BURTON ALBION 2-1 MILLWALLA stirring and feisty encounter with Millwall finished with Albion back at the summit of League One as Damien McCrory's first goal of the season followed by Nasser El Khayati's eighth strike of the campaign proved enough for the three points, the visitors finishing the game with ten men after Mark Beevers was dismissed late on.
Both Burton goals came towards the end of the first half, a period that was low on any real quality until the moment when the returning McCrory smashed home Mark Duffy's free kick from 12 yards. The Birmingham loanee who picked up the sponsors man of the match award also claimed an assist for El Khayati's goal, a stunning counter attack from the edge of their own box to ultimately put the game out of the reach of the Londoners.
Full back Joe Martin scrambled a goal from a corner to put the game back on a knife edge for the last quarter of an hour and as tempers boiled over in the closing minutes Mark Beevers was sent off amidst a scuffle in the Burton goal after a late challenge on keeper Jon McLaughlin having earlier seen yellow for hauling substitute Timmy Thiele to the ground off the ball.
Two changes were the order of the day from Brewers boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for the first ever visit of the Lions to the Pirelli Stadium. The ever reliable McCrory safely came through 45 second half minutes against Colchester on Saturday and was restored to the left back berth with Anthony O'Connor moved into a holding role in front of the back four as part of a 4-1-4-1 formation. Robbie Weir dropped out after picking up a foot injury on Saturday and ex-Spurs youngster Calum Butcher returned to the side in his place.
Tom Naylor, awarded the third goal on Saturday, almost added another as the clock ticked over to four minutes gone sidefooting a shot from 20 yards just wide of Jordan Archer's goal as the Brewers looked to get off to a flying start.
Millwall's first real chance to test Jon McLaughlin came along on nine minutes Aiden O'Brien firing straight into the arms of the Brewers keeper when Shaun Williams' free kick was cleared and returned with interest into the penalty area. Experienced front runner Steve Morison, skippering the Londoners tried a delicate chip moments later as he was forced wide of goal moments later but his effort lacked the precision to trouble McLaughlin who was able to watch the ball drop over his crossbar.
There was real danger for Albion on the quarter hour mark as a scramble in the box ensued and as McLaughlin and two Burton defenders smothered the ball referee Oliver Langford opted to award a drop ball just outside the six yard box. Albion had everyone behind the ball and it did the trick as O'Brien was unable to force the ball beyond the wall of yellow and black in front of him.
Butcher required treatment for a facial injury in the aftermath as he challenged for the ball and got a kick in the face for his troubles. After stemming the flow of blood from his nose he returned battered and bruised to recommence the intense battle in the middle of the pitch.
O'Brien did put the ball in the back of the net on 25 minutes but referee Langford's whistle had already gone for handball by the Millwall man as he won the tussle with O'Connor for the ball. To add insult to injury the forward also saw a yellow card from the man in the middle for his troubles. A tad harsh perhaps.
Both sides had resorted to trying to play long balls which made for a scrappy phase of play with creativity scarce. There was plenty of the ball going in the air to the frustrations of the supporters from both sides. George Saville also saw yellow for a tug back that sent Nasser El Khayati to the ground as he was about to burst in to the box. This time Albion produced a moment of quality from the training ground as Duffy pulled the free kick low into the box where McCRORY timed his run to perfection to smash home a rising left foot drive into the roof of the net. A fine way to get off the mark for the season for the popular left back.
O'Brien stung the palms of McLaughlin again with a rasping shot that was beaten away by the Burton keeper, stationed perfectly to repel the shot with Joe Martin failing to trouble him from the rebound lashing wildly over the bar.
As last week at Wigan a stunning counter attack from an opposition corner resulted in Albion sweeping up the pitch to finish an excellent move. Naylor's industry on the edge of his own box allowed him to break away and free El Khayati down the left. His curling ball forwards picked out the run of Duffy and the trickery and awareness allowed him to cut back inside and feed the ball back into the path of the Brewers leading scorer, EL KHAYATI smashing a low right foot shot unerringly beyond Archer for 2-0.
With the first half just into six minutes of added time, mostly for the Butcher injury, El Khayati chanced his luck again after one of his now familiar little tricks to force Archer into a wonderful save at his near post.
It could have been even better for Albion going into the break with both Naylor and Mousinho foiled by the agility of Archer from close range amidst a scramble in the Millwall penalty area. The visitors were relieved to survive to the break only two down. A goal then would have surely been game over.
Half time: Burton Albion 2-0 Millwall
A double change was what Neil Harris felt would give his side the best chance of getting back into the game. Saville, lucky to perhaps be still on the pitch when the half time whistle went for a nasty challenge on Butcher, was perhaps sensibly replaced by Ben Thompson with the Millwall attack also livened up by the introduction of Lee Gregory in place of on loan Newcastle man Shane Ferguson.
The second half was only three minutes old when Albion made their first change as well. Stuart Beavon, still nursing a knock from Wigan a week ago was withdrawn to give Timmy Thiele a chance to continue his current good form. The German was quickly involved but gave away a free kick after bundling into the lively Fred Onyedinma who was still hobbling around minutes later when he eventually returned to the pitch.
O'Connor was rather harshly shown a yellow card, particularly in light of challenges in the first half that were worse and went unpunished. Stretching for the ball he seemed to win it but also sent Onyedinma to the floor. The visitors were enjoying a spell of pressure but despite the awarding of several set pieces Albion's back line by and large held firm by getting plenty of bodies into the box to defend.
A handball right on the edge of the box gave the Lions a great chance to test McLaughlin as Flanagan was penalised and yellow carded. Shaun Williams was the man to strike at goal but the Burton wall did its job and deflected the ball over the angle of post and bar for a corner. The Brewers were stretched as the ball came in and Steve Morison was able to get the ball into Gregory's path but his poke towards goal was cut out by McLaughlin dropping onto the ball before it crossed the line.
Mark Beevers was next to go in the book in what was becoming something of a tetchy encounter. The centre back needlessly dragged Thiele to the ground off the ball as Naylor raided forwards. Referee Langford decided there was no advantage for Albion and awarded a free kick that El Khayati eventually curled just wide of the post.
The Dutchman was just inches away from making it three on 73 minutes. A superb raking cross field ball from O'Connor perfectly picked out the Brewers leading marksman hanging out wide on the left. With Shaun Cummings at his mercy he cut inside and smashed a low right foot shot that took a wicked deflection off a defender and drifted wide. It looked for all the world as if it was nestle into the back of the net until it bounced and dropped the wrong side of the upright. Such are the fine lines in football that moments later Albion were pegged back to put the game back in the melting pot. O'Connor headed out for a corner after not getting a shout from a colleague and when the ball was whipped in from the left hand side left back Joe MARTIN was on hand to poke the ball in from close range.
The visitors sensed an equaliser and they almost grabbed it on 77 minutes with McLaughlin again on hand to save the danger, Morison flagged offside when the rebound fell at his feet following a scramble in the Burton box
Duffy's looping cross from the left on 84 minutes was perfectly weighted for El Khayati drifting in behind at the far post and had he connected properly with it then undoubtedly it would have been a goal of the season contender for sure and would probably have taken the net off with it.
Tempers flared with five minutes to go as Gregory and Butcher tangled on the ground with referee Langford seeing fit to show yellow cards to both of them.
Another corner for Millwall with two minutes to go caused pandemonium in the Burton box and Onyedinma was not far away with an overhead effort in a crowded penalty area.
Right back Shaun Cummings was taken off for the closing stages for Ed Upson to throw himself forward in search of an equaliser, the tall former Yeovil man adding his physical presence to the battle in the middle.
Beevers saw a second yellow followed by the customary red as the game boiled over late on. A high ball was claimed by McLaughlin on the line and the Millwall player went in late. A scuffle followed in the back of the goal as tempers raged again, Burton players racing to the defence of their keeper and it ended with Millwall down to ten as referee Langford drew his cards from his pocket again.
The Brewers held firm for the closing moments as a third crucial win in a week was sealed and Albion were once again top of League One. Few can deny after a performance like that they deserved it.