MILLWALL lost for the first time in December as a devastating first-half spell from Derby County gave them three points at Pride Park.
After an even first 23 minutes when both sides could have taken the lead, the Lions were rocked by the concession three goals in five minutes, David Nugent producing two superb first-time finishes either side of Matej Vydra’s 25-yard shot into the bottom corner.
To Millwall’s credit they battled gamely, and again this was another away game when they will wonder how they didn’t score. Lee Gregory had their best chances, while Scott Carson tipped Aiden O’Brien’s shot over the crossbar just after half-time.
Millwall were given a quick, painful lesson in finishing by former England striker Nugent, who needed just two chances to score two goals, and it was a wonder that they were his first since October.
There was recognition from Lions boss Neil Harris just after the hour that discretion was probably the better part of valour as he took off Gregory, O’Brien and Jed Wallace, with the Boxing Day fixture against Wolves in mind. Probably the only positives of the afternoon were the return of Fred Onyedinma from injury, and Shaun Williams again seeing more action following his recovery from knee damage.
Millwall will reflect that international-quality finishing was the difference between the sides, and it remains to be seen if they can recruit someone in January who could give them that kind of edge up front.
Seven points from four fixtures this month is also a decent return, though frustratingly just when the top half looked within reach again it gets that bit further aaway.
Millwall knew before kick-off they could make further gains towards the top 12 with a win, against a club with a not-too-dissimilar philosophy in the Rams. Both managers favour a British core, and Derby’s line-up was packed with Premier League experience.
Both managers also named unchanged sides, Harris for the third successive game. There was little indication what damage Derby were going to inflict in those five first-half minutes, after Millwall made a positive start and the hosts had to defend a number of crosses into their box.
Derby, though, did signal their threat on the break, and specifically, exposed a weakness for Millwall down the visitors’ right, when Bradley Johnson crossed for Joe Ledley who dragged the shot wide.
But then Millwall should have taken the lead, and there were echoes of Nottingham Forest on the opening day when they didn’t. It was a sharp move, George Saville and Gregory involved, before Steve Morison sent his strike partner through. Gregory probably should have shot with his left foot before the angle narrowed. Gregory instead played a one-two with O’Brien before shooting first time, Curtis Davies getting back to clear the ball off the line before O’Brien fired over.
Nugent then showed how clinical he is when he flicked Chris Baird’s corner past Jordan Archer. Derby quickly went two goals up, Nugent showing his sharp brain when despite standing in an offside position he knew he could play Saville’s mis-placed pass. The striker then rolled the ball to Vydra who slammed a low shot into Archer’s right-hand corner.
If that seemed bad there was worse to come, Nugent again showing why you can’t give him a sliver of space when, again, it was a near-post run and a first-time finish from Johnson’s cross.
Millwall have been in some sticky spots in the last three seasons, so they certainly weren’t going to crumble. But they needed a goal before the break and almost got it as Mahlon Romeo’s left-footed shot was deflected just over Carson’s crossbar.
Millwall created three more scoring chances in the first 10 minutes of the second half, but O’Brien and Gregory were denied by Carson, the second a point-blank save from the stopper from Gregory’s flicked volley. Between those opportunities, Gregory stretched but couldn’t reach Wallace’s cross in front of an open goal.
After that flurry of chances, Derby showed their poise and experience as they held possession and took the sting out of their opponents, before then almost adding another sting of their own. Andreas Weimann should have made it four when he got clear in the box and past Archer, but Shaun Hutchinson blocked his shot on the line before the offside flag went up. Moments later Nugent stole in at the back post but Archer got down well to save.
Harris made that triple substitution in the 66th minute, Tom Elliott joining Williams and Onyedinma on the pitch.
As Millwall committed more players forward there were large pockets of space for Derby to exploit, and their substitutes Sam Winnall and Johnny Russell had chances to make it four but couldn't take them.
Millwall toiled to get something from the game, but they couldn’t as they fell to just their second defeat by more than a goal margin in the league this season.
Image: Millwall FC