Millwall have blown the Championship play-off race wide open with a 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest.
All three of the Lions’ goals came within in the opening 33 minutes, with striker Matt Smith grabbing a hat-trick.
Forest pushed in the second half but Millwall’s defence remained strong and they were able to hold onto the win. But what did we learn?
1. Rowett’s revolution continues
When Gary Rowett took charge of Millwall at the end of October, they were 17th in the Championship and looked more likely to be relegated than push for promotion. Under Neil Harris, the Lions had lost their way and identity, floundering and were far too inconsistent, picking up good results against the bigger teams but losing out to those they should have been beating.
But since Rowett took charge, Millwall look like a completely different team. Although there have still been defeats and disappointing results, the majority of Millwall’s play under Rowett have been positive. The 46-year-old has steadied Millwall’s defence, with the Lions boasting the best record in the Championship since Rowett took charge, conceding just 21 goals in 23 games.
And the 3-0 win over Forest might just be Millwall’s biggest result of the season. From start to finish Millwall were excellent in both defence and attack, holding of Forest’s attacks with resolve and hitting their hosts fast on the counter. It’s no fluke that two of Millwall’s three goals came from fast breaks, exposing gaps Forest had left.
The performance wasn’t perfect, as Forest did still manage to test Bartosz Bialkowski in the Millwall goal, but it is certainly one Rowett can be proud of.
2. Forest falling apart
For years, Nottingham Forest fans have been dreaming of a return to the top flight to get just a taste of the glory days. This season they have looked like putting up a good challenge for one of the promotion spots, but lately things have fallen flat.
Sabri Lamouchi’s side went into Friday night’s game with just one win in their past five games and off the back of a disappointing draw with Middlesbrough at the start of the week, in which they had to come from behind late on.
— Nottingham Forest FC (@NFFC) March 6, 2020
In that run, they’ve dropped points to teams in the bottom half of the table three times, in draws with QPR and Boro as well as a defeat to Charlton Athletic.
Although Millwall are certainly not Charlton in terms of league position or form, the manor of Forest’s defeat will still be slightly worrying. Forest were second best in the first half and punished for their defensive lapses, particularly down the left in Matty Cash.
Forest are still protected by their current standing in fourth, six points clear of Millwall, but they will need to get back on track if they are to avoid slipping closer to the chasing pack.
3. Millwall have a left side
This season, Millwall have had a lot of luck down their right side, with Jed Wallace and Mahlon Romeo building a good attacking partnership. One downside to this was that they had become easy enough to neuter, overloading the right side defensively would often stop Millwall.
But on Friday night, Millwall proved they are capable of playing down their left, and getting goals from it. Two of the Lions’ three strikes in Nottingham came from the left, both through counter attacks.
The first saw Murray Wallace beat Ben Watson far too easily with a simple dummied cross, moving the ball onto his weaker foot before whipping the ball into the box. On the end of it was Matt Smith to connect with a stooping header ahead of the defenders, giving Millwall the lead.
Their second was a very similar break down the left but this time with Mason Bennett taking on Alfa Semedo. His cross was towards the edge of the area for Jayson Molumby to meet with a late run into the box. The midfielder side-footed the ball into the net and ran away to celebrate, but the goal was later given to Smith as he got the final touch, diverting it past Brice Samba.
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4. Matt Smith stakes his claim
Matt Smith has had a strange old season, sharing his time between the starting line up and the bench. Of his 33 Championship appearances including Friday night, Smith had started 16 and came off the bench in the remaining 17.
Despite his limited time on the pitch on occasion, Smith had still managed to score seven goals and his performances were enough to warrant a start against Forest.
And after Friday night, he may be hard to get out of the starting line-up. Smith was a constant aerial threat against Forest’s defence and proved too hot to handle, scoring two headers. At the time his second header went in, the 30-year-old appeared to have grabbed himself another brace.
But it was later confirmed that Millwall’s second had been attributed to Smith for his slight tough, giving the striker his first senior league hat-trick.
5. The play-off race is on
The Championship play-off race is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when the four teams are looking set to secure their spots, a massive result throws everything up in the air. Last weekend, only Fulham won of the four sides currently occupying the play-off places, and for now they look safe in third along with Forest despite the result. But below them no team looks secure.
With Millwall’s big 3-0 win over Forest at the City Ground, Rowett’s side have jumped up from 10th to seventh and sit just three points behind fifth-placed Brentford albeit having played a game more. But Millwall cannot be comfortable in their position. By the end of the weekend, if results go against them, Millwall could be any position from seventh to 10th once again. For fans of the clubs it’ll be a nail-biting final push but for neutral, what a race we have on our hands.