MILLWALL continued their unbeaten run in December with another epic win against one of the pre-season title favourites.
They made it harder for themselves than should have been the case in a breath-taking game of football at The Den, played at a relentless pace right up until the final whistle.
The first half of this contest was vintage Millwall, Steve Morison dominating Daniel Ayala and in the ear of referee Oliver Langford after the defender climbed all over him. As the half progressed the Lions disrupted Middlesbrough’s game more and more and went ahead through Jed Wallace in the 31st minute.
Neil Harris’ side were relentlessly niggling their opponents and not letting them get into their earlier rhythm and they deservedly went two up when George Saville scored his seventh goal of the season.
It was then hugely frustrating that when the game was slipping away from Boro they were let back into it in the 67th minute when Stewart Downing’s long-range shot slipped through Jordan Archer’s hands. It's to Archer's credit he didn't let that affect him for the rest of the game as he made a number of safe catches.
There was space for Millwall to attack late on with Boro committing so many players forward, but it also took a supreme defensive effort to hold off their opponents. In injury-time Morison was back in his own box to win a goal-kick and Shaun Hutchinson and Jake Cooper were immense.
The final whistle was greeted with a roar of relief from the home fans after another afternoon when they had got their full money’s worth.
Millwall had a relatively comfortable buffer of seven points between themselves and the relegation zone before today’s game, though were frustrated it wasn’t more. It's now nine and they are looking up the table rather than worrying what's behind them.
Boro wanted to make it a frustrating afternoon, too, as they kept the ball in the opening stages and kept trying to switch the play to stretch their opponents. In the 15th minute they almost caught Millwall on the counter-attack as Downing fed Patrick Bamford in the box. He struck his shot towards the near post but Archer got down low to save before the ball bounced wide off the Boro attacker.
That was the only time Archer was called on to make a save in the first half. It was clear Middlesbrough boss Garry Monk had warned his players what to expect here and they attempted to ruffle the hosts. Martin Braithwaite went in late on Mahlon Romeo and Saville was also left on the turf after a late tackle.
The temperature went up a couple of degrees around the ground as the home fans felt referee Langford was giving too much to the visitors. Their annoyance was increased further when Langford booked Lee Gregory for dissent.
One could sense all that playing into Millwall’s hands but if the opening half hour threatened to be ugly, the opening goal was another beautifully worked one. Gregory – who had earlier seen a flick scooped off the line by Darren Randolph – chested the ball down on halfway before finding Ryan Tunnicliffe, who ran straight at a backpedalling away defence before picking out Wallace’s run, the winger firing his shot low and though Randolph got a touch he couldn’t keep the ball out.
Millwall’s second was all about persistence. They won the ball back high up the pitch but then the chance appeared to be gone as Saville was crowded out as he attempted to shoot. The midfielder refused to give up possession, though, as he bashed a way through before toe-poking past Randolph.
Aiden O’Brien could have further punished the away side after a breathless length-of-the-pitch counter-attack, but he was foiled by a last-ditch tackle. And minutes later the ball broke in the box for Gregory but his shot was half-blocked and Randolph gathered.
Monk adjusted Middlesbrough’s formation at the break, and it could almost be read as 2-2-4-2 as full-backs Fabio and Cyrus Christie took up stations way up the pitch. Monk then packed further attacking power when he sent on Rudy Gestede for midfielder Jonny Howson.
They got back into it when Downing, with little on, shot speculatively from distance, and Archer should have kept it out.
Boro almost fashioned an equaliser after the ball skimmed off Romeo’s head and was picked up by Braithwaite, who flashed a cross just out of Britt Assombalonga’s reach.
With Boro having so many attacking players on the pitch, Harris decided to send on Shaun Williams for Gregory, switching to 4-5-1 which also allowed Tunnicliffe and Saville to break forward from midfield. Saville cleverly won a free-kick with 15 minutes left to give his side a breather. Minutes later it was Tunicliffe getting forward after Morison had flicked the ball past Ben Gibson and crossed, but the midfielder couldn’t get enough on his shot to beat Randolph.
The action was unrelenting as the game entered the final 10 minutes. Morison thought his moment had arrived when Gibson dropped a header short but Randolph was quickly off his line to smother the striker’s shot. Saville then dribbled into the area but fired straight at Randolph.
At the other end substitute Adama Traore crossed for Fabio who couldn’t beat Archer with a header, before Tony Craig came on to bolster the defence.
Boro piled forward in injury-time, but Millwall held on and once again the best in the division brought out the best in them.
Image: Millwall FC