A stubborn Millwall outfit played their part in ensuring that last night’s Under 21 Development team match at Cardiff City Stadium saw less of the free flowing entertainment than has been the norm for Kevin Cooper’s team since they started competing at this level last season. City managed to maintain the superb record which has seen them win all but two of their home games during this time and their 1-0 victory was a deserved one over the ninety minutes, but it was a close run thing as the team made it fifteen points from their first six league matches and maintained their lead at the top of the table.
Millwall were in third position going into the weekend’s fixtures and provided a tougher test than Swansea and Brentford had done in City’s two previous home fixtures. Their tenacity meant that their were not as many chances or as much goalmouth action as normal in these Monday night matches, but, what there was tended to come at Millwall’s end as it was almost an hour before the visitors came close to threatening the City goal.
That said, the absence of two established and influential members of the team played a large part in leading to the relative lack of a goal threat from the City side. Kadeem Harris has become a very impressive performer at this level and City were always going to miss his dribbling ability, improved crossing and goals once he had moved to Brentford on loan until January (he scored on Saturday after coming on as a sub in the 3-1 win over Colchester at Griffin Park). While it appears that Filip Kiss has no first team future at Cardiff, he’s a powerful and accomplished performer for the Under 21’s and the team took some time in coming to terms with the absence of his strength and know how last night.
A front two of Joe Mason and Rhys Healey also meant that the team were limited to some extent in how they could build attacks – these two players are quite similar in terms of physique and their manner of playing and so their team mates didn’t have the different options available to them when trying to build attacks in the game against Brentford a week ago when it was Rudy Gestede alongside Healey.
Kiss’ absence meant that there was another over age player spot available for Kevin Cooper to use and he decided to go with Mason, John Brayford and Craig Noone. The latter looked in the mood to put on a show as well with a series of jinking runs which caused the visitors problems early on, but a crunching challenge brought an end to one of them and, eventually, led to his withdrawal after thirty five minutes – Anthony Bell coming on as a Noone’s replacement (hopefully the winger who has been unlucky in not being given a Premier League opportunity at all so far was taken off as a precaution).
Declan John came into the side after his international call up to replace Harris and, although he interchanged roles with Kane Owen to some extent, tended to play more in his old winger role. John provided the majority of meaningful goal threats in a low key first half – his shot from the free kick awarded after the foul which led to Noone’s injury didn’t come too close, but an earlier effort from twenty five yards as he cut in from the left didn’t fly over by much and Millwall keeper Denzell Gerrer might have struggled to keep out another shot from just outside the penalty area if it hadn’t got a deflection which sent it not too far wide. However it was Healey who came closest to breaking the deadlock after a fine run which took him past three defenders – Gerrer getting down well to keep out the striker’s effort from fifteen yards.
City’s young central midfield combination of Theo Wharton and Tommy O’Sullivan had not really stamped their authority on the game in the first half with the latter in particular guilty of losing the ball carelessly at times in situations where you wouldn’t expect him to. After the break though, Kiss’ absence wasn’t felt as much, with O’Sullivan’s subtler skills coming more to the fore and, while Wharton had hardly been poor during the first forty five minutes, he was back to his usual, effective, self.
In saying that, City’s apparent control in midfield didn’t bring about an increase in chances created – Healey shot just wide after a good run by Bell, but it was Millwall who missed the best chance of the game so far after fifty five minutes when unmarked centre forward Alfie Pavey carelessly volleyed over from ten yards from their first real scoring opportunity. Two minutes later, City’s number nine showed Pavey how it should be done – the goal owed an awful lot to O’Sullivan who moved on to an Owen pass and got right to the bye line on the left before pulling back a low cross which looked to be turned in by a City player (think it was Mason), only for Gerrer to do brilliantly to claw the ball out just before it crossed the line. However, the keeper was unlucky in that his clearance dropped to the feet of Healey who netted with a fierce shot from about eight yards.
Healey’s sixth goal in six games was not one which will live in the memory for long, but it’s a strange how those loose balls which bounce about close to goal invariably seem to fall to the player with the best scoring record – Healey is showing that instinct which goalscorers are born with and, withe his game certainly having come on, I wouldn’t rule out the chances of him getting some first team game time by the end of the season.
Given the way the game had gone until then, you’d have expected City to take control of proceedings now they had the lead, but, credit to them, it was Millwall who reacted better to the goal. The last half an hour saw them play their best attacking football of the game – true, they didn’t need to do a great deal going forward to achieve this, but the under employed Simon Moore had to react quickly and impressively after busy number eight Onyedinma was put in on goal after an impressive passing movement. There were also three or four crosses which flew dangerously across City’s goal as the home side came under pressure for the first time in the dying moments and all they could come up with in response after taking the lead was a Bell cross which was almost turned into his own net by a defender and a shot from the subdued Mason which looked to have beaten Gerrer, but fizzed just wide.
Once again, Deji Oshilaja showed that he is a very good defender at this level and there was an encouraging display by Maxi Amondarain alongside him, but there weren’t any outstanding performers last night – it was more of a solid team effort which brought to mind several of the first eleven’s wins last season.