the top half.
The Lions will have a say in the promotion mix either way, given they still have to play four of the eight sides above them in the table in Watford, Brentford, Swansea and Bournemouth.
Defeat for Stoke leaves them 11 points off with their play-off hopes all but invisible at this stage.
Ryan Woods is such an important part of this team
Woods has been a talking point this season in that he doesn’t offer quite as much going forward as some would like, but he remains an extremely important player for Millwall and one that they should be trying to hold on to beyond this summer.
He plays the holding midfield role superbly, restricting space for opposition players between the defence and midfield and thus limiting their options in transition.
All too often, Stoke were able to exploit those gaps – particularly in the first half – and that meant the back three were in trouble against the likes of Brown and Powell.
The Potters were clearly aware they could get at the Lions like that and made full use of a quick transition for the equaliser, with Wallace and Pearce left two-on-two against Fletcher and the goalscorer Brown.
Woods also offers composure on the ball when Millwall switch the play and keep possession, which they struggled to do without the loanee midfielder.
BMitchell and Evans have some similar qualities to Woods, but didn’t offer the same protection or composure with both more box-to-box than holding midfielders.
Maikel Kieftenbeld’s introduction at half-time was pivotal, with the ex-Birmingham man marking Powell out of the game.
Whether Alex Pearce gets a new deal or not is up in the air
Pearce, now 32, is a great leader and huge personality in the dressing room – but Millwall can’t afford for him to continue to make similar errors to those he has been guilty of recently.
The former Derby man was arguably at fault for all three goals in last month’s second-half capitulation at QPR, as well as Brown’s equaliser here.
His lack of mobility at this level is an issue and Millwall look a much more well-rounded defensive unit with a back three of Cooper, Wallace and Shaun Hutchinson – the latter who didn’t start for the first time all season in the league due to injury.
Hutchinson would likely take the role of club captain were Pearce to leave, having worn the armband for much of the season on the pitch anyway.
Pearce has had an excellent career and is well thought-of by everyone at the club but his time at this level would appear to be coming to an end with the pace of the game often leaving him exposed and more basic errors creeping into his game.
Equally, he lacks the quality on the ball required at the back for the Lions to improve on their possession-based build-up play – with the likes of Evans, Hutchinson and even Ryan Leonard more adept with the ball at their feet in defence.
Rowett made two enforced changes for the Easter Monday tie as well a subtle formation change.
That change was to a 5-2-1-2 with Pearce and Kenneth Zohore coming in for Hutchinson and Woods, who were injured and ineligible, respectively.
5-2-1-2: Bialkowski; McNamara (Romeo, 90+2), M Wallace, Pearce, Cooper, Malone; Evans, Mitchell; J. Wallace (Bradshaw, 90); Zohore (Kieftenbeld, 46), Bennett (Bodvarsson, 82)
Substitutes: Fielding, Williams, Ferguson, Cooper Mahoney, Burey.
Booked: M Wallace
Image: Millwall FC