MILLWALL must hope Middlesbrough do them a favour on Saturday after seeing their 17-game unbeaten run in the league ended by Fulham on Friday night.
The Cottagers struck twice early in the second half to move into second place in the Championship table.
If Boro defeat Derby the Lions will stay in sixth, though it could be a real bottleneck if the other top-six-chasing sides win.
After a tight first half Fulham turned on the afterburners and won the game after a devastating 11-minute spell. Millwall could have been in front by then, but Fulham eventually stamped their class on the game to extend their unbeaten run to 22 league games.
For Millwall, it was also a first home defeat since November and, as then against Burton, there was some frustration at the performance of the referee, who here ruled out a goal for the home side.
Millwall started well and Jake Cooper hit the crossbar from Ben Marshall’s corner in the fourth minute before George Saville fired into the back of the net. The celebrations had begun but Andre Marriner had seen a foul.
Fulham were let off the hook again in the 29th minute when Tim Ream cleared Jed Wallace’s low shot off the line before in first-half injury-time Matt Targett clipped the top of the crossbar from 25 yards.
A minute into the second half Fulham went ahead, Jordan Archer parrying Aleksandar Mitrovic’s shot and Ryan Sessegnon followed up to finish.
Fulham were completely transformed and went 2-0 up when Kevin McDonald fired into the top corner from 25 yards.
Millwall finished the game with Tim Cahill, Tom Elliott and Aiden O’Brien on the pitch to add numbers to the attack, but they couldn’t alter the course of the game as their play-off fate was wrenched out of their own hands, Mitrovic hammering home a third into the top corner.
Temperatures had hit a high of 26° in London on Friday and Fulham had been promised a red-hot atmosphere in front of a sold-out Den. The home supporters didn’t disappoint.
It was the third home fixture in succession with an attendance above 16,000 and early on they saw exactly what they probably expected from a London derby.
It initially appeared the atmosphere would get to Fulham as Marcus Bettinelli kicked straight out of play and then Ryan Fredericks made a mess of what should have been a routine piece of control. But they eventually found their stride.
Fulham had more of the ball but after Cooper had hit the crossbar and Williams’ follow-up header was straight at Bettinelli, the goalkeeper and Tim Ream had an escape when Lee Gregory dispossessed the defender from a short goal-kick but the linesman deemed the ball hadn’t travelled outside the box.
The Lions then thought they had taken the lead but referee Marriner decided Jed Wallace had fouled at the back post before Saville slammed the ball high into the net.
Fulham looked dangerous when they had spells of possession, their main threat down the left through Sessegnon and Targettt. They were targeting that inside-left channel and when Sessegnon crossed Cooper made a superb clearance from close to his own line before the hosts were relieved to see Shaun Williams arrive to tidy up rather than a Fulham player anticipating.
Fulham then breathed a sigh of relief after they had been carved open on their right. It was really clever play from Wallace to slip Steve Morison through in the box and had he crossed low Gregory would have been left with a tap-in, but the captain put too much power on his attempt and the chance was gone.
Millwall got their positioning wrong just before the break as Targett was given too much space to run into. The left-back connected well with his shot but it had slightly too much elevation.
But, after just 11 minutes of the second half, the game looked gone from Millwall. Sessegnon showed such quick reactions to anticipate that Archer might parry to drill in a low shot. Moments later, after more hesitation in the Millwall defence, midfielder Stefan Johansen was striding through and probably didn’t realise how much time and space he had before he dragged his shot wide of the far post.
McDonald got his angles spot on in the 56th minute when he thundered home a shot into the top corner.
The question then for Lions boss Neil Harris was how much to risk to try to rescue the game. Elliott was summoned and Millwall went to a front three, Marshall departing.
The tactical re-jig meant Williams at the base of midfield with Saville and Wallace in front of him, but the new shape didn’t have any immediate effect, and it was Fulham that continued to look the more dangerous side.
Cahill came on for Meredith, Saville moving to left-back, then O'Brien for Mahlon Romeo as the hosts went all-out attack.
But Millwall never succeeded in building the kind of momentum they have so successfully when they have needed to here this season, and Sessegnon almost added a third but his shot skimmed wide of the far post. Slavisa Jokanovic's side did make it 3-0 in the 89th minute as Mitrovic showed the class that Newcastle once paid £13million for. That quality was the difference between these sides.
The Lions will now anxiously cast glances to Pride Park tomorrow and cross fingers for a Middlesbrough victory.
Image: Millwall FC