Subs the key as Millwall progress

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A 2-0 win over Northampton Town on Tuesday night means Millwall have now won back-to-back home games for the first time in 14 months. They did not achieve that feat in particularly grand circumstances: a mixed performance against a League Two side in the second round of a widely disrespected competition. And yet, when the final whistle was greeted with the sound of Roy Green’s Millwall anthem, there was at least a sense of celebration among the home faithful, who saw their team’s 6th win at the Den in over a year.

League Two opponents Northampton looked comfortable on the ball and had long spells of possession, frustrating Millwall for the first 60 minutes. However, the visitors approached the final third with a degree of hesitancy and did not do enough to test former-Cobbler Jordan Archer in the Millwall goal. Away boss Chris Wilder said after the match, perhaps controversially, that the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy should be ‘sacked’ due to low attendances, as just 2,254 spectators attended the encounter at the Den.

The low key nature of the game was certainly reflected in the first half, as neither side played with any intensity and both defences were on top. Tony Craig and Mark Beevers rarely broke sweat when handling Northampton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, while Millwall forwards Lee Gregory and Steve Morison were isolated figures. The full-backs on both teams looked reluctant to push forward, meaning neither side could attack with much impetus in the transition phases of play.

When Northampton did get forward, it was normally down the left-hand side of the pitch via Lawson D’Ath, who was their most promising attacking player. The wide man came closest to scoring for the Cobblers in the first half with a long range effort, but his shot was hit straight at the goalkeeper. Another player to impress for the away side was John-Joe O’Toole. The midfielder had recently spoken publicly of his disappointment at not being part of Wilder’s plans this season, but he showed confidence at the Den, winning a number of tackles whilst picking out some good passes.

In an otherwise disappointing first half from Millwall, the Lions hit the post through Aiden O’Brien, and created their best chance of the first 45 minutes just before the interval. Left-sided pairing Lee and Joe Martin combined well with the latter crossing the ball for Steve Morison, who forced a good save from Ryan Clarke, the Northampton goalkeeper.

Clarke had struggled to get into the Cobblers team due to the impressive form of counterpart Adam Smith, but he did himself no harm on Tuesday night. The 33-year-old, who had worked with boss Chris Wilder for many years at Oxford United, was Northampton’s best player in the second half.

With 60 minutes gone, Millwall manager Neil Harris decided on a double substitution which proved to be a turning point. Midfielder Jack Powell had been ineffective and was replaced by Ben Thompson, who, as a Lions academy graduate, showed noticeable pride and passion in the middle of the park. Fred Onyedinma also entered the scene and the forward injected some energy into the home side’s play. Until Onyedinma’s arrival, no Lions player had attempted to run in behind the Northampton defence, but the 18-year-old did that within seconds of coming on and was nearly picked out with an early pass from midfield.

Although that moment did not lead to a chance being created, it captured the tone of the final half hour, as Millwall played with more positivity and purpose. Northampton defenders were wary of Onyedinma’s speed on the right hand side, meaning more space was created for Steve Morison to work in, and for O’Brien to isolate the full-back on the opposite flank.

It was O’Brien who scored the first goal of the game on 71 minutes. The Islington-born man was yet to score a senior goal on home soil, but he broke his duck in impressive fashion, beating a couple of defenders to cut in from the left hand side and fire the ball inside the near post.

The match was put beyond Northampton just 4 minutes later. Lee Gregory played a wonderfully-flighted pass to Morison, who was at the centre of everything for Millwall in the second half, and the former Stevenage man crossed it for the now onrushing Gregory to chest the ball home.

Lawson D’Ath hit the post in the last 15 minutes, but the Cobblers were otherwise dominated in the latter stages. Northampton invited pressure and could easily have conceded more goals, as they seemingly ran out of energy. Chris Wilder must now lift his troops for Saturday’shome encounter with Hartlepool United, where a continuation of the team’s current 4 league game unbeaten streak could see his side move into the play-off places.

At half-time on Tuesday night, it might have been hard to believe that Millwall would go on to win the match so convincingly, but manager Neil Harris deserves credit for his double substitution which changed the course of the game.

 

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