Reading’s unbeaten tally finally came to an end at the Den, as a couple of second-half goals won it for the hosts.
It was an agricultural affair on a difficult pitch – and Reading’s rear-guard defended stoically, until the deadlock was finally broken by Matt Smith with 20 minutes to go. As Reading looked to level, former Royal Jón Daði Böðvarsson came off the bench to seal the victory for Millwall.
Manager Mark Bowen named an entirely different XI to the one which began the Emirates FA Cup game in Blackpool in midweek – reverting back to the same side which he named for the most recent league fixture against Nottingham Forest.
That meant a retained place in attack for Sam Baldock, with George Pușcaș available from the bench, along with Tom McIntyre who was recalled for league action for the first time since his injury. Former Royal Jake Cooper began for Millwall; Böðvarsson and Alex Pearce, also ex-Reading players, were amongst the Lions’ subs.
The Royals began shooting towards the Cold Blow End – shooting away from the travelling support in the first period – and on a mudbath of a playing surface, it was proving tough to string together any fluid moves. In familiar surroundings, Millwall worked the ball wide and tested the defence with a spate of crosses – Rafael fielded a few, and his defence stood strong for the others.
But soon Reading’s creative influence was beginning to show its ability as John Swift and Ovie Ejaria began to link up down the left. Despite a notable height differential, Baldock was causing problems for Cooper with some smart runs and some dogged forward play.
The first chance of note went the way of the hosts as Mahlon Romeo overlapped down the right and was fed by wide-man Jed Wallace, but struck comfortably over Rafael’s bar. Shortly after, Tom Bradshaw’s long-range skidder needed fielding, and the Brazilian got down to it well.
Though it remained goalless for the meantime, suddenly there was goalmouth action at either end; Reading would have gone ahead but for some stubborn defending by the hosts. Chris Gunter’s cross to the back post was nodded back into the danger area by Swift, and Yakou Méïté and Charlie Adam had efforts blocked away in turn.
Then Pelé kept the ball alive with some neat skill, and put in a pinpoint cross for Baldock from deep – the striker outjumped Millwall skipper Shaun Hutchinson but guided his header narrowly wide of target.
Millwall’s partisan home support were baying for a penalty when Bradshaw latched on to a flick-on by strike-partner Matt Smith, and took a tumble in the area. But the Lions striker was deemed to have dived under Liam Moore’s attentions and a yellow card was produced.
After a few forward forays for Reading, the hosts began to get the ball wide and send in cross after cross – more rugged defending required by the Royals.
Reading were let off the hook when a half-cleared ball was nodded back to an unmarked Bradshaw – onside, and with all the time he needed six yards out, he headed straight into Rafael’s arms. Moments later, the Royals had the ball in the Millwall box as Adam slotted into Méïté, but he slipped at the vital moment on the muddy surface.
And minutes before the break, Smith headed wide from 12 yards out – he and Royals skipper Moore clashed heads as Rafael came a long way to try and gather, but the striker’s header flew wide.
Seconds before the break, a Millwall clearance came through to Rafael, who took his time to pick out Baldock with a ball straight down the centre of the park. The Royals forward was bearing down on goal but Murray Wallace made a critical last-ditch challenge to prevent Baldock from breaking the deadlock.
Half-time: Millwall 0-0 Reading
Much like the first half, both sides were feeling their way back into the game. It wasn't until the seventh minute into the second half that either side truly threatened; with roles reversed, it was diminutive forward Bradshaw who flicked on for Smith, but he squeezed his volley wide on the swivel.
The hosts were getting some joy from a high press, and when a short pass was intercepted on halfway, Romeo grabbed the opportunity to burst infield and pop away a shot - side netting.
Pușcaș and Jordan Obita were both thrown on at the Den shortly before the hour-mark - a slight change of system, as Ejaria came inside off the left flank.
And again Romeo benefitted from an interception - this time the slick ball slipped away from a Royals boot, allowing the full-back to pick up and drive at goal. Obita was quick on the cover and skipper Moore stepped over too, blocking the effort in combination.
The Royals' had a gilt-edged opportunity to get their noses in front when Blackett sent in a cross from deep, met on the far side by Swift, who could only steer his half-volley wide under pressure.
Instead it was Millwall who went ahead with 20 minutes to go. Reading had dealt with the aerial threats well all game - but a second-ball broke for Cooper, who was tackled, allowing Smith to fire in on the spin from close range.
That prompted a third and final change for the Royals; an attacking switch as Garath McCleary replaced Pelé, freeing up Méïté to join Pușcaș in leading the line.
Ejaria and Michael Morrison each picked up bookings for tactical fouls, preventing the Lions from countering on either occasion as they aimed for a second.
As Reading came pressing for a leveller, a quick break by the Lions resulted in their second. The Royals were suddenly outnumbered at the back and Böðvarsson was slotted in down the left, opened up his body and slotted inside the far post.
Reading battled on for the final ten minutes but to no avail. Swift won a free-kick late on and took it himself - it was curled towards the far post but fielded by goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski. McCleary and Méïté also cleared the bar with late efforts.
All good things must come to an end - a fine run of nine results in league and cup over the past month finally resulting in a defeat at the Den.
Full-time: Millwall 2-0 Reading
Millwall: Bialkowski, Wallace, Cooper, Molumby, Romeo, Hutchinson (c), Wallace, Ferguson (Mahoney 67), Woods (Mitchell 90+2), Smith (Böðvarsson 79) Bradshaw.
Unused subs: Fielding, Pearce, Skalak, O'Brien.
Goals: Smith (71), Böðvarsson (81).
Reading: Rafael, Gunter, Morrison, Moore (c), Blackett, Pelé (McCleary 75), Adam (Obita 58), Swift, Ejaria, Méïté, Baldock (Pușcaș 58).
Unused subs: Walker, Miazga, Rinomhota, McIntyre.
Yellow: Adam, Ejaria, Morrison.
Attendance: 14,011 (1,606 away)
Referee: Mr K Stroud