LEEDS UNITED moved eight points clear of the Championship dropzone as Alex Mowatt’s first-half free-kick sunk third-bottom Millwall 1-0 as part of a nervy afternoon at Elland Road.
United dominated the first half but were made to sweat in a tense, end to end second half in which Millwall’s Martyn Woolford - a January target for Leeds - blazed a golden chance to equalise over the bar.
Whites head coach Neil Redfearn made one change to the side that triumphed 2-0 at Reading on Tuesday with Rudy Austin returning from illness to replace Tommaso Bianchi in midfield.
Bianchi was taken off after half an hour against Reading after sustaining cruciate ligament damage to be replaced by Casper Sloth who impressed but Sloth remained on the bench, alongside Brazilian Adryan who was recalled.
In keeping Steve Morison in a lone striker role, Redfearn opted for the 4-5-1 system that had been working so well away from home.
But any concerns about United not being enough of an attacking force were dispelled from the off with the Whites beginning brightly backed by vociferous home support.
Morison and Alex Mowatt both forced early corners on opposite flanks while a jinking Sam Byram was already threatening down the right.
At the other end, a Millwall counter ended with Sol Bamba hacking away for a corner but Lee Martin’s set piece was curled straight out of play.
Leeds hit back with Rudy Austin powering down the right hand side and the Whites then went agonisingly close to taking the lead through Byram after eight minutes.
Mowatt fed an advancing Charlie Taylor down the left hand side and his low cross found Byram whose side-footed effort went inches wide of the right hand post.
Millwall had to wait another six minutes for their next chance as Stefan Maierhofer fired straight at Marco Silvestri from 20 yards.
The Lions then forced two corners with Joss Hooiveld heading the second over just after Mowatt had left the field injured though the midfielder thankfully returned to the field unscathed.
The tiny away support of 234 Millwall fans then thought the Lions had taken a 14th-minute lead through Diego Fabbrini but his shot from Maierhofer’s pull back hit the side netting.
Nevertheless, Millwall were now looking more threatening as the tie turned scrappy but Leeds hit back with Byram winning a left flank free-kick that Luke Murphy crossed forvBamba to head just wide after half an hour.
A fine cross from the impressive Taylor then forced another Whites corner but Murphy’s inswinger was easily held by David Forde.
Millwall’s Maierhofer - who was having a bad afternoon - then hauled down Murphy in midfield to become the first player to enter referee Paul Tierney’s notebook.
And it was from another careless Millwall foul that United went on to take the lead.
Shaun Williams hauled down Byram some five yards outside the area on the right hand side and up stepped Mowatt to produce a fine curling free-kick into the top right corner, albeit with a bit of a deflection off the wall.
The effort sent the home faithful wild and Leeds continued to attack after the goal with an acrobatic Austin effort saved.
From a dangerous corner, Leeds then worked the ball to Lewis Cook who had acres of space in the penalty area but opted to cross rather than shoot.
Amidst a frantic end to the half, Austin was then mystifyingly booked for diving and from the resulting Millwall free-kick Morison had a great chance to double the Whites lead as Joss Hooiveld was dispossessed but Forde rushed out of his area to thwart the former Millwall man.
At the other end, Millwall had a decent chance to level when a cross found Angel Martinez but he opted for a high volley which went wayward when a header looked the better option.
And that proved the last chance of a half that provided an entertaining start and conclusion, sandwiched by 20 minutes of scrappy play in the middle.
Millwall unsurprisingly withdrew Maierhofer for Lee Gregory at the interval and the second half began as the first half did with Leeds applying early pressure and Murphy crossing for Morison whose header sailed over on 51 minutes.
Millwall’s Williams then woefully gave the ball away in defence but the Whites failed to capitalise and the Lions hit back by forcing a free-kick and corner and Leeds began to look a tad shaky at the back.
Austin ballooned over at the other end as the second half began to turn into a bit of a non-event with Millwall boss Ian Holloway using his last two substitutes on the hour in swapping Fabbrini and Martinez for Ricardo Fuller and Edward Upson respectively.
And Millwall then missed a golden chance to equalise after 62 minutes through January Whites target Woolford.
Woeful Leeds defending allowed Millwall to counter three on two and Woolford was presented with a one on one situation with Silvestri but blazed over with the goal gaping.
Leeds had been majorly let off the hook - the need for a second goal was clear - and Morison almost provided it when fizzing wide from an angle.
Millwall responded with Woolford shooting wide from 25 yards before Leeds made their first change after 70 minutes in bringing on striker Mirco Antenucci for Austin who left the field to huge applause.
But the Whites were continuing to sit worryingly deep and it was from a rare break away that Byram blazed powerfully over from Antenucci’s left flank cross.
For Leeds, these were becoming nervy times and Martin’s free-kick went agonisingly wide after a touch from Hooiveld.
But Leeds hit back with a powerful Murphy shot saved after which Mowatt was booked for diving inside the area which proved hugely unpopular with the incensed Whites faithful.
The game started to swing from end to end and Woolford’s volley went just over as Millwall pressed for a leveller which was becoming deserved.
But United then squandered two gilt-edged chances to seal all three points when first Mowatt blazed over from inside the area and then Scott Wootton headed an even easier chance over the bar from an 86th-minute corner.
Millwall nearly made Leeds pay as Fuller fizzed just wide with three minutes remaining but Morison then had the chance to seal the dream conclusion when breaking into the area but he was denied by a fantastic block from Lions skipper Alan Dunne after cutting inside.
By now the game was approaching three minutes of injury time and with Millwall bombing forward in numbers United messed up two glorious opportunities through counter attacks with Morison again blocked out in the second of them.
But one goal would prove enough for Leeds to register a crucial victory and their second in a row to leave them eight points off the relegation zone and up to the dizzy heights of 12th.
LEEDS UNITED: Silvestri, Wootton, Bamba, Bellusci, C Taylor, Byram, Austin (Antenucci 70), Murphy, Cook, Mowatt, Morison. Subs not used: S Taylor, Berardi, Sloth, Adryan, Sharp, Cani.
MILLWALL: Forde, Cummings, Dunne, Hooiveld, Harding, Angel, Williams, Woolford, Fabbrini (Fuller 60), Martnez (Upson 60), Maierhofer (Gregory 45). Subs not used: Archer, Beevers, Abdou, O’Brien.
REFEREE: P Tierney.