When we come to write our favourite moments from these encounters I guess we’ll struggle to remember much about this one, except for the chance at the death that would have put the world to rights and sent us home happy. At the end neither side could complain about the draw; equally, neither could have complained if the opposition had nicked one and taken the points. On balance we created the better openings/situations without making their keeper work until stoppage time; but they had their moments too in a tight game of few chances. Nothing quite fell right for us in front of goal and we didn’t get the breaks from the ref, who turned down a decent claim for a penalty (if you jump to block a shot with your arms in the air and it hits them …) and failed to wait for a possible advantage late on when Vetokele was clattered and the loose ball seemed to be there for Wilson to have a run on goal.
With Henderson presumably injured Pope was in goal, with Fox continuing to deputise for Wiggins and the rest of the defence picking itself. Peeters opted for a 4-5-1, with Cousins and Gudmundsson occupying the wide positions and Jackson, Buyens and Coquelin the central trio, with Vetokele operating as a lone striker. It was a set-up not designed for an open game, putting the premium on one of the midfielders, most obviously Jackson, getting into the box to provide support – or perhaps just getting Igor in a decent place to continue his scoring form.
The early phases were pretty cagey. Despite our five-man midfield Millwall had more of the possession without looking threatening, but Cousins was finding a good deal of space down the left and it was from there that the first chance came. Vetokele played it out wide and kept going into the box, Cousins curled in one of the better crosses of the day, and Igor met it well but fired the header wide of the post. That was to prove our best chance of the half, not least as the flow was disrupted before half-an-hour as Buyens pulled up with what looked like a hamstring. He was replaced by Harriott, keeping the same formation with Coquelin dropping deeper but with it taking a while to work out who was playing on the left side, with Cousins operating there (until he switched over), Harriott wanting to occupy that space, and Jackson naturally left-sided. It left us a bit unbalanced, even though Gudmundsson, assisted by Solly, was getting some joy down the right.
Millwall had one header at the far post which forced a smart stop from Pope, who was tested by a corner or two. But their best moments came just before the break. First, they ‘won’ a free kick in a dangerous position, courtesy of one of those ‘there was contact, he was entitled to do a dying swan dive’, which the officials fell for. That was cleared but shortly after Harriott was just beaten to a loose ball and that left a lot of space for their guy to run into and send in a low cross that Pope couldn’t claim and the players sliding in at the far post were unable to convert. For the most part they’d been contained quite comfortably, but that was a close one.
At the break any neutral would have been crying out for a goal, while everyone knew that – barring something out of the blue – the game might have a fair way more to run before one side or the other might make changes to go for it.
We started the second half with better tempo and caused them problems, again without being able to fashion a clear-cut chance. I remember excellent work by Gudmundsson to create space and possibilities, effective work from Coquelin, some threat from Harriott when given the opportunity to run past defenders, and Vetokele always looking a threat, but with all this interspersed with a number of poor crosses (including corners) headed away and some strangely iffy distribution from the back, with Bikey-Amougou doing his defensive stuff very well but looking a bit out of sorts when bringing the ball out and guilty of some misplaced passes. Millwall had an occasional shot blocked or saved, with nothing that you felt was more than a routine stop by Pope. And there was our penalty appeal, which I think was more than a 50-50 shout; not deliberate handball to block the shot but again, when you jump in the air with your arms up you can’t complain if they’re given.
The changes came as the game progressed, with Millwall replacing their forwards, including bringing on Fuller. With about 10 minutes left on the clock Tucudean came on for Jackson, with us reverting to 4-4-2, and later Wilson came on for Gudmundsson. Vetokele received the ball just inside their half and it seemed something might be on, only for him to be taken out (really worthy of something between a yellow and a red) and the ref to react to the foul rather than looking up to see whether there might be an advantage. Wilson was still a fair way from goal but just might have had a clear run.
That was it as we went into five minutes of stoppage time. And finally the chance came. Vetokele (I think) played in Tucudean nicely. He had a defender on his shoulder but it was effectively a one-on-one with the keeper. Tuducean opted for a chip over the advancing keeper and to run onto it; the first part was completed but he wasn’t able to prevent the defender just getting to the ball and scrambling it behind for a corner. George’s chance to write his name in the history books had gone; if he’d gone for the full-blown chip over the keeper and into the net The Valley would have erupted. Not to be this time around and when the corner produced a blocked shot from Vetokele it was game over.
No doubt they will be happier with the point than us and overall we didn’t create the chances to claim with justification that we were robbed. So be it, we move on, and look forward to April at their place.
Pope – 7/10. Dealt with all that he had to, some smart saves but ones he would have expected to make. Still exudes an air of vulnerability when it comes to clearances and didn’t seem to get properly behind one or two shots, but no problems.
Solly – 8/10. Excellent defensively, decent support going forward; overall I thought he looked more assured than in some previous games, hopefully now getting back to his best.
Fox – 7/10. No problems here either, decent game. Doesn’t yet have Wiggins’ attacking threat but that may come.
Bikey-Amougou – 7/10. Solid in our box as ever, saw off their first two forwards and their replacements, but the distribution was iffy.
Ben Haim – 8/10. Impressive again.
Gudmundsson – 8/10. Thought he was going to prove the match-winner as he had the ability to make space and beat his man, sometimes in unpredictable fashion. Just didn’t quite manage to make the killer contribution.
Jackson – 7/10. Quietly effective in defence, made those ghosting runs into the box but today nothing came his way.
Buyens – 7/10. His injury disrupted our rhythm for a while, hopefully nothing serious.
Coquelin – 8/10. First I’ve seen of him and I’d make him our man of the match. Knows how to hit a pass accurately and equally important crisply, covered well when Buyens had to go off.
Cousins – 7/10. Good work around the pitch, just still not the precision with crosses and passes in the final third.
Vetokele – 7/10. Always a threat, even without support, just that today nothing dropped into his path.
Subs - Harriott (6/10 - the good/threatening moments were there but also some loose passing and he was caught out late in the first half in a fashion that almost cost us); Tucudean (6/10 - well, it was so nearly a 10); Wilson (no mark, only on for a few minutes).