JED Wallace scored twice – including a goal-of-the-season contender – and Aiden O’Brien fired home a magnificent volley as Millwall stretched their unbeaten run at The Den to 15 games in all competitions with a convincing win over Northampton.
O’Brien hit the post in the 10th minute before he struck a first-time volley from just inside the box to give Millwall the lead.
Wallace made it two in the 38th minute when he shot into the top corner from 25 yards, before he fired home a third in first-half injury-time from O’Brien’s cross.
Jordan Archer was back in the Millwall squad, but he was on the bench and saw Tom King make three excellent saves before the break.
O’Brien almost made it four in the 68th minute after Wallace surged down the right, but Adam Smith tipped the attacker’s flick over the bar.
Lions boss Neil Harris had the luxury of being able to take off Wallace, Lee Gregory and Steve Morison ahead of Monday’s trip to Fleetwood.
If Harris thought the 3-1 win over Scunthorpe in the previous game at The Den was the most impressive of the season, this perhaps topped it.
It was all the more impressive given the stakes: Each of Millwall’s four closest play-off rivals – Fleetwood, Bradford, Scunthorpe and Southend – won on Friday.
Millwall fans have probably seen only one goal here this season to rival the strikes from O’Brien and Wallace, and those two will surely be competing with Shaun Williams’ lob from halfway against Nottingham Forest in August for the goal of the season.
Millwall started the day in sixth place and comparing their run-in with their nearest challengers Southend, this was one they had to win. Southend still have to play two sides near the foot of the table after obliterating another, Chesterfield, at the same time as Millwall romped past the Cobblers.
Earlier in the day Rochdale had also moved to within three points of the Lions after their win at Bury.
Millwall knew if they won their last four games they would finish in the top six, and they couldn’t have gone about it more emphatically.
The irony was they were actually taking an extra touch early on when they could have shot more quickly. But O’Brien showed no such hesitation in the 27th minute. It was sublimely worked, O’Brien heading to Joe Martin who nodded it back to his team-mate, and the volleyed finish, the ball going in off the crossbar, was a worthy way to sign off the move.
Seven minutes before half-time Wallace submitted his entry for goal of the season, striking the ball first time from outside the right edge of the penalty area and watching it fly past Smith into the far top corner.
O’Brien had earlier hit the post when he cut in from the left to leave Smith wrong-footed, the ball bouncing off the inside of the post and just evading Morison.
There was a penalty shout five minutes later. Gregory cleverly let Martin’s pass run to Morison who slipped the ball back to his strike partner. Gregory appeared to be clipped as he was about to shoot but referee Graham Salisbury was unmoved.
It was mostly Millwall but two minutes before Wallace’s goal King made a superlative stop, arching his back and tipping over after Shaun Hutchinson sent the ball towards the top corner as he tried to clear a cross.
King had also got down low to keep out Luke Williams’ effort from 10 yards before in added time Wallace made it three. The goal demonstrated how sharp Millwall were: Morison took a quick throw-in to Gregory who laid the ball off to O’Brien. He skipped past a tackle before pulling the ball back to Wallace six yards out and again it was another first-time finish into the roof of the net.
Justin Edinburgh had set his side up in that 4-3-1-2 formation he favoured at Gillingham, with Keshi Anderson in the Bradley Dack role behind Marc Richards and Michael Smith. But the away side’s plans were disrupted when Smith went off injured. Hiram Boateng came on, Anderson moved up front, and Northampton continued to struggle to contain their rampant hosts.
Gregory could have made it four five minutes into the second half, but swiped at fresh air from Morison’s cross. Hutchinson shot over from Morison’s set-up before Martin was close to diverting the ball past Smith as Northampton were forced to desperately defend inside their own box.
Northampton’s difficulty in keeping pace with their opponents was illustrated quite literally when Wallace sprinted past Cobblers midfielder Williams, who pulled up with a hamstring problem. Wallace kept going and crossed for O’Brien whose flick was saved by an overworked Smith.
Millwall wanted a penalty with 10 minutes to go when Morison’s cross struck Lewin Nyatanga’s hand. Salisbury put the whistle to his lips but then changed his mind at the last moment. It appeared to be the wrong call.
But it didn’t affect the outcome of this game, and Millwall go to Fleetwood knowing they must keep winning.
Image: Millwall FC