Last season, City’s win at the Den was the precursor, not for an all-out assault on promotion as we all felt at the time, but for a dramatic slump that undermined all of the good work that Wagner had done up to that point.
This year, for both teams, the situation is somewhat different, and for City this could be a season-defining moment.
We started with another of those team sheets that had fans blinking and rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Five changes, another new centre-back pair, no Rowe, no Nunez, but most significantly, Sargent back on the bench.
I can only assume that Wagner wanted to manage the minutes that some players have had, with a busy fixture list coming up, whilst at the same time increasing the physicality in the team.
City started aggressively. Barnes, battling in the air, found Hwang who shifted the ball wide for Stacey. As his cross came in it was left for Barnes who hit a weak shot straight at the keeper.
Millwall were immediately struggling with the energy of the City press and seemed unable to get a grip on Hwang, who was finding lots of spaces between the defenders. He had a long shot, similar to his goal against Watford, but this time it was wide.
Then Hwang put a good ball wide to Hernandez, who typically did all the hard work before delivering a poor cross when a cutback looked a much better option.
After 5 minutes, Millwall had a first threatening break, but the cross from their right was easily claimed by Gunn.
City came forward again. McLean drove an incisive pass to Hwang, who was fouled 35 yards out from goal. The Korean took the free kick which flashed inches wide.
The best chance came after 11 minutes. Sara clipped a ball forward to Barnes. As the attacker backpedaled toward goal, he could only attempt to flick the ball over the keeper, who caught the ball easily.
There was only one team in it, despite the occasional Millwall counter. By 17 minutes, Millwall altered tack and dropped right off City. We were treated to an extended spell of City possession where they tried to unpick the lock of the low Millwall block. Sara clipped an excellent ball forward to put Hwang in behind, but the Korean lost possession in a crowd of players.
For what happened next, you can do no better than to read the excellent Ben Lee article from the Pinkun last week:
With City committed on their right, Millwall switched the ball and broke quickly through the pacy Emakhu. He laid it to Norton-Cuffy on the overlap who played a first-time ball for Bradshaw to touch home. A whiff of offside perhaps, but if the back-pedaling Bathh had not checked his run, and then left Bradshaw unmarked as he was drawn to the ball, City may have held out.
But to blame individual players is churlish. This goal was born on the tactics board at Colney and no matter what rabbits Knapper pulls out of the hat in January, whilst City continue with the current set-up, it won’t be the last time we see its like.
The game was transformed. Emboldened, Millwall enjoyed a short period of dominance before settling into a low block and challenging City to break them down.
City settled into the dreary sideways passing, back-and-forth game that we saw so much of before the recent run of good results, with inevitable consequences. First Stacey was lazy in his shielding of the ball and was easily disposed, having to foul to prevent the break. Then Sara played a sloppy pass, this time Gunn was quick off his line to deny Saville.
It took 36 minutes for City to make any meaningful progress. Hernandez and Fassnacht had swapped sides. The Cuban made some progress down the right before being blocked out twice in the corner.
Another 8 minutes elapsed. This time a Sara diagonal found Fassnacht but he couldn’t get enough on the ball to trouble the goal.
Just before halftime, Millwall won a free kick in their own half. The long ball forward was headed across goal and found two unmarked Millwall players. Flemming took the shot on and a goal looked inevitable but Gunn pulled off a superb stop to keep City in the game.
Surprisingly, the same 11 emerged for City. From the kick-off, they attempted to re-create the dynamic of the opening few minutes of the game but Millwall were wise to it and crowded the City attack out.
As City applied pressure, opportunities for Millwall on the counter were inevitable. An Emakhu cross was blocked by Gibson. Despite protests that he had used his hand, nothing was given. Then Emakhu again twisted past Gibson and his shot bought a good save from Gunn at the near post.
The possession was all City now, but as in the first half, it was predictable and easy to counter.
The fires were lit after 58 minutes. As City prepared for a corner, Cooper swung an elbow at Barnes in the area. Barnes lifted him bodily off the ground and wrestled him to the floor. Instead of the two reds expected, Barnes was given a lenient yellow.
With his ire, and that of the Millwall players and crowd, raised, the silliness continued as the home team continued to dig at Barnes. This time Cooper got the yellow. It was only going to end one way, but even before the incident, Wagner was ready to make changes.
Idah, Rowe, and Nunez came on for Gibson, Barnes, and Hernandez but the changes did little to lessen the now febrile atmosphere within the New Den.
Rowe immediately began to cause the Millwall defence problems with his direct running – a very different proposition to Hernandez.
City were now moving the ball with more intent, more pace and finally making life uncomfortable at the back for Millwall once again, but unable to find the final ball as Millwall packed their area.
On 76, Wagner bought Placheta and Sargent on in place of Hwang and McCallum, to chants of U-S-A from the City support. The American was quickly in on the action. Honeyman had his arms fully wrapped around the returning Striker and as he struggled to free himself, his name was added to the Yellow card list.
Five minutes later, Sargent got the ball wide on the left and put a teasing cross in, with no one challenging the keeper. As I looked at who was attacking the ball, I realized I had forgotten Idah was even on the pitch, such was the impact he had made since coming on.
After 87 minutes, Rowe nicked the ball deep in the City half, and immediately surged forward. Saville came steaming in from the diagonal behind Rowe and bought the youngster down with a scything tackle that fully deserved the straight red that it received.
City huffed and puffed to make the extra man advantage count. A Rowe cross went over everyone, Placheta did little better, putting a cross behind the goal.
More yellow cards. Watmore for an infringement in the corner. Idah and Leonard, presumably for more wrestling somewhere on the pitch.
City won a corner. Gunn came up from the back and won the near-post header. City won another corner. There was a scramble in the box but Millwall eventually cleared.
With the final added time ticking by, City won a free kick just outside the box. Nunez’s shot was curling goalwards and took a clear deflection off a defender only for a goal kick to be given. The Chilean earned a yellow for his protest before the final whistle was blown.
One of the key features of recent games has been the way Nunez has dictated the tempo of the City midfield. Whatever the reason for him being on the bench, as soon as Millwall scored deep and settled into the low block, he should have been on and Mclean back into midfield. Better still, it shouldn’t have been changed in the first place
City could have, should have won this yet it took three superb Gunn saves to keep City in it. In so many ways this epitomized the season so far – baffling team selection. A goal on the break. Substitutions too late, and when they were made, they were the wrong ones. And City unable to break down a low block.
The skills of Rowe and Sainz can at least counter the last point. There does appear to be only one way to eliminate the other issues though.