MILLWALL produced one of their poorest performances of the season as Oxford United won 3-0 at The Den on Saturday.
The home side made a disastrous start and Conor McAleny scored in the sixth and ninth minutes to put Oxford two goals ahead.
Millwall didn’t have a shot on target before the break and at half-time Neil Harris brought on Shane Ferguson at left-back for Tony Craig, who had been booked.
Oxford went 3-0 ahead in the 71st minute, Joshua Ruffels heading in Chris Maguire’s corner as attention turned to what was happening at Shrewsbury and Oldham.
At the final whistle, Millwall could have had no complaints that their 15-game unbeaten home run was brought to a crashing halt. They were outplayed by a side that had little to play for approaching the end of the season, and the worry is even if they do make the play-offs what kind of mental state they will be in.
They should have won but didn’t at Fleetwood, and then capitulated on Saturday afternoon.
Jordan Archer, back in the side after injury, endured an ordeal. He too will have to quickly get over this ahead of the final weekend of the regular League One season.
Before the game and at half-time the PA requested that people stay off the pitch at the final whistle. Two individuals ignored that with 10 minutes left, and it was the perfect image for the miserable nature of the afternoon as the game was held up while stewards tackled them and then removed them from the field.
The only positive from a forgettable afternoon is that they are still sixth.
Archer started after missing the last five games with a quad injury, and he was picking the ball out of his net twice within the first 10 minutes.
The question before the game was whether Oxford, without expectation, would play with freedom and expression, or if their minds would be elsewhere given they couldn’t reach the play-offs. The away side answered that emphatically.
Michael Appleton’s team were bright and eager, and took the lead when midfielder Ruffels found McAleny, who had stealthily moved in off the left wing. He took one touch and with his second dispatched a low shot past Archer.
The speed between touches perhaps surprised Archer, whose last involvement had been in the 2-0 defeat at Sheffield United on March 28 when he came off injured in the first half.
The feeling that perhaps he was a little rusty was only enhanced given the nature of Oxford’s second. McAleny, this time in his wide position on the left, cut inside and Millwall seemed defensively well set up to deal with a cross. Instead McAleny curled a shot towards the far post and though there didn’t look to be a great deal of pace on it Archer reacted late as the ball found the bottom corner.
Millwall’s response for the rest of the half didn’t offer much encouragement they could turn it around, and the news that Southend were drawing and Rochdale ahead, scores that put Millwall eighth, contributed to the sense of gloom.
And the sense that Millwall were totally off their game was only added to when shortly before half-time Archer attempted to take a short kick-out to Jake Cooper. As the ball dribbled slowly across the box, Cooper seemed unsure if it was actually in play and with Maguire closing in the defender and his goalkeeper were relieved that referee Dean Whitestone blew his whistle for it to be taken again.
At the other end Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood didn’t have a shot to save in the first half.
Millwall needed to make some kind of statement after the break, yet it was Oxford still moving ominously forward, and Archer was forced to save McAleny’s low shot to his near post.
Eastwood did, finally, have a save to make in the 61st minute after Aiden O’Brien got through. The attacker was favourite to score, but Eastwood was swiftly off his line to make the block. Oxford immediately went down the other end, and Archer touched Marvin Johnson’s strike wide of the post.
The news that Shrewsbury had taken the lead against Southend lifted Millwall a place in the standings as they were, and then, incredibly, they were back up to sixth as Oldham equalised against Rochdale.
At The Den, Oxford rammed home the importance of results needing to go Millwall’s way when Ruffels headed home after Archer had come for and failed to reach Maguire’s corner.
Stewards moved to the edge of the pitch to prevent any more incursions, though there was never the chance of the euphoria after last season’s 3-0 win over Oldham being repeated, when Millwall had guaranteed their play-of place with a game to spare.
In the end there was a pitch invasion and more pleas that with the news Southend and Rochdale had failed to win there could be one more game here this season.
Millwall – somehow – can still make that a reality.
Image: Millwall FC