The Thursday Preview: Millwall Vs Leeds United
For the third season running, the late-season buzz at the Den isn’t just attributable to the low hum of the incinerator next door. I think it’s fair to say that involvement in the play-off race wasn’t on Kenny Jackett’s agenda at the beginning of the season, and as late as February South London eyes were directed toward the bottom half of the table. Since then, however, an about-turn Nick Clegg would be proud of – starting with a convincing victory over league leaders QPR – has put the Lions firmly in contention for another crack at Wembley. As someone who has been at many of the games in that period, it’s quite difficult to specify exactly the reasons behind the change in form. But, seeing as that’s what we at least attempt to do on this blog, I’ll have a go nonetheless.
The headline-grabbing factor would be Steve Morison‘s return to form. A bout of flu and a few rumblings about Premier League interest during the January transfer window seemed to take their toll on Millwall’s new talisman and first two months of 2011 weren’t too rewarding: the phrase `confidence player‘ was never more apt. A flicker of his call up to Gary Speed’s first Wales squad in march and a marauding, throat-grabbing performance against the Shepherd’s Bush Hoops seem to have galvanized the striker; a fifth consecutive 20-goal haul is not out of the question. A leading man is nothing without his supporting cast, though. A similar resurgence from midfield juggernaut Liam Trotter and an increased workrate on the part of wideman James Henry have given Morison something to work with. So too have loanees Hameur Bouazza and Andros Townsend – the latter in particular contributing a greater incisive threat from the left that had been missing since Jason Puncheon passed through en route to Bloomfield Road.
More significant for me, though, is the return of stability to the back four. Injuries and suspensions to defensive stalwarts prompted the Lions’ fortunes to fluctuate like Portugal’s sovereign credit rating in January and February. The defection of Lionel Messi’s sometime nemesis Danny Shittu to West London and injuries to captain Paul Robinson forced Jackett to chop and change his central defensive pairing. It’s no coincidence then that the unbeaten run through March has seen the looming presences of Robinson and Darren Ward – as well as the poor man’s Stuart Pearce, Tony Craig – start every game. Possessing the Championship’s second highest tally of clean sheets, Millwall’s defensive parsimony has played a significant role in the club’s success.
Saturday’s visitors to the Den never knowingly undersell themselves and will roll down the M1 in good cheer after a 4-1 demolition of Nottingham Forest last weekend. Despite misplacing some valuable points against Ipswich and Sheffield United in late March, Leeds won the three fixtures on either side. Their performances since finally achieving promotion from League 1 last year have established them as one of the Championship’s major forces again, with the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Luciano Becchio and Max Gradel flourishing under Simon Grayson’s guidance. Conversely to their opponents this weekend, Leeds’ weakness is in defence: a revised back four has rarely looked settled this season and has conceded 29 times on the road already. The last few rumbles in the concrete jungle that is Bermondsey have gone the home side’s way, but an impressive 3-1 win in the corresponding encounter at Elland Road will leave the Yorkshiremen feeling bullish and this will be another bruising and closely matched bout. The Lions’ best chance of making the play-offs is to drag Leeds into the struggle and I’ll back them for a 2-1 win.