Chris Wilder was livid. Marching onto the pitch at full-time, he was gesticulating with fury, debating a foul a few seconds before Millwall’s equaliser. For two sides so far apart from each other, in the heat of such a vital game, emotions were at polar opposites too, and they had got the better of the Sheffield United manager here. It showed just what this meant to the Blades' confidence as their battle for automatic promotion hurtles towards its climax, as they in turn handed Leeds a three-point gap in second place.
Nobody saw the swirling drama of the final 20 minutes coming, and nobody certainly saw Millwall leaving here with a point. After a red card, a missed penalty and a late equaliser from Jake Cooper, it felt like all the action was reserved for the dying moments, and the visitors were walking away with a fist-pumping boost to their relegation tussle, as they sit just two points from the drop zone.
At the top of the table, it was quite fitting that while Leeds and Sheffield United continue to jostle for a place in the top two, their fight continued this weekend to involve both teams from Steel City – Leeds beat Sheffield Wednesday in a Yorkshire derby of their own in the late kick-off. A rare occasion where Blades fans were praying desperately for their co-inhabitants to grind out three points.
But back at Bramall Lane there was still a job to be done first, and there was a stark difference in the style of play on the pitch. Millwall would hoof a searching pass up from the back, hoping for Lee Gregory to nod down to an oncoming midfielder, and when United took control they’d bring the ball to the floor for a neater, more aesthetic approach. Though it’s not always been their bread and butter this season, it’s helped Wilder’s side to some convincing victories – they’ve won seven of their last 10 – and what should’ve been another here had the Blades made the most of possession while it was in their grasp.
Neil Harris had a rare change of formation up his sleeve ahead of this game, starting with five at the back for the first time in his managerial career. The bulk of bodies in defence therefore kept any danger at bay for the first 20 minutes, but an injury to Chris Basham meant United had to bid an early farewell to their five defenders, calling on Gary Madine to join Billy Sharp up front.
United came close as left wing-back Enda Stevens had a free header in the box, drawing the first crescendo of expectant cheers as he directed wide. David McGoldrick came even closer, inches away from the top-right as he steered an effort from outside the box. It was after the introduction of Madine – meaning an extra man going forward – that the game started to get going a bit more, with David Martin kept on his toes in the Millwall goal, but the first half saw a mostly dull period that wasn’t worthy of the Yorkshire sunshine beaming down onto the grass.
The home crowd finally sprung to life at the beginning of the second period, as shots rained in from McGoldrick and then Oliver Norwood, the latter of which was deflected wide for a corner. Those shouts morphed into elation moments after; McGoldrick’s slick ball through the middle found John Fleck, who then touched back for Madine to easily slot home in the box. Fleck stood in front of the Kop with his arms wide open in celebration.
Millwall have commanded respect over the last few weeks for not allowing the pressure to creep in – in fact they've been using that as motivation, against the likes of West Brom last week for example – but today there were discernable errors, and when added to the lack of options going forward the game seemed to be headed only one direction. Although United had stood firm to keep them out, they didn’t need to throw everything on the line in order to do so – or at least that’s what they thought.
In the final 20 minutes came an unexpected onslaught from the visitors in their fluorescent orange kit. After Jed Wallace’s volley flew just past the post, and Mahlon Romeo’s long range free-kick was deflected wide, it was clear the Lions were now asking all the questions as the game came to a close. As substitute Tom Elliot headed towards goal in the box, a stretching John Egan tipped it over – the only problem being was he’d used his hands. The defender was sent off, and with five minutes to go Ben Marshall had a vital chance to even the scores, but his penalty cannoned off the bar and over.
The cheers and laughs from around the ground, mostly of relief, weren’t going to be the last though. In the fifth minutes of stoppage time, as Millwall continued to surge forward and make the most of having an extra man, centre-back Jake Cooper edged past a sea of defenders to header in his seventh of the season. Cue scenes of uproar and jubilant celebrations in opposing dugouts.
Though they’re still worryingly close to the relegation zone themselves with a game in hand, the Lions have just stuck a huge dent in United’s day. This was a chance for the hosts to put pressure on Leeds, but instead allowed the gap to widen. They'll now be hoping for Marcelo Bielsa's side to slip up in their remaining four games.
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