MILLWALL extended their unbeaten run to nine games in all competitions but missed the chance to close the gap to the top six in League One to two points as a resilient Walsall side claimed a first clean sheet of 2017 and a point at The Den on Wednesday evening.
Millwall were marginally the better side against a team two points behind them in the league before kick-off, but the verve that was evident against Watford on Sunday was absent and it’s now four games without a league win since the 2-1 victory over Gillingham on December 30.
Millwall had been buoyed by the news earlier in the evening that Ben Thompson had signed a new deal until 202o, but there was always the danger of some weariness after the high of the FA Cup win over Watford. Millwall’s default game plan demands a lot of their wingers, and after Shane Ferguson’s decisive contribution against the Hornets he started on the left wing.
Jed Wallace’s inclusion meant both January signings started, with Jake Cooper in the centre of defence. Wallace and Ferguson give Millwall the added attacking threat of being able to find their strikers more quickly and from deeper wide areas.
And it was those two showing the appetite to get involved from their wings that looked like it would crack Walsall early on. In the second minute Tony Craig, the quality of whose crossing is probably an under-appreciated aspect of this game, sent a left-footed delivery into the box and Wallace made good contact but headed well wide.
Walsall set up with three central defenders who gave Steve Morison and Lee Gregory little room all night, but from a corner that the away side couldn’t clear five minutes in Gregory had a difficult opportunity and volleyed over.
Walsall had scored 10 goals in their previous three games but perhaps Millwall were guilty of pulling their wingers too deep when a more proactive approach could have lifted the quality of the game and the crowd, which was well down on Sunday’s attendance.
Jon Whitney’s side were restricted to efforts from distance before the break, with Jordan Archer comfortably saving Florent Cuvelier’s shot from 25 yards and Thompson bravely blocking an attempted volley from the same player.
Millwall’s best passing move in he opening half again originated from the involvement of a winger picking up possession in the centre of the pitch. This time it was Wallace leading a counterattack and when he linked up with Thompson the midfielder found Ferguson in space on the left. Morison was on the move in the box but again he couldn’t free himself from his marker and headed wide.
A minute later Ferguson darted to the back post but wasn't able to connect with Gregory’s centre.
The pattern of the game was the arrival of chances like that, a small spark of excitement, followed by a lull, which was always the fear after the emotion of last week.
Millwall continued to create the better openings and when Shaun Cummings crossed from the right the ball was slightly too high for Morison who headed over Neil Etheridge’s crossbar.
The quality of the contest didn’t show any signs of improving in the second half and after Morison sent an errant pass that missed his target Ferguson in the 64th minute he held his head in his hands in frustration. It summed up the evening.
Just after half-time left-wing back Joe Edwards summed up his side’s lack of attacking quality after Amadou Bakayoko had produced a rare bit to set him up. Edwards couldn’t provide the finish as he sliced a left-footed shot well off target.
There was an obvious need for something different from the home side and Lions boss Neil Harris sensed it, bringing on Fred Onyedinma and Aiden O’Brien for Wallace and Ferguson.
Whitney also summoned former Millwall striker Simeon Jackson from the bench, but he was quickly an isolated figure as Harris’ side started to press Walsall back around their own box. Walsall still hinted that they could get a second win at The Den for the second season in a row, with Edwards again moving into space down the left but directing a header well wide with 13 minutes left.
Nine minutes from time O’Brien cut in from the left but he fired well over from 20 yards. Millwall still looked flat and low on energy and that, combined with Thompson over-hitting a pass to Onyedinma and Cooper putting a clearance into the stands, was the prompt for some fans to conclude they had seen enough.
In added time Onyedinma create one final opportunity to win it, but Morison, as he had found all game, had no space and Walsall held on.
Image: Millwall FC