Millwall rallied to share the spoils with promotion-chasing Bournemouth in a 1-1 draw at the Den last night. Benik Afobe’s slick 67th-minute finish cancelled out Dominic Solanke’s scrappy opener and leaves the Lions’ four points off of the Championship top-six.
It’s not been a straightforward stint in Bermondsey for Afobe so far. He’s been starved of service in some games, while in others, Millwall haven’t exactly played to his strengths.
But that wasn’t the case against Bournemouth – and he took full advantage; showing the type of goalscoring prowess that made him such a hit on during his two-year stint on the South Coast.
Afobe was unfortunate not to open the scoring early in the second half when only a last-ditch intervention from Gary Cahill thwarted him after he was put clean through. But he wasn’t to be denied. Tom Bradshaw’s deft header sent Afobe racing clear but still left him with a lot to do. His tidy finish was absolutely pinpoint and left Mark Travers with no chance.
It’s now four goals in 15 league games for the on-loan Stoke striker this term, and he’s starting to look like the striker Millwall fans have craved for the past two years. His selfless, all-action display was hailed by Lions boss Gary Rowett as “one of the best number nine performances” he’d seen in the division all season.
That verdict was pretty much spot on. And playing to Afobe’s strengths, by giving him the ball to feet or to run on to in behind rather than above his chest, could make all the difference and enable the Lions to finally crack into that top-six.
Billy Mitchell produced another all-action display for the Lions against Bournemouth on Wednesday night. Since muscling his way back into the team, Mitchell has looked the part and he bossed the game against Premier League calibre players in midweek.
Despite his tender years, Mitchell never goes hiding. He constantly wants the ball. He seems to have expanded his passing repertoire this year too, with a couple of eye-catching passes finding their mark against the Cherries.
Mitchell has broken into the team a couple of times under Rowett in the past before struggling to get back in after injuries, but barring any fitness issues, it’s hard to see that happening again. The youngster has come of age in the middle for the Lions this year and must surely be one of the first names on the team sheet right now.
He almost capped his superb performance with a stunning solo goal after some Strictly-esque footwork left two Bournemouth players for dead on the left flank in the second half. But his ferocious drive was just too high – denying both him and the Den what would have been one of the best goals seen in SE16 for many a year.
RETURN OF THE MAC
Danny McNamara was restored to the starting 11 for the clash with the Cherries just days after being left out of the squad that traveled down to Middlesbrough. The right wing-back has hardly featured since he was withdrawn in the 2-0 defeat to Luton last month, with Ryan Leonard seemingly nudging ahead of him in the Lions pecking order.
But Leonard’s absence on Wednesday night gave McNamara the opportunity to play his way back into contention – and he certainly made the most of it. He hardly put a foot wrong all night defensively and showed glimpses of the dynamism that he offers in that role; something that Leonard doesn’t quite have.
Rowett admitted recently that Leonard’s goal contributions from that spot gave him the edge over McNamara. That final ball was probably the only thing missing from McNamara’s game on Wednesday night, but it feels inevitable that those goals and assists will start to flow for him soon enough.
TALE OF TWO HALVES
Once again it was a case of deja vu at the Den.
For what feels like the umpteenth time this season, the Lions went in at the break trailing, only for them to roar back with a rousing second-half display.
On this occasion, Millwall were unfortunate to be behind. Although they failed to test Mark Travers in the visiting goal, Bournemouth didn’t play like a side perched comfortably in the promotion places and it was only the Lions’ generosity that gifted them the opening goal.
But once again, some questionable refereeing decisions and a few feisty challenges sparked the Den into life and ignited another cracking second half display.
Afobe’s goal means that 13 of the Lions’ 19 goals this season have come after the break, highlighting just how often Rowett’s men have risen to the occasion in the later stages.
Two or three times in the first half, Millwall found themselves with time and space 20-25 yards away from goal but tried to be a bit too cute – something that Rowett also picked up on after the game. It wound up costing the Lions too when they went in at the interval trailing without mustering a shot on target.
Finding a few more early goals looks vital if Millwall are to bridge the gap to those play-off spots.
Although Millwall have made their best start to a season at this level since they were promoted back to the Championship in 2017, Lions fans haven’t been entirely happy with some of the tactical calls this season.
But Rowett got his calls spot on again against a Bournemouth side who have blown teams away on occasions this season.
His decision to introduce Sheyi Ojo and Tom Bradshaw and tweak Millwall’s shape into a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 saw them turn the match on its head and completely dominate Bournemouth for the final 25 minutes. Over the past few games, Millwall and Rowett have been positive with their tactical tweaks and have been rewarded with some excellent second half displays to improve the Lions’ home form.
This wasn’t the complete performance, and Rowett himself said after the game that he felt that the Lions could still be better. But it was another step in the right direction. The second half was definitely the type of front-foot, up-and-at-em performances that the Den faithful have craved this year.
It’s beginning to feel like this Millwall side are finding their feet at home and bringing the Den crowd into games more often.