Dave Seddon's match verdict: Millwall 1 Preston North End 0 - a tale of two under-worked goalkeepers at The Den
The story of this game could best be captured by the fact Millwall used two goalkeepers and Preston North End forced neither to get their gloves dirty.
Frank Fielding and Bartosz Bialkowski were both wearing the Lions’ goalkeeping jersey for the first time and could not have asked for quieter debuts.
Fielding pulled up with a thigh injury after taking a goalkick late in the first half.
Bialkowski came off from the bench and when they were to compare notes down at the goalkeeping union club later on, both had a blank in the shots saved column.
There lay the issue for the Lilywhites on a frustrating day in South Bermondsey.
They bossed possession 64% to 36%, decent statistics in any game, let alone by the away team.
However, such stats count for nothing if there is no end product and North End left The Den empty handed.
The one shot on target was Alan Browe’s early drive which Matt Smith – back defending at a corner – diverted over the bar as it headed for the net.
Millwall were not exactly razor sharp in terms of the number of times they were to threaten.
Of their three efforts on goal, one was tipped over the bar by Declan Rudd, another went straight at him and the third ended up in the back of the net – whether Rudd should have done better with it was a point for debate.
It was Jed Wallace who hit the winner in the 33rd minute, a goal which some pointed the finger at Rudd for, but there were others culpable too.
The ball was given away in the first place, while Connor Mahoney was given too much time to put the cross over.
Should Wallace too have been afforded the space he was to meet it on the volley, one which Rudd got both his gloves to but couldn’t stop it going in?
From then on it was North End chasing an equaliser and the longer the game went on you could see the ideas dry up and the inevitability of defeat.
It was a different scenario to their last visit to SE16 which resulted in a 3-1 victory back in February.
They blitzed Millwall early doors that day, job done inside 27 minutes.
This time they could have played until it went dark and not found the net.
North End boss Alex Neil was to admit the win five months ago had a bearing on his approach to this game.
Ten of the starting line-up from February 23 started on Saturday, the one difference being Patrick Bauer playing instead of Jordan Storey. It was the same 4-1-4-1 in operation too, a variation on the 4-2-3-1 used during pre-season.
Millwall had a different look, though, with Neil Harris fielding only five players who started in February.
Reflecting on the approach, Neil said: “We didn’t perform as well as last time, we didn’t hurt Millwall as much as then.
“I said during the week that you can play the same team 100 times and every game would be different. For this one I just deemed that the tactics and strategy we had last time caused Millwall problems.
“I think if we had done better we would have caused them problems.
“We had them watched and thought they would go with Smith and have Aiden O’Brien go in behind – that was the case.
“We thought they would play the boy Murray Wallace at left-back and they did.
“Last time Wallace got taken off at half-time, Tom Barkhuizen had caused him a lot of problems.
“Credit to the lad, I thought he played well this time and Tom didn’t get much joy.”
Neil was to describe his side’s overall display as ‘very average’ and that was to sum it up well. Some of the 1,232 away following – decent numbers to say the least – saw it as being worse than that.
Defensively Preston were sound enough, with Millwall creating little after the goal. Bauer was the pick of the bunch for me on his debut, in general clearing his lines and putting his head on things.
Andrew Hughes wasn’t far behind, his bump in the road being two fouls early in the second half which could have resulted in an early bath.
Booked for a challenge on Jed Wallace with the half-time tea still going down, Hughes then clipped Mahlon Romeo.
That second one was not the greatest sin in football but I have seen a yellow card for similar. Referee Stephen Martin chose to give only a free-kick, Hughes heeding the warning and steering clear of trouble from then on.
Going forward, North End lent heavily on Paul Gallagher changing the direction of play in a bid to stretch Millwall.
Tucked in down the left channel, Gallagher looked to stretch play with diagonal balls out to Barkhuizen.
The problem with that was Millwall had learned lessons from February, with Murray Wallace dropping a touch deeper to deny Barkhuizen the space behind.
That is where the winger tends to thrive, being able to run on to the play and create danger from there.
Sean Maguire led the line up front but had Jake Cooper and Alex Pearce for company, two big defenders who were going to win plenty in the air.
It was a tough job up there for the Irishman, two of his sights of goal coming when he drifted wider to find space. Jayden Stockley joined the action to give PNE a target to aim for, Maguire moving first to the left and then into the No.10 role behind him.
Perhaps Maguire needs that foil to play off, whether it be Stockley or someone else.
Bar the goal, the best two chances at either end fell in the first nine minutes.
Both were similar efforts from around the edge of the box after corners had been partly cleared.
Wallace’s second-minute shot was tipped over by Rudd, then at the other end Browne let fly with a powerful effort which was en route to the top corner until 6ft 6in Smith got his head in the way on the line.
Millwall’s winning goal was avoidable from Preston’s point of view, the ball worked out to Mahoney after a stray pass from Browne.
Tom Clarke didn’t get out to Mahoney quick enough, his cross met by Wallace 10 yards out who volleyed home.