A failure for teams to take the initiative in the race for promotion has been a prevalent theme in the Championship this season, something which Preston North End fell victim to on Saturday afternoon.
After back to back away wins earlier this week had put them within touching distance of automatic promotion, North End’s home form – usually so reliable this season – would be found wanting for once, as Shaun Hutchinson’s second-half was enough to secure all three points for Millwall at Deepdale, strengthening the Lions’ own play-off hopes in the process.
Perhaps keen to lay down a marker against one of their rivals in the race for the play-off places, it had been the hosts who actually started the brighter in this one.
Marlon Romeo produced a brilliant sliding challenge to deny Scott Sinclair an early opener from close range, before David Nugent fired over a rebound at close range after Bartosz Bialkowski had parried Daniel Johnson’s initial effort, while Sinclair fired straight at the Millwall ‘keeper with a first-time effort from Nugent’s flick-on.
But having spent the first 15 minutes camped almost exclusively in their own half, Millwall soon began to show signs of life on the counter.
Jed Wallace’s corner prompted a goalmouth scramble that was eventually cleared behind for a second set-piece that came to nothing, before the Millwall attacker played a one-two with Jake Cooper that allowed the advancing defender to break into the Preston area, where his effort was saved by the legs of Declan Rudd, with the Preston ‘keeper diving on the rebound.
Rudd then had to be alert to pounce on the ball after Jayson Mulumby’s long-range effort deflected off teammate Tom Bradshaw as Millwall began to find the footing in the game.
Preston however, were far from out of things, and saw another chance come and go when Tom Barkhuizen flashed an effort across the face of goal and behind, after Patrick Bauer’s ball into the Millwall area had been headed into the path of the North End attacker.
Jed Wallace’s effort from the edge of the area was then comfortably held by Rudd in the final minute of the opening period, as both sides continued to show plenty of intent, but little in terms of a finishing touch as the two teams headed to the changing rooms at the interval.
It would be a similar story of intent failing to be backed up in the second half, only this time it was Millwall who would squander the early chances.
First, Molumby would fail to get his effort just inside the area through a mass of bodies after Preston failed to properly clear a corner, before Bradshaw saw his effort glance off the crossbar after he broke through one on one on the hour-mark.
Moments after that near-miss, Tom Clarke came up with a last-ditch challenge at the back post to deny Bradshaw at the back post with the goal gaping, with Rudd denying Hutchinson from the resulting corner.
Eventually however, Millwall would get that breakthrough with just over ten minutes left on the clock, as Preston once again failed to clear a corner, allowing Murray Wallace to time to head the ball back into the mixer not once but twice, the second of which was pounced upon by Shaun Hutchinson at the back post, with the defender nodding Gary Rowett’s side into the lead.
Having taken the lead, Millwall would quickly look to double their advantage, with Bradshaw seeing an effort from the edge of the area blocked, before substitute Connor Mahoney was denied by Rudd after being played in by Jed Wallace.
At the other end, Bialkowski had to be at his best to prevent Paul Gallagher equalising for the hosts with a stoppage-time free-kick, as the Lions rode out a late spell of pressure to secure three points that move them to within four of North End, who continue to occupy that final play-off spot.