A much-changed Millwall side took Reading to extra-time in their EFL Cup second-round clash, but ultimately lost to a stunning goal from George Evans and Sam Smith's breakaway strike.
Leandro Bacuna and Shane Ferguson traded goals in the first half before both sides went for it after the break but couldn’t avoid another 30 minutes, the only EFL Cup fixture on Tuesday night to go to extra-time.
Just before the half-time whistle in the additional period, Reading countered after Millwall lost possession on the edge of their opponents’ box, and Evans found the top corner from 25 yards. Smith's clinching goal was harsh on Millwall and angered Lions boss Neil Harris, who felt Jed Wallace should have been awarded a free-kick just before Reading broke.
This was a game that was as much about who could impress Harris as it was about making it through to the next round.
It certainly felt as if this was an opportunity that Calum Butcher had to make the most of. He won the corner that led to Millwall’s goal, and it was difficult for him playing in an advanced role when his side had little of the ball at times.
Ryan Tunnicliffe, on his competitive debut, worked hard to cover ground as Millwall defended for long periods without the ball. It was about positional play more than possession play for Tunnicliffe and Ben Thompson in particular in the first half, but after the break Millwall took more of the initiative, and Tunnicliffe was close to putting Tom Elliott through before, in the 55th minute, he fired just over from distance.
Tunnicliffe had run out of gas by the 78th minute, but it was a promising debut and he certainly looks like he will be an important asset.
Millwall’s high work-rate was evidenced on Reading kick-outs. The visitors, particularly in the second half, never let their hosts properly play out from the back, and when the Royals did get past the first line of defence their opponents quickly regained their defensive positions.
There was a lot to admire, and against his former club Jake Cooper was excellent, producing a number of crucial blocks.
It was no surprise earlier on to see Reading dominating possession against a Millwall side with 10 changes from the weekend. Royals boss Jaap Stam retained three of his starters from their 1-0 defeat at Preston, but it made little difference to their possession game.
This was the first time this season that Millwall really had to dig in in their own half and feed off scraps in attacks. Harris rested Lee Gregory altogether, Steve Morison was on the bench with Butcher playing just off Elliott up front.
Millwall, unsurprisingly, were organised and disciplined. Mahlon Romeo and Tony Craig, short on action this season, were not short on knowing their roles and though they rarely ventured past halfway, Craig would later play a crucial part in the Lions’ equaliser.
With Tunnicliffe and Thompson protecting their defence, Millwall were rarely pulled out of position, but when someone needed to fill in they did, Shane Ferguson scampering back behind Craig at one point in the first half to make a tackle to prevent a cross.
That made Reading’s opener all the more disappointing. There didn’t appear to be much on for Bacuna when he picked up the ball midway inside Millwall’s half in the 34th minute, but a burst of pace took him through a gap and he lashed a shot from 25 yards past Tom King.
Millwall responded well to that setback. Romeo slipped Butcher through in the box for a low shot that Anssi Jaakkola saved for a corner. Reading half-cleared it and were maybe taken by surprise when Craig lofted the ball back across the box, where it broke to Ferguson and his curled effort took a deflection on the way in.
Millwall should really have been ahead 13 minutes into the second half, and this time it was Ferguson who was the creator, flighting a free-kick into the box that Byron Webster headed over from eight yards.
Chris Gunter had missed at the near post just after the break, but Millwall were more positive and there was space opening up in attacking areas. When Elliott went off after a physical, combative display, Harris brought on Morison, and there was the sense that the Lions had nullified their opponents and could get a second.
But Millwall were reminded of how dangerous a side that was within 90 minutes of the Premier League last season can be when Adrian Popa lifted an effort over when he should have hit the target from inside the box.
With nine minutes left, Reading broke quickly from a Millwall corner, and this time Popa, via a deflection, hit the target but King showed strong hands to palm the ball away from danger.
This was suddenly the King versus Popa show and when the Romanian winger found space just inside the box he found the goalkeeper on his case before he had the chance to lift the ball into the empty goal. It was good anticipation from the stopper.
Substitutes Morison and Aiden O’Brien were close to combining for a chance in the last minute, before after another swift Royals break Smith bore down on goal but couldn’t keep his shot down.
That was the last chance in 90 minutes. Both sides introduced a fourth substitute in extra-time, Jed Wallace following Danny Loader onto the pitch.
In the 13th minute of extra-time Mo Barrow worked space for a shot, but it was straight at King.
However, the goalkeeper could do little when, with the last kick of the first period of the extra 30 minutes, Evans curled a superb shot into King’s top left-hand corner after a Millwall move at the other end had broken down at the feet of Fred Onyedinma.
Millwall pressed for a late leveller to take it to penalties, but Reading sealed their passage when Smith beat King with four minutes left.
Image: Millwall FC