An own goal and Michael Morrison strike were enough to give Blues a much needed victory over ten man Millwall.
Blues came into the clash desperate to end a three-game winless run and a positive start brought about an early goal, James Meredith putting into his own net after fine work from Che Adams.
Things got easier for Blues when Ryan Leonard was sent off for a second bookable offence, a challenge that could have easily been a straight red.
Blues’ lack of composure caused several moments of concern but the nerves were removed when Michael Morrison smashed the ball home from close range after Millwall failed to deal with a poor set piece delivery.
Garry Monk’s side held on for a first victory in November and a first clean sheet since the visit to Gary Rowett’s Stoke City.
Neither side wanted to give an inch in the opening exchanges of this encounter, those looking forward to seeing the physicality and direct styles of Blues and Millwall not disappointed.
The physical battles were enjoyable but it was a moment of quick-thinking and intelligence that ultimately saw Blues take the lead on 11 minutes, Che Adams dropping a shoulder and leaving Shaun Hutchinson on the deck. His low effort may have hit the post but James Meredith was on hand to finish the job, only able to watch as the ball bounced off his shin and into the back of his own net.
Blues decidedly sat back from that point, Camp immediately starting to find elaborate ways to waste time and slow the game down. Millwall created little, Shane Ferguson firing a free-kick over the bar while at the other end, brilliance from Maghoma set up a chance for Jutkiewicz who thrashed his effort high and wide of the target.
Ryan Leonard was booked between those efforts and received his marching orders just short of the half hour mark, making a seriously poor challenge on Maikel Kieftenbeld. The ex-Southend United and Sheffield United midfielder can count himself lucky it wasn’t a straight red.
Blues remained cautious. Maxime Colin and Kristian Pedersen offered little in the way of support for the wingers who were often left 2 v 1 out wide and forced to create something from nothing. Maghoma fancied his chances, first making the most of a strange Adams flick to force Archer into a save and later he produced a dangerous cross that Shaun Hutchinson did well to clear at the near post with Adams waiting for a tap-in.
The second half offered hope of some sort of real entertainment with Camp and Archer forced into saves. Jacques Maghoma’s dancing feet were too much for Romeo but Adams couldn’t react quick enough to flash the ball into the net, instead miscuing and seeing the ball end up in Archer’s arms via a deflection. At the other end, Jed Wallace’s free-kick was parried into the path of Jake Cooper who could only prod the ball into the path of a well-positioned Lee Camp.
Aside from that, nothing happened. Jed Wallace and Lee Gregory were full of energy but so often forced away from the Blues goal and the long ball to Steve Morison rarely made Millwall’s grey-haired talismanic figure, Michael Morrison, Harlee Dean and Kristian Pedersen attacking every ball with aggression. Gary Gardner and Maikel Kieftenbeld picked up the second balls and moments later, somebody in a Blues shirt would waste possession infuriatingly.
Connor Mahoney was replaced by Wes Harding and Blues began to slowly get back into the game, Colin receiving a little more support from an energetic Harding and Blues all of a sudden started to build attacks. Within ten minutes of his arrival onto the pitch, Blues had a second.
This was one of those goals where the attacker wanted it more than the defender. Jacques Maghoma’s low delivery wasn’t great but Jordan Archer was caught off guard and parried the ball up into the air. Michael Morrison challenged for the first ball but was knocked out of the way by his marker. He wasn’t to be denied twice, shaping up to blast the ball home through a body of defenders before running off to celebrate. Gary Gardner’s over-excitement made for enjoyable viewing.
That was pretty much that. Aiden O’Brien replaced Lee Gregory to minimal effect while Craig and Gary Gardner were given a nice moment, able to command the middle of the Blues midfield together for the first time since the latter’s arrival. Blues played with a little more composure and creativity in the final stages, ten-man Millwall only able to muster one more effort towards the Blues goal.
Garry Monk bemoaned the lack of toughness in his side’s recent displays and perhaps knew it had to return ahead of the visit to The Den and Neil Harris’ Millwall.
His players stood up to the test.
Millwall don’t give you many chances. They fight for every first ball, then the second and third. They get the ball forward quickly and make life as difficult as possible for the opposition. Blues handled the threat professionally.
Firstly, Steve Morison. Despite not being fully fit, he remained a handful, a “touch” striker always looking for the right moment to put somebody off balance, to ensure that his marker can’t win the ball if he can’t. Michael Morrison and Kristian Pedersen in particular dealt with the threat admirably, refusing to be bullied by the biggest Lion of them all on his own turf.
And then there is Jake Cooper, the giant centre-back whose aerial threat has seen him score three and assist six goals in the Championship, almost entirely from set-pieces. Dean and Jutkiewicz set up shop to deny him the opportunity to win the first ball, sending him where they wanted to send him, manipulating his movement rather than being dragged from pillar to post.
From there, it was about dealing with everything else. Blues weren’t pretty at times but they were effective. We mis-hit clearances, shied away from the ball and hit most balls in hope rather than expectation. But we got the job done.
When Wallace beat one player, he was confronted by another. When a Blues defender headed clear, another cleared. If a mistake was made, somebody was there to support. First, second and third balls were challenged for. Blues dug deep and got their reward.
Blues showed resilience, effort, desire and commitment. Leaders stood up to the challenge and the fans backed them all the way.
This is the Blues we have to come to love.
Man of the Match: Michael Morrison
Morrison was questioned after Sunday and responded in the manner you expect your captain to do so – leading by example.
Morrison is the man that organises and leads defensively so Blues’ improvement naturally falls at his feet, evidenced by his constant communication and refusal to be bullied aerially by a powerful Millwall side. Also, the goal helps.