The Rotherham United v Sunderland showdown ... some of the build-up from this week's Advertiser

ROTHERHAM United head into Saturday’s battle of the promotion contenders with boss Paul Warne believing his team are the best in League One.
Paul WarnePaul Warne
Paul Warne

This weekend’s sell-out showdown against Sunderland at AESSEAL New York Stadium with Sunderland sees the fifth-placed Millers face the side one spot and one point above them in the table.

Rotherham, who extended their overall unbeaten run to ten matches with Tuesday’s 5-0 EFL Trophy thrashing of Manchester City Under-21s, have won five and drawn three of their last eight league outings.

In the aftermath of last Saturday’s 3-0 triumph at MK Dons, Warne said: “We are playing well, I think we are a good team. The lads have to think that too.

“I said to them before the game that I think they are the best team in the league. That’s my opinion. They don’t have to believe it but the more performances like that, the more belief they will get.”

The Millers haven’t lost for seven weeks, create so many chances that they top the rankings for xG (expected goals) and have kept a division-leading eight clean sheets.

“I think our performances have been excellent,” Warne said.

Coach Matt Hamshaw played down the absence of loan striker Will Grigg, a scorer in midweek, who isn’t eligible to feature on Saturday against his parent club and is likely to be replaced by Freddie Ladapo.

“It is a chance for someone else,” Hamshaw said. “I am sure Griggy will be a little bit nervous knowing that whoever gets an opportunity may well take it and he might find himself out of the team.

“The gaffer has said all along if you get an opportunity and take it you will stay in.”

The clash sold out more than a fortnight ago, but the Millers will be missing 1,500 supporters because of the temporary capacity cut caused by flood works in and around the New York complex.

Hamshaw maintained that the team will be so focused on matters on the field that the reduction will have little bearing on the outcome of the game.

“It is disappointing for those 1,500 who can’t come in, but from my point of view it doesn’t really change anything,” he said.

“We set up to try to win a game of football. We are focusing on Sunderland, as I am sure they are focusing on us, and it is what it is. It is out of our control.

“I am sure the atmosphere will be great anyway. It is a big game, and it will get quite a bit of coverage with it involving two teams being in form.”

Sunderland, who knocked out Championship side QPR in an EFL Cup penalty shoot-out in London on Tuesday, have lost only three times in the league including a shock home loss to Charlton Athletic last weekend.

******************************************

FOR Dan Barlaser, this is the big one.

The lifelong Newcastle United fan is coming up against the Magpies’ fierce north-east rivals, Sunderland.

Barlaser will be facing the Black Cats in a Rotherham United shirt in a League One top-of-the-table showdown at AESSEAL New York Stadium this weekend and, earlier this week, he laid down the route to victory:

“We have to go and press the living daylights out of them.”

The Millers’ notorious pressing game has seen them go seven matches unbeaten in the league and they face arguably their stiffest test yet when Lee Johnson’s side come to South Yorkshire

“Obviously, it’s massive for me,” said Barlaser, who will be joined in Rotherham’s starting 11 by fellow Geordie and Toon fanatic Michael Smith.

“It’s weird seeing Sunderland in League One. When I was growing up and going to games to watch Newcastle, Sunderland were in the Premier League with them.

Dan Barlaser

“It’s sad to see them in League One really. They want to go up, we want to go up.”

The Black Cats arrive at New York in fourth spot — one point and one place above the home team — after suffering only a second loss in 11 league matches last weekend against Charlton.

“That puts a little bit of pressure on them because they need to come to us and win,” said Barlaser.

The cultured midfielder knows what it takes to be promoted, having played a major role in the Millers’ rise from the third tier in 2019/20 before he made his loan move from Newcastle permanent.

“This team play a bit more football than the one two years ago,” he said. “It was 4-4-2 back then, a different system. Now it’s 3-5-2.

“If the three central midfielders can get the ball round the back — especially when Chieo (Ogbene) and Mickel (Miller) are playing as wing-backs — then we can create chances, and Smudge, Griggy (Will Grigg) and Freddie (Ladapo) are on fire. This formation really suits us.”

Loan forward Grigg won’t feature against his parent club, opening the door for Ladapo, a scorer as a substitute against MK Dons last time out, to start.

Meanwhile, Barlaser will be looking to pull the strings in midfield, just as he had done to such thrilling effect since nailing down his place in the team in mid-September and sparking the club’s undefeated run.

“I’m delighted with how things have gone in the last few weeks,” he said.

“Playing just behind the two midfield ‘dogs’ (Ollie Rathbone and Ben Wiles) is a dream really, especially when I want to play long balls to Chieo. I love doing those type of passes and trying to get the main players in on goal.”

The 24-year-old concurs with manager Paul Warne’s view that Rotherham are the strongest team in the division when they hit top form.

“If everyone is 100 per cent on the day, I don’t think we can get beat,” he said. “We’re the best team.”

Let battle commence. Saturday, 3pm: the big one.

******************************************

One to watch

Frontman Ross Stewart has hit nine goals in 13 league outings this season to help put Sunderland in the League One promotion frame. The 25-year-old joined the Black Cats from Scottish Premiership side Ross County, for whom he’d scored 28 times in 82 games, in January for an undisclosed fee.

Form guide

Millers: WWWDWW

Sunderland: WWWWLD

Sunderland had lost only once in 13 games before last Saturday’s shock 1-0 reverse at home to Charlton Athletic. That is their only loss at the Stadium of Light this term while their only two other league defeats have come at Burton Albion and Portsmouth.

Last time out

The Millers drew 1-1 at Sunderland in League One in September 2019 after falling behind in the first minute to a Marc McNulty goal. Loan winger Jake Hastie equalised in the second half and Paul Warne’s team were pushing for a winner towards the end.

Recent clashes

Feb 22 2005, Championship:

Sunderland 4 Millers 1 (Andy Monkhouse)

Oct 25 2004, Championship:

Millers 0 Sunderland 1

Dec 28 2003, Old Division One:

Millers 0 Sunderland 2

Oct 21 2003, Old Division One:

Millers 0 Sunderland 0

Jan 3 1998, FA Cup:

Millers 1 (Darren Garner) Sunderland 5

In 24 clashes between the clubs since 1958, Rotherham have managed only three wins. Sunderland have triumphed 13 times and there have been eight draws.

Opposition boss

Lee Johnson took charge of Sunderland last December after being sacked by Championship side Bristol City. Now aged 40, he had been in the Ashton Gate hot seat for four years. Before that, the former midfielder had been manager of Oldham Athletic and Barnsley.

Man in the middle

Hertfordshire official David Rock is in only his third season on the EFL List and has never refereed a Rotherham game. His 14 matches this season have seen him issue 48 yellow cards and three reds.

The odds

The bookmakers have Rotherham as favourites to win, offering 11/10 on a home victory and 23/10 on Sunderland taking all three points. The draw is 23/10.

Millers

1-0: 6/1

2-0: 17/2

2-1: 15/2

3-0: 14/1

3-1: 14/1

3-2: 22/1

4-0: 45/1

4-1: 35/1

4-2: 66/1

Draw

0-0: 15/2

1-1: 5/1

2-2: 12/1

3-3: 60/1

4-4: 200/1

Sunderland

1-0: 9/1

2-0: 14/1

2-1: 11/1

3-0: 35/1

3-1: 25/1

3-2: 35/1

4-0: 100/1

4-1: 90/1

4-2: 90/1