Tomorrow evening, Aston Villa head up north for their second successive away fixture - as a trip to Rotherham United beckons in what will only be the 5th encounter between the two sides since the first leg of the 1961 League Cup Final. Incidentally, that match was the last time Rotherham had the beating of Villa, and they didn’t even go on to win the trophy - Villa put three past them to seal the deal in the second leg.
It’s just as inglorious in the present day. Rotherham, currently scrapping for points in the relegation zone of the Championship table may be seen as no more than a run-of-the-mill challenge for the high-flying Villa, but it only takes one slip to fall a long way in the Championship and there is a bit more than meets the eye when it comes to Paul Warne’s Rotherham side.
Who are ya?
As a team blew out of the water by the League One budgets of promotion fellows Blackburn and Wigan, Rotherham are very much holding their own in what seems from the outside looking in to be a constrictive battle at the bottom. Despite holding the final relegation place (22nd), Rotherham are in with a solid chance of climbing to safety - as long as they keep picking up the points, with Warne’s team fresh off the back of beating play-off hopefuls Nottingham Forest.
Known as the Millers, Rotherham United call the 12,021 seater New York Stadium home. Neither this stadium, nor the previous home of Millmoor, nor the temporary lodgings of the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield have ever seen top division action. No, Rotherham have become acclimatised to life below the top tiers of the English Football League and the Premier League. The biggest achievement of the club in terms of trophies would be a 1981 ‘League One’ title win and the lifting of the Football League Trophy in 1996. Apart from that, the highest profile appearance of Rotherham in a top-tier domestic trophy would be the aforementioned 1961 League Cup loss to Aston Villa.
However, history exists to be written in the present and read in the future and Paul Warne, the current manager of RUFC, will be hoping that he can give his team the best chance to do just that. Safety from relegation is the goal of this season and it can be achieved. Warne’s Rotherham seem to have a bit more mettle than other Championship strugglers and there’s a foundation to be built upon here. However, they’ll need to improve at both ends of the pitch to do so. Defensive midfielder Semi Ajayi is the top goalscorer for the club this season with seven goals, which is single digit higher than Aston Villa’s third highest goalscorer - Conor Hourihane. Sixty-eight goals conceded means they are the leakiest team in the league as well.
A key man for RUFC might have to be Michael Smith. Rotherham do need a striker to start scoring and the forward will be relied on to do just that. An expected goal tally of 11.42 outperforms and almost doubles his actual goal return of 6 goals, and means one thing - Smith needs to find his shooting boots.
Typically, if you’re as wasteful as Rotherham - and as easy to put goals past - you’re going to be at the bottom of the table. However, it was expected that the Millers would be propping up the rest of the table and their current league position is testament to the hard work and attitude of this team - who are keeping their heads while every other club at the bottom seems to lose theirs.
The table situation
Aston Villa are sitting pretty ahead of tomorrow’s match-up. To be exact, they are resting in 5th place and it’ll take some work to move them. As it stands, Villa can’t drop out of the top six in this round of fixtures.
Derby can level with them (but will remain lower in the table due to their much weaker goal difference) and Bristol will overtake them later tonight, but Villa’s fate is still very much within their own grasp. What’s more, the Villa vs Bristol City clash on the weekend could see Villa tighten their grip on a play-off spot in some fashion.
What about Rotherham?
Well, it’s not awful. At the very least ‘The Millers’ have picked up two recent wins. Unfortunately this is matched by Bolton below them and Reading above them. Still, not all is lost and a draw against Aston Villa will be a point gained. A win? It’s not entirely off the cards either. It’d be difficult, but Rotherham are proving a lot of people wrong just by having the chance to save themselves for another season.
3 points against the Villans will likely see Rotherham leap to safety out of position 22, and increase the pressure on both QPR and Birmingham City. Blackburn Rovers may very well want to start thinking about picking up points as well. There’s still a lot to play for at the bottom, and Rotherham are proof of that.
How about the Villa?
There’s every reason for Aston Villa to be happy with themselves. Six games won on the trot will do that to you, and there’s a strong chance that by the final whistle on Wednesday, that they’ll be running home on the back of a seven game winning streak.
AVFC’s efforts will be made a lot easier if John McGinn can continue his stellar form. The summer bargain has bagged four goals and two assists in his last four games for Aston Villa and looks set to add to that tally in the next few games.
Having been slightly outshone by McGinn in the last few games, Jack Grealish will be relied on once more as the magic man. Even on an ‘off’ day, he’s still the heartbeat of the team and if Villa need to unlock the game late on, Jack will definitely be involved in the move that wins the game.
Rotation to the rest of the lineup is expected and it seems fairly obvious that both Axel Tuanzebe and Conor Hourihane will be lining up in the first-eleven for the Villa tomorrow. Jonathan Kodjia and Albert Adomah may have earned themselves a spot in the team as well. Kortney Hause will drop out due to injury while Glenn Whelan will likely be rested.
As highly as I rate Rotherham, Aston Villa are something else right now. They’ll need to be patient to break down Rotherham, but once they do I expect the floodgates will open (bet on over 2.5 goals and a Villa win). However, Rotherham didn’t roll over for Nottingham Forest and they certainly won’t for Villa. How long can Rotherham hold Villa off? And can Rotherham finish the chances they might find? I’m not sure that they can and will. Villa should be too good for Rotherham and need to prove their promotional credentials by taking all three points in style. 4-1 to the Villa.