Millwall humiliation caps Lambert's nightmare week
Millwall 2 Aston Villa 1
Being an Aston Villa supporter is not an easy pastime at the moment but given the week they have endured, they must have feared the worst from their trip to face Millwall.
After a gutsy, if error-strewn, performance looked like it had earned them a replay, Paul Lambert's side were knocked out of the FA Cup by a goal from John Marquis in the penultimate minute of normal time. It was a bitter pill to swallow for a club that has had their fair share of lows over the past 18 months and it remains to be seen what another Cup defeat to lower league opposition will do to their already-sapped confidence levels.
It has been a difficult few days for Lambert since the ignominious exit from the Capital One Cup semi-finals against League Two side Bradford City. The Villa manager admitted he was left "feeling like crap" after receiving hate mail and even death threats in the wake of Tuesday's defeat, although it is believed he has privately received assurances from owner Randy Lerner that his job is safe even if they are relegated.
Visiting a packed Den on a frosty Friday night was the type of banana skin that Lambert could have done without ahead of the six-pointer against Newcastle United on Tuesday. With that crucial match in mind, leading scorer Christian Benteke was left out of the squad and record signing Darren Bent started as one of four changes from the Bradford debacle.
Having risen into the top six at the end of last year on the strength of a 13-match unbeaten run, Millwall's form has suffered since on-loan West Bromwich Albion striker Chris Wood joined Leicester on a permanent deal. A tally of four goals in five matches since the turn of the year has seen Kenny Jackett's side drop down to ninth in the Championship table but the visit of an ailing Premier League giant is always enough to set pulses racing in their corner of south-east London.
Despite the vociferous backing of the home crowd, it was easy to see why Millwall have struggled in front of goal. A tame shot by striker Marquis was all they could muster after 15 minutes of concerted pressure that left Lambert desperately trying organise his players.
Help was at hand midway through the half when Liam Feeney carelessly lost the ball and Villa finally had the chance to launch a counter-attack. Andreas Weimann sped past Danny Shittu and hit a powerful shot that goalkeeper David Forde could only push into Bent's path. The striker scuffed his effort but the ball span away from the retreating defenders and into the net.
If Lambert thought that may have signified a change in fortune, he was sadly mistaken. Less than five minutes later Shittu gained his revenge when he powerfully headed home a corner from the right to underline once again Villa's frailty from set-pieces and suddenly the visitors were rocking.
The Villa fan holding a sign declaring "In Lambert we trust" had his loyalties tested even more as the second-half continued in the same pattern as the first. A mistake from Ciaran Clark almost let in Andy Keogh but some smart inter-play between Charles N'Zogbia – at last showing glimpses of why Alex McLeish paid £10m for him 18 months ago – and Bent almost created a chance for Ashley Westwood.
A three-minute stoppage after bottles were thrown at a linesman allowed Villa to regroup, although N'Zogbia missed a golden chance to set up Weimann soon after. James Henry then wasted a great opportunity to put Millwall ahead within 60 seconds when his lob was easily held by Shay Given, but despite the huff and puff, the hosts struggled to carve open any real chances against a rickety defence.
Villa's determination to hang onto the ball in the latter stages showed they do have some ability going forward and substitute Barry Bannan was unlucky to see his shot from just outside the box saved 12 minutes from time. But just when they thought they were in the clear, the finger of fate struck once again as Marquis's header cannoned back off the bar and fell straight to his feet to slot into the empty net.
Football can be a very cruel mistress sometimes.
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