Coventry City are, probably, back, which puts the team in the strange position of entering a game in the midst of the festive fixture list off the back of a significant break. Just how helpful that will be versus having played games and avoided a fixture pile-up later in the season remains to be seen, but it feels as if a pause for thought may well have come at a good time for the Sky Blues.
The break probably came at the right time in Coventry City’s season to allow for a breather and re-set after a poor recent run. This upcoming game against a depleted Millwall side is, theoretically, an opportunity to hit the ground running, however, it has been seen with the Sky Blues in the past that such chances can prove difficult to take.
Provided that Omicron hasn’t thrown a spanner into the works, Mark Robins could well have close to a fully-fit, and rested, squad to pick from. While it was seen last year with the various Covid-postponements and fixture shuffles that a rest isn’t necessarily the advantage that it seems, potential returns for important players in Jake Clarke-Salter, Martyn Waghorn and Gustavo Hamer significantly strengthens Mark Robins’ hand for this game.
It could well leave some big decisions to be made in just about every area of the starting XI in this game, with a strong performance last time out against Huddersfield Town strengthening the case for the incumbents. From defence, to midfield, to attack, to even the starting formation, there is quite a lot up in the air in terms of team selection heading into this game.
In defence, Mark Robins is likely to stick with the trio of Dominic Hyam, Kyle McFadzean and Michael Rose, given how long Jake Clarke-Salter has been out for. If there was a change, Hyam is the most likely of the three central defenders to drop out. The more notable area of attention is who the manager picks in the wing-back positions, with Todd Kane impressing last time out and Ian Maatsen’s introduction from the bench helping the team salvage the draw, making it an even more compelling case for Fankaty Dabo to be handed a spell out of the side.
A fully-fit Gustavo Hamer would surely come straight back into the team, however, Mark Robins may feel burnt after the midfielder declared himself fit in his last appearance, against West Bromwich Albion, when he clearly wasn’t. A game or two just to ensure that Hamer is back at 100% may be just what the doctor has ordered.
Further forward, there are plenty of options as to the configuration of the attack, from continuing with the 3-4-2-1 that produced a fluent performance against Huddersfield, returning to two up top as this is a home game, to handing starts to Jodi Jones and/or Martyn Waghorn. Mark Robins is likely to want to be positive in this return to action at the CBS Arena, leading to a return to two up top. With Viktor Gyokeres out of form of late, that front two could well be Matt Godden and Martyn Waghorn, if the latter is fit enough to start.
Last Time We Met
The Sky Blues were at, just about, the crest of their early season wave when they travelled to The Den to take on a typically competitive and organised Gary Rowett Millwall side. Viktor Gyokeres’ early goal highlighted just how confident the Swede was at that early stage of the season, with his first touch from a simple ball into his feet on the edge of the penalty area somehow taking him clear through on goal, before a confident finish.
There was little in the match from that point onwards, but Millwall were able to level the game soon after Gyokeres’ opener, with some neat play between Jed Wallace and George Saville sending the latter through to secure a share of the points for his side.
The Manager – Gary Rowett
There may be no better manager in the Championship at getting hard-working, mid-table underdogs performing above expectations than Gary Rowett. Having done so at Birmingham City a few years ago, Rowett is back to doing what he does best, after somewhat ill-fated spells at better-resourced Derby County and Stoke City, with Millwall. His teams are rarely the most exciting to watch, but they are so well-drilled that they are rarely out of games, meaning that only a few fine margins have to go in their favour in order to keep the points ticking over.
After a slow start to the season, not helped by injuries to some key players, Millwall have climbed into play-off contention of late. Only Derby County have drawn more games than the Lions, but it is the fact that they have won one more than they have lost that means they are in reasonable sight of the top six at the half-way stage. The feeling is that all Millwall need to do is add just a little more quality in January, which club’s owners appear willing to finance, to push them over the edge.
Who To Look Out For?
It is not clear just who is missing for Millwall heading into this game, so treat the following as a ‘worst case’ scenario were the Lions to have their best players available.
This is Millwall, the man to watch out for is Jed Wallace. The former Portsmouth attacking midfielder epitomises this Millwall side under Gary Rowett with his reliability without necessarily producing the kind of fireworks to hit the headlines outside of South London. A hard-working and intelligent player in the final third, Wallace so consistently makes the cogs turn for Millwall that anything less than double figures for both goals and assists over the course of a campaign is seen as a disappointment from him.
Elsewhere, the addition of Benik Afobe to Millwall’s attacking line-up this season has helped tipped a few more tight margins in the team’s favour. The big and intelligent striker can be very difficult to deal with, even when he isn’t directly threatening goal. With nippy and hard-working options alongside him in either Tom Bradshaw or Mason Bennett, Afobe’s ability to physically occupy a defence can be especially effective.
It wouldn’t be Millwall without a phalanx of six foot four plus central defenders to get past, which continues to be the case this season. The trio of Shaun Hutchinson, Jake Cooper and Murray Wallace remains as imposing as ever, with Arsenal loanee and Northern Ireland international, Daniel Ballard, having proved another strong addition in defence for the Lions. In goal, Bartosz Bialkowski is another reliable performer, the type of keeper who can really shut up shop with feats of acrobatic shot-stopper when on peak form.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
The news that Millwall are short on numbers and that those available may be short of fitness tips the odds in Coventry City’s favour, but the Sky Blues cannot take the mentality that victory here is a gimme. There will be a siege approach in the Millwall camp, which Gary Rowett’s managerial style is suited to. For the Sky Blues, concentration and patience are likely to be required here in equal measure.
A possible return for Martyn Waghorn in attack – or the continued usage of an auxiliary attacking midfielder to Callum O’Hare – could provide Coventry City with the zip and energy in attack to take control of this game. That extra body dropping between the line of midfield and attack has probably been one of the things missing of late, although, it will require efforts made to get bodies into the box to round off the attacking play.
While there is a strong, form-based, argument to be made that Todd Kane should start ahead of Fankaty Dabo at right wing-back, this could well be a game for the latter. As effective as Kane’s crossing ability has been as an outlet in recent games, Millwall are likely to be happier to defend that rather than Dabo’s ability to beat defenders and create space further up the pitch. Of course, that is dependent on which of Millwall’s defenders are available.
At the other end, Coventry City will have to be wary of their opponents nicking something that can allow them to sit in and hold onto a result. Whether that’s via a set-piece or via the attacking skill of players such as Jed Wallace, Benik Afobe and Tom Bradshaw (pending their availability), Millwall would well-used to keeping games tight and edging it at the other end.