A superb Lewis Baker free-kick on the stroke of half-time was the difference in an otherwise drab encounter at the New York Stadium.
Rotherham United began the encounter at the foot of the Championship, desperately looking to claw back at the seven-point gap between themselves and safety. Stoke City, meanwhile were only eleven points ahead of Leam Richardson’s, though since the former Wigan gaffer had taken over, there have been sizeable improvements. Both sides exited the FA Cup last weekend at the hands of Premier League sides. Brighton & Hove Albion put four past the Potters, while the Millers lost in the capital to Fulham.
Onto the teams, and there was a change between the sticks for Stoke, with recent January recruit Daniel Iversen preferred to Jack Bonham following his loan move from Leicester City. Jordan Thompson served his one-match suspension in the FA Cup game against the Seagulls last weekend, so he returned at left-back. They were two of the four changes that the former Plymouth manager made to his side from the goalless draw against Ipswich Town on New Year’s Day.
Rotherham made two changes from the side that took a point at Blackburn almost a fortnight ago. Despite scoring against Rovers, Tom Eaves drops to the bench while Peltier replaces Lembikisa at right-back.
The early exchanges of the encounter hinted towards a tight affair, with both sides struggling to settle. Lewis Bate established himself as the star of the show early on, playing the ball through the lines and dominating the midfield. With the Millers struggling, they hardly need to be handing out gifts to the opposition, which is exactly what Revan did twelve minutes in. Fortunately, Johansson was quick off his line to bail his teammate out and keep the contest goalless.
There was a real battle developing between the two Millers strikers and the Potters backline, demonstrated when Hugill had three men on his back trying to hold the ball up. A minute later, Sam Clucas opted to shoot from distance and saw his effort fly narrowly past the post, the closest either side had come to breaking the deadlock. His shot took a nick as it fizzed beyond Iversen, and the resulting corner saw the visitors take their time to clear.
The latest of shots from distance saw Vidigal try his luck from outside the area, but Johansson was equal to it. Chances were few and far between as both struggled to carve out opportunities, although Lewis Baker was at the heart of anything Stoke created. All afternoon, Nombe worked tirelessly but often left supporters frustrated as the flag went up on numerous occasions. He almost got in to nip in front of Iversen, but once again, he was called offside.
After Vidigal went down requiring treatment, the Potters ended the half on top. With the game looking like entering half-time goalless, Clucas fouled Thompson in a dangerous position. Up stepped Lewis Baker, and 20 yards from goal, he unleashed an unstoppable effort into the top left-hand corner to spectacularly give the Potters the advantage.
As the two sides made their way off the pitch at the break, a Rotherham win from this point on looked highly unlikely. They rarely score two goals in a game, and were struggling to create any real openings despite the tireless work of Sam Nombe up top.
Half-Time: Rotherham United 0-1 Stoke City
Disappointed at conceding so late in the half, the Millers started the second period brightly. Nombe smashed an effort high and wide when perhaps he ought to have taken the ball down.
A neat little interchange allowed Vidigal a shot at goal, but he curled the ball over the bar. At the other end, Bramall fired the ball into the area, but there were no takers as the hosts continued to look toothless in front of goal. Less than a minute later, Odoffin missed perhaps Rotherham’s best chance of the afternoon, skewing his effort inside the area when the chance presented itself. This was another spell of pressure from the home side, with Hugill holding the ball up well, but he was unable to find his strike partner. After a few corners, Iversen looked a little nervous as a cross from the left just landed on top of his net.
The momentum changed again following a few substitutions, with the introduction of Nehdi Leris pivotal in that. He was instantly involved, with good footwork allowing him to find a pass infield. The number 27 then sent a low cross into the area, but Johansson was able to gather.
Two further alterations for the hosts, combined with a head injury, slowed the game down as time began to slip away from the Millers. After Eaves was unable to control the ball in the area, the Potters took the initiative again in the game as they looked to see it out. They even missed an opportunity to seal the game when a cross caused real chaos in the Rotherham box. Eventually, Tyreese Campbell poked the ball wide of goal, although the offside flag spared his blushes.
The substitute then carved out another opening in stoppage time, cutting inside before looking to find the far corner. Johansson was able to save, before the ball passed Leris on the rebound. The away side were able to see the game out at relative ease, keeping possession well in the final few knockings to take the spoils.
Full-Time: Rotherham United 0-1 Stoke City
Since taking charge of the Potters, no side has conceded fewer goals than Steven Schumacher’s side, with that now two goals shipped in five games. Three more points for his side means they are now closer to the top six than the bottom three, which may not be an unrealistic ambition if they continue getting results.
He was given a great reception at the final whistle as the 39-year-old joined his players in celebrating in front of the sold-out away end. In his post-match interview, the Potters head coach heaped the praise on the games match winner.
“It was exceptional, an absolute worldie and obviously the goal that wins us the game. Lewis has got so much quality, he can strike the ball so well with both feet. As soon as he was stood over it, me and Hughesy said ‘we fancy him’ because we see him do that in training, day in, day out.”
Leam Richardson meanwhile was left disappointed at the lack of quality in the game: “I think the game was possibly a 0-0 – both keepers didn’t really have much to do. We cancelled each other out in large parts, but it’s a moment of real quality that wins the game, so congratulations to Stoke. It’s never a good time to concede, especially when the whistle should’ve gone beforehand.”
Stoke won’t particularly care how they get the business done; in a result-based business, that is precisely what they need. Schumacher has made a stellar start to his time in Staffordshire, and they’ll have eyes on a late promotion charge if they continue to improve.
The size of the task that Leam Richardson faces cannot be underestimated; they were only beaten by a spectacular goal but never looked like scoring. These home games are the matches they need to be winning to stay up, but survival looks like an optimistic ambition at this point.