How low can Aston Villa go? This defeat made a wretched week worse and rock bottom looms closer. Two Cup eliminations in four days, to Bradford City and now Millwall, mean that Paul Lambert's team go into Tuesday's Premier League match with Newcastle United knowing that defeat will push them closer to becoming a lower league team themselves. They have been in the top-flight since 1988 but this team have a worryingly lost look about them.
Millwall specialise in making visitors feel unwelcome and the fervour of nearly 15,000 home fans was matched by the intensity of Kenny Jackett's players. Even after Darren Bent gave Villa the lead from their first significant attack in the 22nd minute, Villa looked vulnerable and it was no surprise when they surrendered an equaliser five minutes later. It was no surprise either that it came from a set piece, Danny Shittu heading in a Jamie Henry corner to become the latest in a long line of players to have exploited Villa's feebleness in the air. The winning goal, in the 89th minute, was nodded into the net by John Marquis after more negligent marking.
For most of the match a replay looked the more likely outcome, as neither side was dominant. That fact was enough for Lambert to declare himself "disappointed by the result but not too discouraged by the performance" and he pointed out that his priority is the Newcastle match, in which defeat would have baleful ramifications for his team's battle against relegation.
"It's a massive game and that's why I left Christian [Benteke] and a few others out for this match," said Lambert, who did indeed rest his vital striker but nonetheless fielded seven of the players who had started the humiliating Capital One Cup elimination by Bradford, augmented by Bent and Andreas Weimann.
It was very close to the line-up that Lambert is likely to deploy against Newcastle. And although much is made of Villa's youthfulness, some of the Millwall players who made the difference at The Den are younger and more inexperienced than any of the visitors.
Shittu, however, is a veteran and he was found wanting for pace in the 22nd minute when Weimann surged past him and unleashed a shot from 20 yards. David Forde made a meal of blocking it and allowed the ball to bobble out to Bent, who scuffed it into the net from 12 yards. It was a far from composed finish but, surely, a lead would help Villa settle. It did not.
No Premier League team has conceded as many goals from set pieces as Villa this season and their frailty in the air soon resurfaced as Shittu showed his positive attributes. First he headed a corner just over the bar, then he was allowed another chance and duly powered a six-yard header into the net. "You just can't defend set pieces like that," lamented Lambert. "Individual errors have hurt us again."
Shittu remained imperious in the air at both ends for the rest of the match, in stark contract to Villa's trio of central defenders, who were forever flustered by the regular crosses of Henry, in particular. Chances were few yet the game was engaging. Villa at least tried to do the right things but were seldom able.
"I don't think there was a hangover from the Bradford game at all," said Lambert. "They weren't hiding, they were trying to get on the ball, so that was positive."
They just showed no inspiration when on the ball. And in the 89th minute the team who are ninth in the Championship punished them. Adam Smith, a 21-year-old loanee from Tottenham, crossed from the right and Marquis, a 20-year-old making his first start after a year out with injury, found himself unmarked as he aimed a header at goal from 12 yards. Shay Given tipped it on to the crossbar but Marquis stooped to deliver the knockout blow.
The only sour note for Millwall came when the assistant referee Mark Scholes was pelted with bottles from the Dockers Stand after he awarded a foul against Millwall early in the second half. The club could face an FA investigation.