Football Features

Brighton mount comeback to knock set-piece masters Millwall out of FA Cup

By Steve Jennings

Published: 17:15, 17 March 2019

Brighton and Hove Albion mounted a stunning comeback to seal their place in the FA Cup semi-finals on Sunday afternoon, beating a brave Millwall side on penalties at the Den.

After a dreadful first half, Millwall took control after the break thanks to goals from Alex Pearce and Aiden O’Brien.

It looked like the Lions had done enough, even after Jurgen Locadia pulled one back late on. But Millwall goalkeeper David Martin’s terrible mistake at the death, allowing a routine Solly March free-kick to slip through his fingers, took the tie to extra-time.

Penalties eventually ensued, with Brighton winning 5-4 to earn a semi-final meeting with Manchester City.

Here are five things we learned.

1. Millwall’s set-piece mastery almost gives hosts the edge

Remarkably, more than a third of Millwall’s goals across all competitions this season have come from set-pieces. Watching the hosts’ winner against Brighton, it’s easy to see why.

With almost no chances of any note before half-time, Millwall came alive in the second half and began to dominate in terms of opportunities. Brighton had more possession but did little with it; Millwall made the most of what little of the ball they had.

Most of their threat inevitably came from set-pieces. It’s obvious Neil Harris has his side work tirelessly on different scenarios, particularly from corners. Alex Pearce’s opener was evidence of that. A lofted delivery to the back post found the centre-back charging in and powering the ball past a number of defenders on the line.

Pearce had plenty of room, which was part of the plan. Glenn Murray, Pearce’s marker, was blocked off, creating the possibility of a free header on goal. It was a perfectly executed plan that ultimately swung the tie in Millwall’s favour, if only for a while.

2. Jed Wallace injects much-needed quality into scrappy tie

In an uninspired first half, Millwall midfielder Jed Wallace was the one player who looked likely to create something out of nothing.

The 25-year-old, who has provided five assists in all competitions this term, repeatedly dropped deep for the ball and attempted to make things happen by finding openings. He was luckless for the most part, but his determination to fashion an opportunity eventually paid off.

In need of a second goal after Pearce’s opener, Millwall’s best chance looked like coming from yet another set-piece. Instead it came from a brilliantly worked move, ending with Wallace picking out the perfect pull-back for O’Brien to steer the ball into the bottom corner.

Finally, the tie was treated to a moment of quality it had previously lacked. It was fitting that Wallace – ironically the only man who resembled a Premier League player in normal time – provided it.

3. David Martin howler breaks Millwall hearts

Millwall were so, so close to going through in 90 minutes. Even at 2-1, it was a convincing victory for Harris’ men.

Everything had been going to plan until Locadia’s goal, which gave Brighton the impetus in stoppage time. Still, nobody expected Albion’s equaliser to come in the way it did.

Solly March’s delivery was routine, if just a little deceptive. It was looping but not particularly threateningly. Put simply, it looked like a routine catch for Martin to make. Yet the goalkeeper somehow only managed to get frail fingers to the ball, which slipped though far too easily.

The mistake was emblematic of a thrilling second half that couldn’t have been more different from the opening 45 minutes.

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4. Absence of first-choice penalty takers hinders hosts

Understandably, Harris made all three of his substitutions in normal time, taking off star striker Lee Gregory and man of the match Jed Wallace.

Nobody saw Brighton’s late turnaround coming, and Millwall went through extra-time without two of their key men. Shane Ferguson’s red card in the additional 30 minutes didn’t help. Indeed, Ferguson, Gregory and Wallace probably would have taken penalties if they were still on the pitch.

Ironically, Brighton’s first spot-kick taker, Glenn Murray, hit the crossbar with his effort. His teammates made up for it by scoring their next five. Subsequently, Cooper blazed over to send Millwall crashing out.

There’s no denying Millwall would have had a better chance of going through with the likes of Gregory and Wallace still on the pitch, but one can’t help but feel sorry for hosts, who had done enough to win this tie on any other day.

5. No VAR outside top-flight stadiums a clear misstep

The decision to use VAR exclusively at Premier League stadiums in the FA Cup is looking like a bigger mistake with each passing game.

On Saturday, Championship side Swansea City fought hard to get a result against quadruple-chasing Manchester City, taking a 2-0 lead before the visitors fought back in the second half to win 3-2. The awarding of a penalty after a foul on Raheem Sterling was questionable, while Sergio Aguero’s late winner was clearly offside – VAR would have intervened had the game been played at the Etihad.

The same can be said for three incidents at the Den: in the first half Brighton’s Shane Duffy went to ground in the box after having his arm held back by Millwall’s Cooper; for the goal, Murray was blocked off – Cooper once more the villain – so that Pearce had a clear run at goal to head home; and in the last minute of extra-time, Brighton were denied a winner by an incorrect offside call. In all three cases, VAR was needed to clear things up one way or the other.

Having VAR at some FA Cup games and not at others is surely an irrational decision, an inconsistency that makes a bit of a mockery of the competition. While not specifically giving an advantage to one team (both sides are robbed of help from technology), it means certain matches are being refereed in a totally different way to others.

Logically, every game in the competition should have VAR or it shouldn’t be there at all. It’s something the FA will have to look at going forward.